Friday, January 21, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 352 (1/21) -- The Five Fists of Science by Fraction & Sanders

First EC Comics brought us Two-Fisted Tales. Much later, the Church of the Subgenius upped the ante with the mostly prose Three-Fisted Tales of "Bob". (Not to mention One-Fisted Tales, one of the best, and funniest, of the smutty-comics boom of the mid-90s.)

As far as I can tell, there have been no four-fisted tales. But there are The Five Fists Of Science, a steampunk historical SFnal adventure from 2006, written by Matt Fraction (who has gotten a much higher profile since then) and illustrated by Steven Sanders (who is now drawing S.W.O.R.D. for Marvel, so he's doing just fine for himself, as well). The five fists in question belong to Nicola Tesla, Mark Twain, and Tesla's aide Tim Boone, who has a metal prosthetic hand -- sadly, the book doesn't quite answer the question as to which of Tim's hands counts, and why the other one doesn't. Perhaps it's just that one hand is required to hold on, which would be appropriate.

Five Fists starts with a wonderful back cover, all Victorian melodrama in multiple typefaces with a strong line in the ecstasy of Science! The story itself is set in 1889, with a sixtyish Mark Twain returning, slightly more embittered than before, from a failed European peace conference to meet fortyish Tesla and forge their own Science!-driven plot to bring peace to the great powers of the world [1] via the creation of a steam-powered giant mechanical man controlled by a single operator in the head. (Twain and Tesla, whose finances are both shaky, also hope to make quite a bit of money selling the machines -- which are so powerful that they, deliberately echoing what's still in the future of our world, will be too dangerous to use and so create what one might call a state of mutually assured destruction.) They enlist the aid of Baroness Bertha von Suttner, a friend of Twain's, a fellow agitator for peace, and (most importantly) a woman well-known to the leaders of the world, to help them make the case to the various crowned heads...but the demonstrations do not go well, and no orders are placed.

Meanwhile, a shadowy cabal -- made up of the fiendish scientist Thomas Edison, the callous businessman Andrew Carnegie, the technical genius Guglielmo Marconi, and led by the evil magician John Pierpont Morgan -- is planning something suitably fiendish, building an iron-framed tower in New York, gathering cryptozooical creatures from the corners of the Earth, and making sacrifices to dark gods. The Twain/Tesla backup plan -- to use the giant robot to battle monsters they fake up themselves, from more bits of Tesla genius -- brings them to the attention of said shadowy cabal, and the showdown begins.

Five Fists is breezy and just historically accurate enough to always feel plausible, and, above all, never forgets that it's both a comic book and a piece of popular entertainment. It's a bit rough around the edges -- especially Sanders's art, which is occasionally too dark to quite see what's happening or who someone is supposed to be. If you're looking for a steampunk comic -- or a story about a Tesla-Twain team-up -- you're not going to find a better one than The Five Fists of Science.

[1] Fraction slightly misrepresents Twain's views on war, and the tenor of the time, for effect here. Twain was more concerned with colonial abuses -- strong nations rampaging over poor -- than with the next big war.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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