25 Knuckles

The Five Fists of Science

This thing either just came out a couple hours ago, or it’s going to come out in a couple hours, depending on where you live or when you’re reading this (unless you’re reading this in 2007 while going through my archives or something - hi, by the way). It’s an original color graphic novel from Image, written by Matt Fraction with art by Steven Sanders and letters by Sean Konot, 112 pages for $12.99. It’s fun, very fast, very light, and probably worth seeking out for those who dig the idea of turn-of-the-century historical personalities thrust into a comedic action/sci-fi plot, with a cup of Lovecraft poured on top, drizzled with anime kitsch.

The book was originally supposed to be published by AiT/Planet-Lar in 2005, and it still bears the sort of catchy plot summary that comics from said company tend to bear - in 1899,noted writer and personality Mark Twain returns to the US (having taken an extended vacation in Europe pursuant to unhappy financial circumstances) at the behest of inventor Nikola Tesla, a man who loathes simple things like hair and must run complex calculations through his head before biting into food, yet prances around NYC armed with an electric gun, battling crime (“Shall you and science be assaulting more of the Irish?” asks Tesla’s boy assistant Tim, following a close encounter). But now he’s working on something even bigger - much, much bigger - that might bring to fruition a closely-held ambition of his dear friend Twain’s: peace through compulsion! Selling impossibly powerful weapons to a quartet of major nations, leaving them in a state of constant worry over everyone’s ability to annihilate everyone else - the ultimate stalemate! Also: lots of money for the sellers.

Obviously, we in the 21st century can see all sorts of evident problems with such an approach, but writer Fraction happily plays along with Twain for most of the ride, only slipping in a proven kink when the plot requires it. And it’s quite a plot - aside from Twain’s and Tesla’s exploits, noted capitalist J.P. Morgan has teamed up with the likes of Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, and Andrew Carnegie (Fraction points out in the book’s witty ‘Our Characters’ section that Carnegie “seems to have been quite the nice guy” and gleefully terms his portrayal here as “rancid character assassination”) to construct the shiny new Innsmouth Tower right in the city. You can imagine what sort of trouble lies ahead, even apart from Edison’s keeping of a Yeti in the dungeon. On top of that, there’s Baroness Bertha von Suttner, in the city on a mission of peace, and apparently attracted to the hopelessly eccentric Tesla. All of this adds up to plenty of odd comedy, man-made monsters towering over skyscrapers, slimy beasts and roots made of meat, science, betrayals and escapes, mutations, more science, blood, “A single drop of black semen extracted from the devil god Tanotah,” and people shouting “Science!” at the top of their lungs.

It’s fast. Very fast. At times it seems almost too quick on its feet, careening from point to point at a breathless pace, so eager to get onto the next level of excitement that it sometimes comes off as choppy, particularly near the end where the reader is hardly given room to breathe as things keep happening. But this is the sort of story that benefits from constant movement, rewards leaning back and simply soaking it all in, without much mind paid to what it all might mean. For all its (often amusing) plays on history and period, this is really a simply fantasy about driven characters existing in a tall tale, albeit one informed by a wide variety of 20th century genre particulars - maybe that's the real joke, that all of these important personalities, when dropped into a loopy entertainment comic, become innovators on the cutting edge of pop distraction, ahead of their time in an all-new way.

Notice must be given to Sanders' art, which reminds me a bit of Kan Takahama's approach to certain stories - gently-rendered lines made even softer through digital tweaking, though here it's Sanders' airy, sometimes faded colors that do the trick, nicely giving the whole thing a whiff of age, even when beams of light are blasting through the sky at evil forces. That's fortunate - anything that helps in holding all the stuff together is necessary in a diverse concoction of this sort. But there's no denying that it's fun while it lasts - one Samuel Clemens' cries in support of showmanship ring particularly true here, the words of man who knows what sort of world he's living in for the moment.