Thursday, January 24, 2008

Book Review: The Five Fists of Science

The Five Fists of Science, by Matt Fraction (with pretty, pretty pictures by Steven Sanders)

Here's what you need to know about The Five Fists of Science: it doesn't take itself seriously. At all. If you go in knowing that, then you'll be okay. I can't even count how many reviews I've read since I finished the book that said, "Well, it was okay...but Alan Moore does it better."

Dude. Of course Alan Moore does it better. But these guys aren't trying to be Alan Moore.

The book, basically, is a graphic novel about Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla, Baroness Bertha von Suttner, and a totally fictional assistant named Timothy Boone teaming up against the forces of this case, J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Andrew Carnegie, with a rather hapless Guglielmo Marconi along for the ride. The forces of evil are building Innsmouth Tower in New York, but they're running into some problems where mysteriously dying workers are concerned.

Think about that a second. Innsmouth Tower? That should be a clue right there that the story is going to veer off into totally giddy insanity.

And it does! There are giant robots! And Tesla's (entirely true!) obsessive-compulsive issues. And Mark Twain yelling, "SCIENCE!" at people a lot. It's awesome.

The story is about real historical figures, and does have some grounding in fact -- Twain and Tesla were apparently very close friends, Tesla did write about some war machine he'd thought of that could potentially bring about peace because no one would be stupid enough to really use it, Mark Twain had gone on record saying that the only real way to achieve world peace would be to equip the four major powers with enough weaponry that they could bully everyone else into being good, Marconi and Edison both were known for stealing other people's ideas (it wasn't until the 1940's that the Supreme Court finally acknowledged that Tesla was technically the person who should've held the patent for the radio), and Edison and Tesla had been at each other's throats for years. Fraction uses those historical facts as a jumping-off point for a story that's completely goofy, over-the-top, and fun, and I think quite a few reviewers were expecing something more along the lines of From Hell, where random (or not so random) historical facts are woven together into something that comments both on society then and now.

But there's no shame in not going that route, which is why I enjoyed the book so much. Sanders' artwork is perfect for the story -- all of the characters are easily recognizable as themselves, and the coloring is vivid and rich and beautiful. There's fun background business in quite a few of the panels, and the timing is glorious -- Sanders and Fraction complement each other, I think, and the neither the writing nor the artwork dominates. Some of the sight gags are utterly hilarious, and there are some moments where it's the juxtaposition of the text with the art that really hits the joke home.

Because that's the thing about this book. You're not supposed to take it seriously, and it's definitely not meant to be an explanation for things that actually happened. In some ways, it feels like a wonderfully written AU-fanfic. For the most part, we're already familiar with the characters involved, and so Fraction doesn't feel like he has to explain every little bit of context for us. Some people don't like that; I didn't mind it. I picked this up because I wanted to see Twain and Tesla fighting crime (WITH SCIENCE!), not because I wanted a serious expose on the nature of scientific discovery and invention at the end of the nineteenth century.

And boy howdy, does it deliver. It makes me sad that there's no sequel, because I'd buy it in a heartbeat.


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