by Radha Chitale
Mark Twain had bigger dreams than the truant schoolboys of his novels ever did. While he let Tom Sawyer play at pirates and Huckleberry Finn meander down the Mississippi River, Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, thought about war and how to achieve peace. Influenced by the American Civil War and his travels in the tight circles of European society, where people fretted over frequent national skirmishes, Twain outlined a plan whereby countries come to voluntary armistice based on possession of mutually destructive firepower in a letter to a friend dated 1899.
In the meantime, Twain's true-life friend, scientist Nicola Tesla, had been postulating how to carry out warfare without any human casualties. Tesla describes "a fighting-machine without men as a means of attack and defense" in his article 'The Problem of Increasing Human Energy," published in Century Illustrated Magazine in 1900.
In The Five Fists of Science, a steampunk graphic novel by Matt Fraction, Twain and Tesla combine their ideas and try to broker peace between the warring nations of the world by peddling each country a giant fighting robot of Tesla's design. Despite the tantalizing premise, Fraction, a prolific comics author and veteran of Marvel Comics, which publishes Spider-Man, X-Men, and The Fantastic Four, suffers from ambition untempered by clarity or focus. The result is a story with too many primary characters, too many plot points, and too many goals unrealized.
Steven Sanders's pencil-sketched graphics transport us to 19th century America as the story unfolds. Twain, frustrated by the impotent European leaders, heads for New York City. There, he hooks up with Tesla and, upon seeing his latest invention, cooks up his plan for peace.
The world peace story line is interspersed with seemingly irrelevant sequences depicting industrialist John Pierpont Morgan and his evil cabal, two of which, Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi, were famous rivals of Tesla, discussing vague, nefarious activities involving construction on a large tower.
Fraction's strength is in his story's opening and buildup, but the payoff disappoints, as do the characters. Twain, a pushy sensationalist, fails to convince the world's leaders to invest in Tesla's fighting robot, which mimics the body motions of the operator via the fictitious 'osmotic integrator.' Twain's sensational descriptions of the robot's power and height do not satisfy more practical questions about how the osmotic integrator works and what a fighting machine has to do with peace. The various Kings, Queens, Czars, and Presidents wonder aloud if they must learn science before comprehending Twain. A frustrated Twain, pulls out his hair, crying, "look, it isn't hard to understand!" Sorry, Mr. Twain, it is. Even the reader, in on the plan, is so confused by now they are unsurprised and unsympathetic when Twain and Tesla's plan gets rejected. Fraction leaves Twain and Tesla adrift in the middle of the novel as their grand plan fizzles into nothing.
Enter Morgan and his cronies. The gang's completed tower is the supernatural command center for a plan to unleash flying demons upon the denizens of New York City, though whether its purpose is to control the world or destroy it is not clear. Ultimately, Morgan's gang serves as a vapid enemy against which Twain's gang can rally. The denouement, though beautifully rendered by Sanders, fades into another generic battle between good and evil.
By contrast, Sanders's rich artwork bursts off the page and helps the reader wade through Fraction's muddy script. Sanders uses a subtle palate of blacks to create a dark, industrial feel. Sanders uses plenty of pencil lines for the characters, however, as if they came straight from his sketchbook, which help situate them in the rough, still developing industrial America.
Twain and Tesla do save the world, but no peace do they bring, and Fraction ends up relying on subtle historical references, like the Tesla-Edison-Marconi clashes, to carry the conflict. The characters cannot carry the conflict either. The antagonists are wooden and the protagonists show no doubts, fears, or even humility (they did blow up a chunk of New York, after all) so that we forgive faults in the story.
Though Five Fists appeals to the art-loving science nerds among us, those searching for more than a fine premise would do well to look elsewhere because Fraction fails to flesh out plot or characters enough to deliver what was promised.