Following our exhausting weekend tossing large men around the mean streets of New York City, Jen-Luc Piquant and I have been recharging by catching up on our reading. Jen-Luc prefers more solemn fare like the rambling musings of Proust, which tend to just make me bored and drowsy, especially when perused over cups of lavender tea. I, in contrast, have a much shorter attention span, and these days am more inclined to indulge the more frivolous side of my nature. It’s summer, after all. So I was thrilled to receive The Five Fists of Science in the mail upon my return: a graphic novel in which Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain face off against an evil cabal made up of Thomas Edison, Marconi, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie to save the world from — well, some sort of bizarre other-worldly creatures conjured up by Morgan’s mysterious black magic mojo.
Did we mention this is fiction? It’s fiction with a loosely based historical bent, to be sure, but creator Matt Fraction makes no bones about the obvious liberties he’s taken to that end. Hence the tag line in all the preview ads: "100% True! Almost." (I was pleased to find I am not the only person in the science blogosphere waiting on tenterhooks for the book’s release; there’s a fellow diehard Tesla fan over at A Blog Around the Clock.) Fraction himself describes Five Fists as "fiction bent historically, rather than straight-up historical fiction."
There’s a fascinating interview with Matt Fraction here, in which he reveals the source of his inspiration. Someone mentioned in casual conversation an unattributed quote: "Thunder’s impressive but it’s lightning that gets the job done." Being an inquisitive sort, Fraction Googled the quote and found it was uttered by Mark Twain. Further nosing around the Internet revealed that Twain was friendly with Nikola Tesla (see my prior post with a classic anecdote about one of Twain’s visits to the Serbian inventor’s lab), and Fraction conceived of the two as superheroes, fighting crime in Gotham City armed with pistols outfitted with Tesla coils.
The result is a deliciously improbable tale that throws together science, mysticism, black magic, and creatures of legend/myth (no kidding — the yeti makes an appearance, for no good reason I could discern), with random nuggets of historical fact. Tesla really did exhibit the idiosyncrasies portrayed in the graphic novel: for instance, he usually dined alone, outfitted with a large supply of napkins so he could meticulously polish his silverware, and was compelled to calculate the cubic content of any morsel that passed his lips.
On the warfare front, Tesla was engaged in a war of sorts with his arch-rival, Edison: the infamous "current wars," pitting Edison’s direct current technology against Tesla’s (far superior) alternating current — the latter is the basic technology behind modern electrical generation. And Twain really did have a notion of "peace by compulsion," outlined in an 1899 letter, which bears a striking similarity to the modern concept of deterrence: namely, in Fraction’s words, "A reduced armed peace brought about by the promise of mutually assured destruction."
The primary characters are all genuine historical figures, suitably tweaked for purposes of Fraction’s convoluted plot. J.P. Morgan was a fabulously wealthy and influential banker and financier during the Tesla/Twain era, but Fraction admits Morgan wasn’t really a black magician: "He was a Protestant." ("Oh the horror!" moans Jen-Luc.) There really was a Baroness Bertha Von Suttner, and she really did win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905; in fact, she was briefly (before her marriage) Alfred Nobel’s secretary, and is often credited with suggesting the creation of a Peace Prize. But — and I’m just guessing here — she probably didn’t trade sexual favors with Tesla for the chance to try out his remotely operated giant automaton. Among other things, Tesla had a powerful aversion to being touched, and to women who wore pearl earrings.
What about the bizarre technologies depicted in Five Fists? Well, Tesla coils are still around, and still wildly popular; their use to power weapons — like being mounted on pistols — is a common theme found in lots of computer games, most notably the Command and Conquer series, while Tesla’s Death Ray makes a cameo appearance in Tomb Raider: Legend. The Tesla-coil six-shooter favored by Twain in the comic does bear some resemblance to the stun guns and tasers used by millions of law enforcement and military personnel today — they just emit far higher (and, apparently, far more damaging) voltages.
The fictional remote-controlled automaton is operated by a man wearing a special suit, causing the automaton to move as he moves — quite similar in concept to modern virtual reality or motion capture technology. I couldn’t find any references to the fictional "osmotic integrator" that supposedly forms the basis for the automaton-ic weapon, although a Google search turned up a mention in the context of male potency drugs. (I leave speculation on the significance of that to you, gentle readers.) And in his later, more eccentric years, Tesla did indeed boast of having developed a powerful "Death Ray" technology capable of wiping out entire armies. It all provided some very fun fodder for Fraction’s prodigious imagination.
I thoroughly enjoyed my pseudo-historical foray into late 19th century crime fighting, but it must be said that, apart from the good Baroness, women don’t play much of a role at all in the story — and the fictional Bertha appears to be of questionable moral character, although these days we’d consider her just a little ahead of her time. (To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, she’s not really bad, she’s just drawn that way.) Strong female characters tend to be absent from comics in general, or, if they do appear, are known as much for their scantily-clad, overdrawn (proportionally speaking) womanly pulchritude as for their intelligence or butt-kicking abilities. (Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft and Witchblade‘s Sara Pizzini spring immediately to mind, although Yancy Butler gave the latter some street-smart savvy in the short-lived TV series based on the comic. Butler’s performance rocked; too bad the series suffered from bad writing and over-emoting on the part of the supporting case.)
Fortunately, there’s a good antidote to this lack of female role models: the always-fabulous Girl Genius, a graphic novel series found both in print and online, detailing the adventures of a young science-minded female protagonist. It promises Adventure! Romance! Mad Science! Tasteful jumpers as opposed to string bikinis! And none of those icky black-magic monsters conjured up by skeevy mustachioed pseudo-scientific evil industrialists. Jen-Luc sez check it out.