It is the very eve of the nineteenth century, and evil is afoot. The nefarious deeds of Thomas Edison, the financier Andrew Carnegie, and the misguided inventor Guglielmo Marconi (all three orchestrated by the notorious businessman John Pierpont Morgan), are coming to a head, threatening to spread evil power across an already fractured world. Who can salvage such a dire situation?
Why, none other but the ‘Five Fists of Science’: Serbian born inventor-genius Nikola Tesla, his (entirely fictional) one-armed assistant Tim, and one Samuel Clemens, better known as the irascible fictionist Mark Twain. Twain approaches Tesla with a plan to end all war worldwide, by selling the world powers identical versions of Tesla’s mechatronic robot invention as a combat-surrogate.
Despite Twain’s flair for sales-speak and hyperbole, the fish aren’t biting, and the pitch becomes more desperate – with the assistance of Baroness Bertha von Suttner, feisty female firebrand of the armistice movement, showboat battles between Tesla’s machine and ‘otherworldly beings’ are staged to convince the tabloid-reading populace where the smart money should be going. Their plan backfires when Morgan’s shadowy cabal turn out to be up to far more than grandiose feats of civil engineering…
The ‘steampunk’ genre has always been a bizarre niche, at least as far as novels are concerned, but it has had a recent hey-day in the graphic novel form. Granted, the influence of Moore’s seminal ‘From Hell’ still carries weight (despite cinematic butchery), but it is rare to see someone break the mould in a scene that is somewhat straitjacketed by its own definition. ‘Five Fists…’ achieves this breakaway by one simple redeeming feature. It’s bloody hilarious.
Treated objectively, it could well have turned out to be a virulently anti-capitalist rant, very subversive and gung-ho for the intellectual-armchair-revolutionary scenester lobby. Indeed, surely there will be a fair few who read it exactly this way, and to do so does not entirely demean the work. But let me reiterate my point. This is a very funny story, serious premise or not. This is a comic book that actually merits the word ‘comic’.
As the ‘Five Fists’ battle against the increasingly nasty machinations of Morgan’s gang of villainous historical characters, the improbability factor gets cranked up to the max, as one expects from modern graphic novels. But the sly-yet-knowing humour more than redeems the (often ridiculous) plot twists, making the whole book seem almost satirical, a subversion of the traditional graphic novel format at the same time as being a twisting of history to fit the utopian yearnings of marginal cranks and conspiracy theorists (which could well be why I enjoyed it so much, to be honest).
Add to the silly yet exciting plot a lushly drawn and beautifully realised cast of characters, and moody dark late-Victorian-with-a-twist settings, and the whole package reeks of quality. For a one-shot graphic novel, ‘Five Fists…’ doesn’t leave you wanting – at least, no more than a good book or movie should do. There’s plenty of geeky referencing, detailed and comedic characterisation, and action aplenty.
Twain and Tesla in particular are rendered in fantastic detail, both graphically and emotionally. Twain’s brash Yankee ebulliance is balanced perfectly by the ur-geek obsessive-compulsive Tesla; the knowingly-obvious-extra Tim acts as the straight man (while still getting his moment of valiant glory), and von Suttner fills the unladylike lady-of-action role in appropriately cliched style. The baddies all fit into their standard fictional tropes too, but in such a satisfyingly obvious manner that it is inconcievable they could have behaved any differently in the real world. The whole thrust of the joke is its awareness of itself as a joke – approaching this book po-faced would be the greatest of mistakes.
If you are a fan of graphic novels from the postmodern stable, or a science fiction reader with a well-tuned and easily tweaked sense of the sublimely ridiculous, or just someone with a fascination for the events and characters of the tail end of the Enlightenment, ‘Five Fists…’ is certain to at least raise a chuckle from you. Who knows, you might even find yourself laughing out loud – and in my world, a book of any sort that can achieve such a thing is worth its cover-price many times over.