Image, 2006, 112 pages, US$12.99 tpb, ISBN 1-58240-605-7
I may be getting older, but part of me still identifies with the twelve-year-old nerd that I was back in high school. You know, the one with the huge glasses, a fascination for 16MHz IBM PCs and an unshakable faith in the power of Science! with a capital S and the exclamation point. I may be re-reading these words through laser-reshaped corneas staring at a multi-gigahertz P4, but may faith in the pure power of Science! remains unshaken.
This may explain why I got such a kick out of The Five Fists of Science, a standalone graphic novel that describes how Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain once teamed up to fight (with Science!) a supernatural menace led by J.P. Morgan and Thomas Edison. Yes, it’s pure steampunk fun, not entirely dissimilar to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But whereas Moore’s exceptional series often felt more like a literary stunt, The Five Fists of Science has far more audience-friendly goals: It’s designed as smart entertainment, the graphic novel equivalent of a blockbuster film.
From the lovely opening pages onward (“…so save the e-mail complaining about fact and accuracy. We are in the business of verisimilitude –and that cannot be constrained by pedantry.”), we’re in for a ride that winks at history as much as it profits from it. This is what WILD WILD WEST could have been like had it been entrusted to clever people. This is a historical fantasy where even the short introductory character biographies are worth reading.
Though the story may take place in 1899, the storytelling is very contemporary, with winks to superheroes, eldrich horrors, giant robots and a snappy sense of dialogue. The delightful mixture of contemporary hipness and historical detail goes a long way in putting us in the right frame of mind to appreciate this story.
At times, though, the storytelling may be a bit too contemporary, if by “contemporary” you mean “verging on incoherence”. For all of the wonderful premise, snappy writing and interesting characters, The Five Fists of Science often feels disjointed and unclear. Some abrupt scene transitions don’t feel natural, plot developments are unclear and it’s not uncommon to re-read a few pages in order to understand what’s happening. This problem gets particularly frustrating during the last action scene, where everything gets jumbled up without proper build-up. I suspect that both writer and artists lacked time and space to do justice to their ambitions: As it stands now, the graphic novel is a few dozen pages too short, compressed in too small a space for comfort.
The uneven quality of the art doesn’t help the flow either. Though I’m clearly no expert on visual art, I was frustrated at how parts of The Five Fists of Science flowed smoothly while others seemed to present a jumble of indistinguishable faces. I often had the impression that the colouring of the pages compensated for some rushed line work. Once again, this problem is never so obvious as during the last action sequences, where readers have to slow down and carefully make sense what’s happening, where and why. Here too, a bigger page-count would have been helpful in fleshing out the plot in a better-flowing fashion.
What’s even more frustrating is that the execution of the novel doesn’t quite do justice to its premise. These, after all, are the Five! Fists! Of Science! It’s pushing buttons that the twelve-year-old in me didn’t even have at the time! In some aspects, Fraction and Sanders may have fallen in one of the less-obvious traps of cool: the dangers that the premise overwhelms the result, that the actual pages can’t come up to the expectations of the readers.
At this point, I can find no references about a second volume in the series. But don’t let the above misgivings fool you: I really want to purchase and read a follow-up. If Fraction and Sanders can manage to wrangle a few more pages from their publisher, if they can smooth out the rough edges of the art and writing, nothing will stop them from delivering something that will live up to its potential: as it stands now, The Five Fists of Science may satisfy my inner twelve year old, but the jaded reader that I’ve become is heartless enough to ask for more.