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‘Five Fists of Science’ review: blinded by steampunk badassery!

Some 11 years after its debut, FFS delights and empowers readers with all new intensity.

Matt Fraction and Image Comics and Steven Sanders
Price: $13.29
Was: $16.99

As someone who has collected comic books and vinyl records, I’m well aware of just how grand of a chump I can be. I’ve totally bought the brand spanking new vinyl reissue with pink lettering and deluxe fold-out cover. Or slapped down large stacks of cash for the 25th anniversary edition featuring three pages of early artwork.

Yet in the case of a brand new edition of Matt Fraction and Steve Sanders’ Five Fists of Science – FRESH COVER ART ALERT! – its return after 11 years is not just a ploy to sell more wares, but an exercise in effective storytelling and civic discourse.

Since FFS‘ release in 2006, Fraction’s gone on to a whole slew of other projects, including the criminally amazing Casanova, Marvel’s Fear Itself, and the kooky Sex Criminals, among others. Yet it’s FFS that’s quintessential Fraction, a maddening blast of narrative that blurs the line between humanity and pop culture, equal parts buddy cop, period drama, and killer action flick. FFS exists as a property that’s utterly unafraid to be wacky and exaggerated, which just makes the moments of insight and morality all the more effective.

Meanwhile, Sanders’ artwork has always been an essential component to the book’s formula, providing the same genre-blurring vibe and sheer passion and intensity to make a ridiculous tale as this feel so real and vital. Ultimately, it’s the pair’s shared aesthetics and artistic choices that make this book feel like a true happening and quasi-benchmark within indie comics. The sort of book that marks a specific time in the greater canon, and demonstrates what’s possible when creators go full-tilt weird.  And because the book never takes itself too seriously, it’s an exploration that unfolds naturally for the reader, if they care to look at all.

Even if I’m almost always convinced that these reissues are a money grab, FFS is proof that commerce and art can marry successfully. Not only is this a chance for new fans to jump into the book (why the delay, yo?), but it’s generally thrilling to revisit a creator’s most essential work. For Fraction especially, you can see a lot of what’s made him a success in these pages. The cutting wit, the reverence for the profound and the profane, and the endless meta layers have trickled into later comics, giving readers insight into his development as a writer. He’s certainly become more skilled at his craft, and his vision has only sharpened.

What struck me in re-reading the book is the pronounced darkness, and how there’s a certain level of anguish and ruthlessness in the story (enhanced by Sanders’ art). Not that Fraction doesn’t have that depth (Casanova is pretty darn intense with its, um, intriguing depiction of family). However, there’s an aggression here it took a bit of time and space to uncover, which only adds to the story’s complexity and mish-mash nature. What seems like a funny, slightly poignant tale about BFFs Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla – fighting steampunk villains and pontificating over the nature of man – actually has a deeply personal level of rage throughout. The kind of dark matter streaming through a narrow bloodstream that enhances the parade of chuckles while ripping away at the old heart strings.

Part of the book’s gut-wrenching undertones has everything to do with timing. 2006 was still early enough in Iraq War 2.0 that people existed in a perpetual state of terrified uncertainty. As a result, a book about two men using logic and science to prevent a world-ending threat sounded like a sweet slice of heaven. But if the Heely-wearing, MySpace-browsing folks of 2006 found relief, then FFS is now like morphine for the soul.

Between Donald Trump’s mere existence, the surge of record-breaking hurricanes, and North Korea’s missile program, we’re practically begging for Twain and Tesla’s sci-fi blessings. That’s the hallmark of a great story/series – it touches on innate fears and concepts (like war), finding validity regardless of its release date. Fraction manages to scream about basic decency, political discourse, scientific developments keeping pacing with humanity’s evolution, and the importance of teamwork in the face of peril – all without raising his voice.

Though the book does surprise with heaps of unseen or previously ignored emotional sentiments, there are a few elements perhaps somewhat misremembered after my initial readings. For instance, the friendship between Tesla and Twain originally felt more essential and endearing, whereas the actual back-and-forth can be little more than a way to generate tension during their hair-brained scheme. Or, the ending feeling a little weightier and not like the ending of some hokey ’80s sci-fi thriller (but nonetheless entertaining).

That’s less the fault of the book, and more an unintended side effect of reissues. A sudden shot to your sensibilities that makes you re-think a book’s value, mostly for the better and occasionally for the worst. In this way, that makes these re-releases more valuable than all the extra artwork or color variations in the world.

Five Fists of Science
Is it good?
Some 11 years after its debut, FFS delights and empowers readers with all new intensity.
Story gains new life in light of 2017.
New ideas and emotional wells appear!
Red is, um, a sweet cover color.
Re-releases are another cash grab.
Time has consequences for important story elements.

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