By all accounts, Nikola Tesla was a fascinating person. The "mad" genius who pioneered electrical engineering, got ripped off by Thomas Edison and eventually won the war of ideas with his former boss, if not the war of wealth. The creator of the alternating current method of electrical power, who proved the earth itself was a conductor of electricity, among many other revelations. He was strange, obsessive-compulsive, celibate and the workings of his mind were seemingly unknowable. He died penniless in 1943, but has been rediscovered as a unique personality and has garnered a cult of admirers in the modern world – particularly as an essential component of the steampunk genre. He's all over pop culture, from books to TV to David Bowie portraying him in The Prestige. He's no stranger to comic books, either, where off-beat scientists are par for the course. Here, we'll tackle two very different books who involve Tesla in their own ways.
FIrst is Ravé Mehta's The Inventor: The Story of Tesla, available at this year's San Diego Comic-Con, which endeavors to tell his life story and pitch him as a sort of mystical shaman of science. Mehta is the CEO of Helios Entertainment, which is primarily a game development and technology company, and this is their first attempt at a graphic novel, and it unfortunately shows. The writing is fairly dry and wanders occasionally into pomposity in celebrating Tesla's work and noble goals to provide free energy to the world by tricking capitalists into funding it. What is compelling about The Inventor is what is compelling about Tesla himself. What's laughably embarrassing is the art from Erik Williams. It starts off a bit distorted and amateurish, then moves into a Photoshop filter mess, and towards the end, it gets ridiculous by throwing slightly different color washes over photos of Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Depp, Nicole Kidman and, if I'm not mistaken, Dave Freakin' Matthews at one point (or maybe that's Matthew Lillard – I can't be sure). The Inventor had potential as an interesting historical tale, but it degenerates into a 'spot the celebrity with a mustache and weird hair markered onto them' game by the time it wraps up.
The other side of that coin takes the Tesla phenomenon and uses it as a launching pad for high adventure and wild fun, and that's Atomic Robo. Having recently embraced the notion of a Tesla-created automaton with a hip, wisecracking personality when reading the first Atomic Robo trade from writer Brian Clevinger and artist Scott Wegener, I had to check in with Atomic Robo Volume 2: Atomic Robo and the Dogs of War. It's about a slick, old-school robot fighting for the yanks during World War II against crazy Axis machines. This compilation of five issues gives us a long personal war between Robo and the nasty Nazi engineer Otto Skorzeny. Robo is a reluctant but effective soldier, grateful to Uncle Sam for giving him legal standing as a human being in exchange for service, but he's determined to honor his Tesla's intentions for him to advance the sciences (which he does, as we learn in Volume 1). Skorzeny keeps trying to either destroy Robo or capture him to harness his power for evil. Natch, Robo comes out on top in the end, but meets up with an elderly Skorzeny in 1970, where the bastard claims to have personally killed Tesla and used his designs to murder thousands of people – all in an effort to get Robo to kill him. Which he doesn't, because he's too good for that rot.
Again, the Wegener art is cool, clean and snazzy, while Clevinger's storytelling is generally breezy and fun, but not afraid to dip into somewhat darker waters when the situation calls for it. Particularly amusing is the interplay between Robo and the British agent Sparrow when their missions overlap and they can't stop getting in each others' way. Plus, Robo loves to call Nazis "jerks!" before he guns them down, and that's always funny to me.
The fact that Atomic Robo is fantastically awesome and The Inventor is a slipshod mess is not to say that the fantasy is always better than the reality. Certainly, a compelling comic could be made from the true life of Nikola Tesla, and plenty of crappy books could be made while embellishing his mad science. In this case, however, the bloody instructions, upon being taught, return to plague the inventor.
No, that doesn't quite make sense. I just wanted to quote Macbeth.
THE INVENTOR: THE STORY OF TESLA:
ATOMIC ROBO VOLUME 2: ATOMIC ROBO AND THE DOGS OF WAR: