What fan of the Avengers and the Justice League hasn't also spent hours staring out windows or lying awake in bed thinking, "Sure, superhero team-ups are neat, but what about my favorite historical figures? Who is out there to write their crossovers?"
Well ask no more, because someone has finally stepped up to pen those stories, and his name is history. We already live in a world in which brilliant, crazy and influential people have teamed up in unlikely partnerships. The results were usually insane, if not world-changing.
One was a droll, sarcastic satirist; the other was a celibate mad scientist. Both of them were brilliant and probably a little bit crazy, but in completely different ways. That's why Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla have to rank right at the top of the "We'd love to hear what they talked about when they were alone" list.
"Later, we discuss and solve world crises. Now, we fuck about with lightning."
Twain and Tesla's friendship was forged more or less from geeking out as fanboys of one another. Tesla had read Mark Twain before coming to New York City to invent the 20th century, and the only thing Twain knew of Tesla was his AC polyphase system. As Twain wrote, "I have just seen the drawings and description of an electrical machine lately patented by a Mr. Tesla, and sold to the Westinghouse Company, which will revolutionize the whole electric business of the world. It is the most valuable patent since the telephone."
So when the two met at parties around New York City, the relationship developed like a childhood friendship where one kid has a bunch of cool toys and the other knows a bunch of great jokes. Twain would even visit Tesla's workshop and offer himself up as a guinea pig for Tesla's new inventions.
"Hell yes I want to get up in there."
During one such playdate, Tesla revealed his mechanical oscillator that could produce alternating currents. One of the side effects was apparently some pretty substantial vibrations, which Tesla suspected might be therapeutic. Sure enough, this was all Twain needed to hear, and he immediately volunteered to be a test subject.
Twain leaped into the lap of the machine and told Tesla to zap his brains out. After a few minutes of insisting that he felt like the machine was giving him, "vigor and vitality," Twain quickly realized what he was actually feeling was the machine literally shaking the shit out of him. He had to rush to the restroom, thus proving Tesla had discovered the first and only electric laxative.
Shits and giggles: achieved!
Oh, and what we said earlier, about how we wish we could listen in on their conversations? Well, we do have letters, like this one from Twain about Tesla inventing a "destructive terror." And no, we're not making this up:
"Let's create a great big destructo-button and put a sign on it saying 'DON'T PUSH THIS BUTTON.' It'll totally work."
Judging from the world wars that eventually broke out, Twain and Tesla never got to be superheroes together. Such a shame, too. If there was ever a duo that could have wiped out war if given enough electricity and shit-machines, this was it.
One was the artist/inventor/scientist/all-around genius who painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper and who was perhaps the greatest creative mind in human history. The other was the writer/philosopher/evil mastermind who helped invent modern political science, and whose name became synonymous with deceit and manipulation. It's hard to imagine what Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli could possibly have in common, other than the fact that they were both way ahead of their time and would both appear in Assassin's Creed II.
There are thousands of 14-year-olds who learn all their history from Ubisoft.
Well, it turns out that when you get an evil genius and brilliant inventor together, you get a supervillain scheme. And by that we mean Machiavelli hired da Vinci to help him steal a fucking river.
It would take a man with da Vincian balls to heist a geographic feature.
Machiavelli had a position in the Florentine Republic and was looking for a way to screw with Florence's arch-nemesis city, Pisa. He enlisted the help of da Vinci, assuming the man might be able to invent a doomsday weapon capable of stabbing Pisa with a giant spike or something. Instead, their target was the Arno River, which passed through Pisa as well as Florence. Leonardo, thinking outside the box as always, suggested, "Why don't we just steal it from them?"
Underneath this beautiful river study he absent-mindedly doodled an early version of the AK-47.
Sure enough, Leonardo's blueprints for the operation were a brilliant Renaissance equivalent of the Death Star. He would have irrigated the entire Arno River Valley with canals, locks and dams, rerouting all the water directly to Florence and literally hanging Pisa out to dry.
These are either his plans or the blueprints to a steampunk snake superweapon.
Sadly (or happily, if you're rooting for Pisa), the plan was too awesome for 16th century technology. The channels dug to divert the river were too shallow. When they tried to make the channels deeper, a storm destroyed its walls, killing some of the workers and prompting others to get out of the henchmen racket.
Even though the team-up wasn't successful, it encouraged Machiavelli to leave politics and write one of the most influential pieces of literature from the Renaissance: The Prince. Even more remarkable, it led to one of the most famous paintings in the world by Leonardo da Vinci.
You know the one.
Seriously. That background in the Mona Lisa is the same damn river he tried to divert. Da Vinci selected the Arno River for the painting specifically because he knew it well enough to obsess over it long after the plot with Machiavelli failed. Just as most people have that man or woman in their lives who got away, da Vinci had an entire body of water.
One was the guy who did the makeup effects on the film Planet of the Apes, the other a comic book artist who co-created the X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and The Fantastic Four. They and the CIA teamed up to save some damned hostages using a plan that was less James Bond and more Austin Powers.
In 1979, radical supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini attacked the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took everyone hostage ... everyone but six employees, who managed to escape and find refuge in a Canadian ambassador's home. But those six refugees were stuck in hostile territory, with no one to help them. The CIA needed a way into Tehran to mount their rescue. CIA technical operations officer Anthony Mendez came up with one of the most elaborate and quite frankly ridiculous ideas possible.
"From now on, we play by Hollywood rules."
He'd need help to pull it off. Enter Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers and comic book artist/illustrator Jack Kirby. Mendez took one look at the both of them and said, "Yes, this is exactly the team I need." He called the operation "The Canadian Caper." No, really.
Holy Unsettling Book Cover, Batman!
He knew that, despite the radicals taking over an embassy and declaring jihad against the U.S., the Iranian government was actively trying to attract foreign business into the country. Mendez thus entered Tehran claiming to be an Irish film producer there to scout the location for his (completely fake) sci-fi epic, Argo. To sell the story, Chambers and Mendez created a fictional production company called Studio Six Productions. They named it that partially to honor the six people they intended to save, and partially because Mendez wanted to make Iran feel extra shitty once they figured out what had happened.
They came up with a fake movie script (a script of an abandoned project Chambers had on hand) and had Jack Kirby create fake concept art.
Turns out the afterlife also has TSA body searches. They just happen in the crotch of a giant Mayan God.
Kirby went so far as to design an entire theme park to go along with the movie called Science Fiction Land that contained magnetically levitated elevators, a control room staffed by robots and a dome that was twice as tall as the Empire State Building. It was like everyone involved in the Canadian Caper had a hard time weighing the prospect of being caught with making something as radical as possible.
"Next, we'll build a massive oil drill and claim it's a space dock."
With all the bullshit ready, Mendez entered Iran while his "equipment" was being sent via diplomatic pouch to the Canadian embassy. The pouch, in reality, contained the Canadian passports, costumes, Kirby's art and filming equipment that would let them pretend they were doing movie stuff. Mendez met with the refugees, explained the cover story and assigned them new identities and roles in the production of the movie, to which they almost certainly replied, "No. That's ridiculous. Send the real CIA."
"No. No way this is your plan. Is that a napkin?"
Eventually the refugees got into their "movie people" costumes, disguises that included unbuttoned shirts and silver medallions, and it worked. Their fake documentation and cover story allowed them all the freedom to walk around Tehran without problems before they eventually boarded a plane and got the hell out. It was likely the only time in history where a plan that was legitimately "So crazy it might work" was actually successful.
Argo is finally getting filmed, but instead of a sci-fi extravaganza it will be based on the real events, with Ben Affleck as Mendez.