On the surface there is nothing particularly sexy or titillating about the characters who inhabit “The Manhattan Projects, Volume 1: Science Bad”. Set during World War II, writer Jonathan Hickman has filled his science fiction tale with real-life renowned physicists and scientists of the period, such as Albert Einstein, Wernher von Braun, Richard Feynman and Robert Oppenheimer, among others. While the names, likenesses and professions of the brilliant men who round out the cast of “The Manhattan Projects” are familiar, Hickman fabricates, fabricates, and then fabricates some more to create one of the more astonishingly original series in memory.
The first volume of “The Manhattan Projects” doesn’t tell a complete story as much as it introduces readers to Hickman’s fantastic world and the equally fantastic men who heralded in the atomic age. Again, the writer is not drawing upon reality for his take on the esteemed scientists who populate his story. Einstein is a gruff S.O.B. who doesn’t respond well to being ordered around and isn’t at all above resorting to violence to express himself. Oppenheimer has many internal demons, which won’t be divulged here, but he works hard to protect the façade that is Robert Oppenheimer from the rest of the scientists of the Manhattan Projects.
And what is the Manhattan Projects exactly? It’s a top-secret government organization using the developme
nt of the atomic bomb as its cover. Artificial intelligence, portals that enable people to travel great distances in moments, the collection of mythological artifacts and keys to other worlds are just some of the projects in development by the U.S. government. But the unimaginable work being done by the organization has come under fire by the Axis for obvious reasons; the discoveries here could be the penultimate step towards world domination. When the Japanese attack one of the underground facilities of the Manhattan Projects, American scientists are slaughtered in an effort to quell any further advancements.
As we are introduced to the rest of Hickman’s cast, at varying levels, it becomes evident that these are folks you wouldn’t be comfortable having over for dinner. None of them possess traits that one might consider likable, pleasant, or congenial. When we meet Feynman, in the middle of his morning rituals, he stares adoringly into his mirror and repeats “Good morning, Mr. Feynman. You’re smart. You’re handsome. You’re a very special person.” Feynman’s loyalty to the U.S. are put to the test when he believes he has been captured by the German military. He wraps his arms around the boot of his would-be captor and says, free of even the most infinitesimally small measure of courage: “Don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot… Please… I know things.”
It is Hickman’s desert dry wit, which he employs here in spades, and a wholly original idea that pushes “The Manhattan Projects” towards excellence. Nothing in the book feels as though it is odd for the sake of being odd. Hickman lays out an alternate take on the familiar and the writer doesn’t limit his imagination in the slightest.
Artist Nick Pitarra, who worked with Hickman on the 2011 mini-series “Red Wing”, strikes a harmonious tone with Hickman’s as the artist brings this extraordinary world to life. Pitarra’s characters are distinctive, like caricatures, but I’m hesitant to describe his art as cartoonish because that word evokes something less mature than what he is capable of creating. Pitarra possesses strong storytelling skills; he knows when to close-in on objects or actions, skillfully using his panels to establish the mood in his scenes. For an artist with few comic book credentials, Pitarra’s work is all the more impressive. While three colorists, Cris Peter, Rachelle Rosenberg and Jordie Bellaire, were tasked with coloring the five chapters included in this first volume, their work here is fine. The fingerprint-like textures that Bellaire used in the flashbacks, red and blue tones were employed by each of the colorists, were especially striking.
Hickman is completely unrestrained here, but the story never gets lost in the oddities and ideas juggled so expertly by the writer. Whether Harry S. Truman is forcibly pulled from the middle of an Aztecan mass goat sacrificing or Oppenheimer is discussing intergalactic relations with an alien race, Hickman never throws so much into the mix that it becomes overstuffed. “The Manhattan Projects” moves along with precision, at no time growing too complicated for its own good.
Hickman’s ability to build character through insightful dialogue raises his work above so many of his contemporaries. Every line is thoughtful and speaks volumes in terms of establishing who these men are. When Werner Von Braun is being fitted with a new mechanical arm he says, “When it was crushed, I feared being crippled. How could I know if others would look at me and assume my outward condition reflected some greater inner defect?” While Braun is certainly no weakling, this brief line is thoughtfully observant about the insecurity an amputee might experience. Hickman’s words are to be absorbed, not to be read quickly in an effort to get through a stack of books.
In the same chapter, Richard Feynman reflects on his ability to coerce a woman into bed: “Last night, before inviting her to come home with me, I told her she was flawless – ‘An unrivaled beauty.’ She ignored a lifetime of looking into the mirror and played along – ‘Flattery will get you everywhere, Mr. Feynman.’ I lied. She lied. Her perfection was an invention. We created the lie together.” Hickman could have easily had Feynman say “I used her vanity to get her into bed”, but we’re talking about one of the most articulate guys in the business. He doesn’t cut corners.
By the two closing chapters, Hickman begins to establish where “The Manhattan Projects” is going to boldy go next. Though this first volume may only be a prelude to the larger series, Hickman, Pitarra and team have created a thoroughly satisfying opener to one most wonderfully bizarre science fiction books in years.
The Manhattan Projects
Written by: Jonathan Hickman
Art: Nick Pitarra
Colors: Cris Peter, Rachelle Rosenberg and Jordie Bellaire
Letters: Rus Wooton
Publisher: Image Comics