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Published on June 30th, 2014 | by Michael

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The Manhattan Projects – Recap and Review

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It’s probably no coincidence that my three favourite comics at the moment are ones I’m collecting in trades rather than reading monthly. All three, The Manhattan Projects, Morning Glories and Saga are produced by Image Comics rather than one of the big two. I must admit I was late to the Image party; the company in my mind was still synonymous with the Sega playing dude-bros who set it up, dude-bros like Rob Liefeld, all musclebound cyborgs and too many ammo pouches.  These days though Image is really pushing the envelope creatively, with a slew of well-conceived, intelligent original properties emerging from the company in recent months.

One of the best of the bunch is Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s mad science epic, The Manhattan Projects, currently up to four trades, the fourth having just come out. I’ll summarise the series so far, as well as review the newest trade.

As the name suggests, the book focusses on the scientists who worked on the bomb. However that was just their earliest success; weirder, more powerful and much more dangerous discoveries and inventions were to follow. This is the central theme of the book, which contains, among other things, a portal powered by nihilistic Buddhist monks, a dog with machine guns (always problematic) and the genocide of an entire alien race. By the irradiated remains of Harry Daghlian.

“I apologize if I’m exceedingly formal, but I find it a necessary coping mechanism.You see, I suffer from an embarrassingly mundane affliction that, when unaddressed results in a shameful lack of manners.
I am cursed with burden of always being right.”
Clavis Aureau: The Recorded Feynman

Manhattan Projects 3

Daghlian is joined by many of his real life contemporaries and a handful of non-scientist figures from history, including several US Presidents and General Leslie Groves, who oversaw the real Manhattan Project. Like the inventions they work on though, the scientists depicted bare very little relation to reality. Richard Feynman is narcissistic to the point of sociopathy, Werner Von Braun is a vicious bully with a robotic arm, Albrecht Einstein is the intellectually inferior, sinister doppelganger of our own Albert. And then there’s Joseph Oppenheimer…

“In the beginning, when I first joined the Projects – before his internal civil war, before the Great Culling, before the Amalgamated Oppenheimer coalesced, thirty-two distinct versions of the Doctor existed. 
From there, the rate of fracture increased exponentially, and by 1968 that number was virtually endless. ”
Clavis Aureau: The Recorded Feynman

The first issue opens with Oppenheimer’s ‘origin’ story, leading up to the point he joins the Manhattan Projects. The real J. Robert Oppenheimer was mercurial and erratic man, known as ‘the father of the atomic bomb’ for his work on the Manhattan Project before falling into disgrace due to his opposition to the ‘red menace’ rhetoric prevalent in 1950s America, losing his ability to directly policy. JFK later offered him an olive branch in the form of a richly deserved Enrico Fermi Award in 1963 (Hickman’s Fermi is a shape-shifting alien, naturally). In the world of The Manhattan Projects Robert Oppenheimer is one of twins. Unfortunately his brother is the monstrous Joseph, who kills and eats his brother at his earliest convenience, absorbing his brother’s knowledge and personality as he does so. ‘He loved his brother’ the book assures us. ‘How could he not?’ Thus begins Joseph’s rise to prominence. By the time an oblivious Groves recruits him to the project he has a dozen personalities living within him and by the time the intrepid scientists make first contact with an alien race that number has increased exponentially.

“We don’t talk about the dog.
 We don’t ever talk about the goddamn dog.”
Clavis Aureau: The Recorded Feynman

Nothing is so strange in this book that it can’t get stranger, as fantastical concepts go hand in hand with deeply unflattering reimaginings of some of the most significant figures of the 20th Century. But it is to Hickman’s credit that despite the full throttle lunacy in the book the plotting remains tight, always giving the sense that the story has been mapped out and is building towards something special. This idea is cultivated by the short extracts from ‘Clavis Aurea: The Recorded Feynman’ which are littered throughout issue and give tantalising hints about the wonders and horrors to come. The series is also peppered with dark humour, for instance when Albrecht enlists Feynman’s help in activating the doorway to other worlds, Feynman wonders if Einstein used the Fibonacci sequence to make it work. ‘Do I look like a paedophile?’ is Albrecht’s curt response. Hickman’s writing is brilliantly complemented by the artwork of Nick Pitarra whose brash, idiosyncratic style is reminiscent of that of Grant Morrison’s old mucker, Frank Quitely. Pitarra managed to accurately depict the almost constant gore the script calls for without it becoming too stomach churning and seems to have had a blast designing the scientific machinery and the numerous alien races present. The covers are a thing of beauty too, a minimalist style in which pop art meets infographs. Pitarra is ably supported by his colourists, especially Jordie Bellaire who does any excellent job in the Oppenheimer Vs Oppenheimer sequences which are almost entirely two tone, done in red and blue.

“Hmmm–”
Oppenheimer
Clavis Aureau: The Recorded Feynman

After helping the Allies win the Second World War, our scientist heroes decide to continue their work. To ensure limitless funding as well as to keep The Man off their backs, representatives from both sides of the Iron Curtain agree to create a false Cold War, each pretending to work against the other while secretly collaborating on all manner of projects which they’d rather their parent governments not know about. This brings with it new characters such as Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and Laika, the first dog in space, who can talk. Naturally. Unfortunately while the external threat of nuclear war may be an illusion, there is a very real internal threat to this scientific utopia in the form of its chief architect, Joseph Oppenheimer. In book three, he has successfully convinced his colleagues to divide their resources across three projects: Ares, concerning the colonisation of local planets, Gaia, aimed at improving human biology and Vulcan, developing new, limitless sources of energy. He has also started his own secret Project Charon. Given that Charon is the Greek ferryman of the dead, it’s fair to say Oppenheimer’s intentions are far from pure. In order to keep his fellows from finding out his true intentions he rats out the scientists and their secret East/West pact to JFK and General Westmoreland, a man whose politics make Genghis Khan look liberal. However, even with Feynman, Groves a co there is one man who can stand against Oppenheimer (figuratively at least), his brother Robert, living forever within his brother. Several visually stunning issues are set entirely within Oppenheimer’s head as Robert marshals his imaginary forces and wages civil war with Oppenheimer’s consciousness.

It is these two threads that are picked up in Volume Four where conflict and betrayal is the name of the order of the day. Everything is going Oppenheimer’s way in the real world with his former comrades all locked in a single cell at Westmoreland’s mercy. However the war within his own head rages anew as his long dead brother Robert refuses to accept his defeat and the conclusion of volume three. These scenes most have been an absolute blast to plan and draw, featuring as they do dozens of variations of Oppenheimer: As a pirate, an alien, Sherlock Holmes and so on. The language during these sequences is as disorienting as the art – The battles take place in ‘No-Space’ over an incalculable number of ‘Non-Years’. Robert has learnt a few tricks from his brother in the time spent within his mind. He has begun to ‘assimilate’ other life just as Joseph has and he has gained a killing edge. ‘If your goal is wiping out all life on a planet’ he tells his Number Two, ‘all you really have to do is throw rocks at it from space. Anything else is just for show’. This line serves as a nice critique of the book itself – Yes it deals with a whole host of fantastical scientific ideas but it’s all undercut a wide streak of brutality throughout. The scientists, good and bad, are all prone to bludgeoning their way to solutions with copious violence.

 

Manhattan Projects 2

In this arc for instance as the Scientists rot in jail one of Feynman and Einstein’s experiments breaks loose. The giant blue monstrosity, constructed from the best genetic traits found on a variety of worlds, speaks English like a hyper-intelligent beach bum. ‘This conquest is like a biological, uh, imperative, man’ he tells a soldier shortly before he separates his head from his shoulders (the unfortunate GI in question is named ‘Pitarra’, incidentally). Unfortunately for our heroes but perhaps fortunately for mankind as a whole General Westmoreland proves to be more than just a hate-filled grandstander as to the shock of everybody but himself he kills the eloquent monster getting nary a scratch in the process.

The great blue hope may have failed our heroes then and things go from bad to worse as Einstein sells out his friends, agreeing the help Oppenheimer when the rest refused. Help finally arrives though in the shape of a character we have not seen since the first volume. Making his triumphant return, dressed as a barbarian warrior, is Albert Einstein. Stranded in a hellish world, ruled by the evil Goddenheimer, by Albrecht, Albert has since escaped and embarked on quite the odyssey before returning at an opportune time.  Albert’s arrival not only helps our heroes but it also gives the book a shot in the arm. Just as in Volume One the arrival of aliens opened the book out to a universe of possibilities, so does Albert’s arrival bring with it a multiverse of possibilities. As Albert tells his doppelganger of where he’s been we see tantalising, one panel depictions of some of the worlds he’s been including a futuristic Sci-fi city, an undersea civilisation as well as analogues of Dune, 2001 and Conan’s Hyborian Age.

Volume Four finishes with the protagonists taking a much deserved breather in the form of a very wholesome looking barbeque. It’s rare that this comic applies the handbrake at all so it’s nice to see the characters sit back and take stock especially as it’s great fun seeing this motley crew of freaks sitting around enjoying Feynman’s hotdogs. The final page of #20 which concludes this volume shows us perhaps the future direction of the book. As Albrecht changes his appearance so as to distinguish himself from his doppelganger, he asks Albert what the future has in store. ‘We’re going out there, to ze frontier…And then, even further’. And I’ll be going with them.

Michael

Michael comes from the middle ground between light and shadow, between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. He will write on comics, TV and film, plus anything else that might occur to him.

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