Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Manhattan Projects 11, originally released April 24th, 2013.
Patrick: We take the term of “science fiction” for granted. It’s a genre and an aesthetic that has become ironically formulaic over the years. Just as “fantasy” increasing means a cookie-cutter world of elves and goblins and dragons, “science fiction” means spaceships and lasers and aliens (or robots, so say we all). Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects returns to the source of the phrase and delivers a series both surprisingly scientific and excitingly fictional. I’m still tinkering with the punctuation, but I think “science/fiction” is the most appropriate.
This is the first issue of this that we’re covering, and normally I’d just jump in to talking about the issue like that’s not all weird, but Manhattan Projects is wacky enough that I can justify a mini-pitch up top. The gist of it is that it’s the late 1940s and the scientific team behind developing the atomic bomb went on to create an endless parade of world-changing technologies and then kept these technologies all to themselves. Oh and everyone is also a victim of one of those technologies to one extent or the other. Here’s an example of that, Albert Einstein is actually a duplicate of himself from a parallel world that marooned the original Einstein on the other end of a dimensional doorway. Or like how Robert Oppenheimer is actually his twin brother who eats people and gains their knowledge (guess how he usurped his brother’s identity!). And that leads us into Dr. Harry Daghlian and the subject of issue 11.
The good doctor’s body was accidentally irradiated by plutonium during an experiment with the “demon core.” Classic Dr. Manhattan set-up, right? Not really. Daghlian’s able to hold his skeleton and consciousness together but, beyond that, lacks any useful powers. He kicks out so much radiation that the room they keep him in for observation is frequently hot to the touch, despite having six-foot thick concrete walls. This was a pretty miserable existence for a scientist who had been so well-loved and so well-respected back when he had skin, so his friend Enrico Fermi developed a suit that enabled Daghlian to walk around and interact with people without harming them. Mind you, he’s still a terrifying radioactive skull-man, he just won’t accidentally boil your lungs.
The entire Manhattan Projects team is called up to the moon to discuss Phase Two of their operation, and an entirely too enthusiastic Robert Oppenheimer gives a presentation on their strategy going forward. These new plans all involve battling the alien races that visited earth in previous issues, and all of these plans are aggressive. Maybe too aggressive?
The individual reactions to the next phase of Manhattan Projects perfectly represents this series’ strengths and Hickman’s strengths as a writer. There are both honest emotional reactions and carefully established plot-based reasons to be excited about what these guys are doing next. This alien conflict has been brewing for months, and the page at the end of each issue which lists the cast’s vital characteristics has labeled Fermi as “not human” for forever. When Daghilan tells his best friend — the only man who worked to build that suit for him — that he’ll have to come clean as an alien, you can basically hear the record scratch.
But the much more moving reaction is Daghlian’s. This is a guy who all but lost everything, and is now held together by science and hope (and love!). The issue starts with Harry fetishizing the ice cream sundae that he purchased from the MP commissary, despite the fact that he can’t eat it — or anything for that matter.
More progress from the smartest minds in the world means there’s a better chance that he’ll be able to taste that hot fudge someday. I love the tension between the grand, operatic battle with space-aliens and simple hope of being able to eat an ice cream sundae. For all of the bombast and historically rooted insanity, the glimmers of human yearning drive this series. Daghlian has been hovering in the background for such a long time, it’s great to see him reveal himself as the heart of the series.
That same dichotomy between what’s scary about science and what’s promising about it is expressed in this pair of strange little poems about Harry both before and after his accident. The former talks about the power of love to hold a thing together (a la the first rule of flying), while the latter talks about the unfortunate power of fear. It’s a neat way to deploy third person narration and address the themes of the issue without doing so directly, and the form these pieces impose on the issue is impressive, forcing the reader to view all of Oppenheimer’s plans through this prism.
Drew, I haven’t touched on Nick Pitarra’s art. His style is so singularly his, and this is his first issue back after taking a break for issue 10. It was a relief to get these reliably ugly-yet-charming faces back in this title. The blue-on-red color palette of the flashbacks have become a staple of this series, but sometimes that shorthand gets a little bit confusing. Like when we get some of Oppenheimer’s split personalities represented as solid red characters or when the light on the moon naturally washes out the colors. I think I like how clever that aspect of the art is, but the stew might be getting a little dense now.
Drew: I think the red/blue stuff is still pretty straightforward — the stuff on the lunar surface is all happening now, so the color palette isn’t nearly as important. In fact, I think that scene not being red and blue is vital to contrasting it with the strikingly similar flashback that precedes it.
Both of these moments reflect their friendship in light of their worlds getting bigger, but while that was a relief for Daghlian, it terrifies Fermi. The obvious comparison to Watchmen might be Daghlian’s accident, but Fermi’s fear of a world unified against him recalls the space-squid. Hell, the greatest minds of the US, Germany, and Russia are already united, which makes the idea of coming clean even scarier.
Fortunately, Fermi has a friend on his side. It’s easy to see why the quickly ostracized Daghlian might have found sympathy in a space alien, but Hickman doesn’t belabor that point. In fact, he introduces their friendship frankly, with a conversation between two obviously long-time friends.
For all of this series’ sic-fi trappings, I’m actually most intrigued by it’s historical fiction aspects. The Manhattan Project brought together some of the world’s greatest minds, and I think being a fly on the wall of their meetings would be fascinating. Granted, these are highly fictionalized versions of these characters engaging in entirely fictional adventures, but it’s always kind of a thrill to see Feynman and Einstein cracking a problem together, and occasionally historical facts will bubble through.
Take Harry Daghlian. He was an actual scientist who actually worked on the Manhattan Project who actually received a high dose of radiation when an experiment with the so-called “Demon Core” went wrong. In real life, Daghlian died 25 days later from radiation poisoning. I didn’t know any of this before reading this issue, but the focus on Daghlian here made me wonder if he was based on a real person. Sure enough, Hickman simply turned an actual experiment-gone-wrong story into the kind of sci-fi origin story we know so well.
As for the art, I too love what Nick Pitarra has done with this series. You’re right to call his style distinctive, but I think he certainly falls into the Frank Quietly school (along with Chris Burnham and Aaron Kuder) of specificity with texture and a tendency towards consistent line weights. He also shares that style’s expressively exaggerated faces, which comes across even stronger here, given that these are all based on real people. That style typically requires detailed coloring, which is why I’m so impressed that Jordie Bellaire is able to make those red/blue flashbacks work so well. Varying only value, Bellaire is able to create a rich, immersive environment.
Patrick calls the premise wacky — which it certainly is — but I’m increasingly impressed at the character focus of this series. I’m also intrigued by the new conflicts this sets up, both in regards to Oppenheimer and Fermi. Oppenheimer pitches three mythologically-named programs, but the fourth — Charon — he keeps to himself. In Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman of Hades. Any guesses as to what that project might be up to?
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?