Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Manhattan Projects 12, originally released June 12th, 2013.
Oh my God. Oh my God! Oh my God! The whole time? The whole time, you were – THE WHOLE TIME?!
-Sally Field as Miranda Hillard
Drew: I love a good twist. Nothing is better than being surprised by a narrative — especially with something that fundamentally shifts the paradigm of the story. Of course, it’s possible to go too big with a twist — if you change the foundation too much, you run the risk of invalidating the emotional connections based on that foundation. Obviously, it’s difficult to bring up examples without spoiling some big twists, which hopefully explains the epigraph — by the climax of Mrs. Doubtfire Sally Field’s character is basically the only person that doesn’t know Robin Williams is her nanny, but that doesn’t negate her growing sense of betrayal as she realizes that this was the case THE WHOLE TIME. I had a similar reaction as Manhattan Projects 12 reveals that Fermi isn’t the character we think he is. When Harry reveals that he knows Fermi is an alien at the end of Manhattan Projects 11, Patrick and I were touched — we saw their friendship as the sweet story of two outsiders who found each other. In issue 12, Jonathan Hickman rips that still-beating heart out through our eye-holes, and lets us know that it was all a lie, anyway.
Picking up immediately after the conclusion of issue 11, we find Fermi transforming into a horrible bug-creature, who slashes Harry’s suit, and leaves him for dead orbiting the moon. Fermi then heads back to the moon base, where he hopes to sabotage all of Oppenheimer’s new plans for space travel. He’s stopped when Harry makes a triumphant return, but the real gut-punch of the issue are the flashbacks, which detail Fermi’s pod-person origin, rise to scientific prominence, and orchestration of the accident that ruined Harry’s life.
It’s that last bit that really got to me. Harry and Fermi’s friendship was a rare note of optimism in a title populated by narcissists and monsters. To learn that it was a lie perpetuated by a sleeper-cell alien agent is bad enough, but to learn that Harry was intended as collateral damage is absolutely heart-breaking. Hickman basically takes away all of the happy feelings from the previous issue, leaving me as sad as Harry is as Einstein chainsaws Fermi into pieces at the end of the issue.
Credit to both Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra — that single image is perhaps the most succinct distillation of this series I can imagine (the relativity chainsaw alone justifies this series’ existence). In fact, the way the distracted detachment of Groves and Feynman contrasts Harry’s emotional investment is a great illustration of why I’m going to miss Fermi so much. I’ll just have to keep reminding myself that he was a threat all along.
Of course, Hickman gives us just enough to question that. Apparently, Fermi was some kind of drone, so was he in control when he berserked Harry? We can’t ever know. He expresses relief when he sees that Harry is okay, and later seems remorseful at having been used the way he was, but who knows if those sentiments are sincere? The closest thing we have to a hint is his “Drone Status” when confronted with what he’s done: “conflicted.”
At any rate, Fermi’s threat to their designs on space may be relatively small compared to what might happen if Raal — who we learn is pulling Fermi’s strings — takes matters into his own hands. The group specifically opts to not have Oppenheimer absorb Fermi’s mind, but it must be obvious that he was only a scout. Whatever forces sent him clearly have the drop on them, both in terms of intelligence and technology. Of course, our guys have a relativity chainsaw, so I guess it’s not all bad.
Patrick, I know you were as invested as I was in the Fermi/Harry friendship, so I’m curious just how hard this issue hit them. This was a thrilling issue, but it was at times pretty hard to read. Hickman is definitely putting the pressure on the team to prepare for war. Fermi is by no means the first casualty, but he might be the biggest — certainly the one I feel most viscerally. I suppose sadness is the cost of getting attached to these characters, but I kind of resent Hickman for manipulating me so effectively. Can you believe he was a bad guy THE WHOLE TIME?!
Patrick: It’s interesting how many times Hickman can play that game and make it horrifying every time. Einstein’s not Einstein, but a version of himself from a parallel world; Oppenheimer’s not Oppenheimer, but his cannibalistic twin; Fermi’s not Fermi, but an alien sleeper agent. I thought the Einstein reveal was kinda neat, but the Oppenheimer reveal, which comes at the end of the first issue, almost had me giving up on the series. With so little invested in the title, a “he was someone else the whole time,” didn’t really work on me. And arguably, the Einstein bit only works for plotting reasons, and explains why there’s no one left in this reality that understands how the Pulling Way works. But Fermi is the ultimate example of a mechanical and emotional gut punch. It is hard to reconcile the thought that the source of so much of this series’ joy was predicated on a lie.
Or maybe “lie” is wrong. The most heartbreaking part about all this is that Drone Fermi is capable of developing and expressing emotions that run in tandem with his programming, even when they violently contradict each other. But beyond that, it also seems like the drone intelligence hadn’t assessed the humans as a threat worth addressing until after Daghlian’s radiation killed the Siill. The drone reports that the are no threat, and 200 years away from being able to colonize space, but Raal’s order to terminate them comes as a cautionary order – one that poor Fermi can’t even hide his reaction to.
Shit, indeed. I went back and found this scene in issue 5. It’s an inauspicious moment for intergalactic diplomacy, but at the time we didn’t know that one of the threats would come from right there in the room. It’s really cool to see that whole genocide again, recontextualized as the moment this heartbreaking development was put in motion.
If there’s a weird silver lining to this issue, it’s in seemingly immeasurable powers of Dr. Henry Daghlian. We already knew him as a sentient mass of radiation — and a damn lovable one at that — but now he’s apparently able to pull his body back together after he’s been smashed to pieces? Last time, we wrote about how similar his origin is to Dr. Manhattan’s, only without all the fun superpowers. We may have spoken too soon.
I love Nick Pitarra’s art throughout this issue – even if a fair portion of it was re-colored panels from issue 5. Re-used panels are nothing new to this series — how many times have we seen that drawing of Hilter with the flower? — but I don’t quite have a handle on what effect that has on the reader. The series borrows so much meaning from the historical significance of its characters, but their science fiction twists creates a little extra cognitive dissonance (i.e., we know that’s not really Oppenheimer). Perhaps Pitarra and Hickman are working up their own warped iconography, and re-using panels increases a moment’s mindshare in the reader’s memory. I know it took me a minute to remember exactly what happened in issue five, but the emotional recall was instant: I remembered how I felt last time I saw those images, and I was able to project this new information on to this old feelings, whether I had all the information or not.
Pitarra has a habit of deploying images that are at once sympathetic and revolting, and prior to this issue, the image of Werhner on the operating table with all his limbs hacked off was the unquestioned king of this style, in my mind. It’s not as immediately arresting, but the spark of regret, confusion and lucidity in Monster Fermi’s eyes had my heart in my throat. Of course, it’s dashed again as the Drone’s mission parameters are forcibly reset.
Also, Drew, you point out the relativity chainsaw — which is obviously the best thing ever — but we really shouldn’t sell Hickman short on how fucking funny this issue is. Even against the backdrop of alien genocide and old-friends-being-killer-drones, there are still humorous little beats throughout that play to the series’ and the characters’ strengths. Like Feyman’s obsession with broken nose he might (might) have sustained during his brawl with the monster. Or, my personal favorite, the drone’s stated objective after dispatching of Daghlian: “Destroy Science.” Of course the bad guys in this title want to Destroy Science. Of course.
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?