Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Manhattan Projects 14, originally released September 11th, 2013.
Patrick: Lately, it feels like we’re in the business of reading big dumb crossover events. One of the benefits of these things is that it allows for a smattering of characters from all across the universe (and all throughout the history of said universe) to interact. Say what you will about the various contrivances that jam these characters together — there’s something super compelling about watching them interact. Jonathan Hickman manages the same feat with Manhattan Projects, pulling his cast from the history books. There are similar logical inconsistencies, but if you just accept that he wanted these characters to interact as badly as Geoff Johns wanted John Constantine to match wits with Batman, then it totally works. Issue 14 of Manhattan Projects serves as a real-world Crisis on Infinite 1960s.
Yuri Gagarin is starting to get worried about Laika — and with good cause: her instruments have pinged back something BIG and there’s no time to advise her before she actually makes contact. But there is a more immediate danger threatening the rest of the group. General William C. Westmoreland arrives at the Manhattan Projects Moon Base and apprehends the team, charging them with treason — for colluding with both Nazis and Commies — and almost-effortlessly shutting them down. Part of the reason it’s so easy for Westmoreland is that he’s informed by Oppenheimer — that means he knows everyone’s vices, everyone’s moments of weakness, and even has a nifty override for Grove’s mech-suit. In the end, they’re thrown in a military holding cell in Los Alamos. As usual, Nick Pitarra is a much more gifted storyteller than I am, so I’ll let this excellent drawing speak to the hopelessness of the situation.
It might be adorable that Feynman and Einstein are cuddling a little bit, but there’s also the sobering fact that they’re using a cinder block as a pillow.
In the wake of Enrico Fermi’s betrayal and death, this series has taken a little bit of a break from the insane science in favor of exploring the dynamics between these characters. Oh, sure: we’ve had mention of the various Projects (Ares, Vulcan, Gaia, Charon), but those have mostly been business-as-usual for our heroes. It’s less like they’re engaging in world-altering experiments, and more like they’re punching in for work every day. Through the course of 13 issues, we’ve gotten to know these guys and their hopes and ambitions and weird science-fiction-y quirks, but it’s only in the last couple issues that we’ve seen smaller more intimate moments, granting us insight in to what they value and how they deal with loss. Daghlian is an obvious example, but this issue also put the same dimension on display for Gagarin as he frets over the fate of his best friend: space-dog Laika. It’s the perfect time to bring the hammer down on the group. Serving as that hammer (and serving to jumble our time-line even further) is US General William Westmoreland.
Westmoreland is an interesting choice. First, let’s address the history, shall we? Westmoreland was in charge of US operations in Vietnam from 1964-1968, and is famously tied to the notion of fighting a “war of attrition” with the Viet Cong. As he’s depicted here, he sports a necklace of human ears and brags about his propensity for burning villages to the ground.
This is pretty typical of Hickman — especially when it comes to political figures — exaggerating the ugliest characteristics of a historical personage. Hickman is content to let Westmoreland stand in for every atrocity committed by the US in the Veitnam war. But given his enthusiasm for atrocity, he engages in very few in his peaceful takeover of the Moon Base. I’m expecting bigger, more brutal, things from him in the future.
Drew, you had kind of a tough time with the appearance of JFK in the last issue, not because he’s exaggerated in such unflattering ways, but because it raised a few questions about what fucking decade we were in. Westmoreland does little to address your questions, as this characterization of him seems to be from a post-Tet Offensive perspective — he’s already become this sort of mythically hyper-violent creature. But Kennedy is still president. It’s simultaneously before November, 1963 and after February, 1968. That’s a pretty wide range being expressed there, but it’s all also quintessentially 1960s. And I think that’s the key to what we’re reading here: from a historical perspective, this is turning into a sampling of non-specific 60s-isms. The series has always functioned as something of a fantasy about jamming various historical figures together, so it’s no surprise that that fantasy should extend to the elasticity of the timeline as well.
There’s actually a ton of stuff going on in this issue, and between the inevitable prison break and the two cliffhanger codas, this may be the Hickman hype-machine at its most effective. Drew, which of the teases do you find more intriguing — Laika encountering a fleet of alien space ships or Oppenheimer rediscovering his brother’s meek brother’s personality buried deep inside his mind?
Drew: While I think Laika’s impending alien contact is exciting — imagine the ambassador for Earth was a talking dog (who Werner hilariously concedes is very smart, but still lacks thumbs) — I’ve been ready for a showdown between the brothers Oppenheimer for a while. With all of Joseph Oppenheimer’s recent alien eating and machiavellian power grabs, it’s easy to forget that Robert is in there somewhere, and that he might be a little more sympathetic to the plight of our imprisoned physicists. I’m pulling for an epic struggle for control of Joseph’s body, leading to Oppenheimer releasing his peers (only after they’ve realized he was behind the whole thing), but I’m sure I’ll enjoy whatever Hickman delivers.
Patrick, I love your comparison of this series to big crossover events — a thought that effectively shuts me up when it comes to anachronisms. I can’t stand it when fans complain about how something is supposed to fit in with so and so’s timeline when we just saw him in outer space last week, and I think the “but these are supposed to be based on real characters” justification doesn’t really pass muster. I should have stopped worrying about how this fits with history when they introduced the FDR AI (or when they introduced the talking dog, or the floating skull). I’ll continue to enjoy flipping through the history books to learn about new characters (I love that I now know who Harry Daghlian was), but I’ve come around to how absurd it is to complain about the impossibility of certain parts of this story, but not others.
Besides, the world here is immersive enough without any persnickety ties to reality. Patrick is absolutely right to cite Pitarra’s storytelling skills — each panel suggests an entire world behind it. That team photo in the cell in Los Alamos is the most obvious example, but I also love that Laika is traveling with a chewed-up tennis ball.
Is that a keepsake from home, or something Laika has been enjoying throughout the trip (how she gets the helmet off, I’ll never know)? Either way, it seems like exactly the thing a dog would think to pack. It’s a goofy little detail, but one that Pitarra keeps consistent throughout the issue.
Pitarra is similarly inventive with other settings — I love the giant eyeball on Einstein’s lab bench — but I also want to take a moment to point out just how vital colorist Jordie Bellaire is to this series. I’ve been hot and cold on the red and blue color scheme (color theory joke), but Bellaire has always managed to maintain clarity within those sequences. She really shines in the closing reveal, where she balances the red and blue — and not just in Oppenheimer’s eyes.
Bellaire balances the reds and blues, emphasizing the implied struggle for power we hope to see between Joseph (red) and Robert (blue). How she balances them is also important — the saturation of the red is clearly higher than the blue, which makes sense, given that Robert is currently in control. That point is further emphasized by what is red — the bow tie is linked to Oppenheimer’s identity, while the wrench demonstrates his agency. However, what is blue is also important — the fluid in the tanks that Oppenheimer has spent the past several years assembling. Could Robert have been exerting subtle control (again, implied by the lower saturation of the blue) this whole time? It’s — as Joseph would say — a delicious idea, one told almost entirely by Bellaire’s color work here.
It’s funny, Patrick pointed out how different these past few issues have been from the previous ten or so, but I think I’m only just now starting to really love this series. I’ve come to realize that I am particularly fond of Hickman when he’s willing to have a little fun, and unfortunately, his work at Marvel right now is mired in seriousness. I’m happy that this series continues to deliver the larfs, even if they do fall between moments of historical confusion and graphic violence.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?