Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Manhattan Projects 15, originally released October 9th, 2013.
Patrick: Manhattan Projects is a series of many conceits. Writer Jonathan Hickman is a master at this sort of thing, distorting history and reality in a way that only he could. Every warped fact and twisted historical personage is filtered through his unique perspective. The very first issue of this series introduced the weirdest of all Manhattan Projects conceits — the devouring of Robert Oppenheimer by his brother Joseph. Any time we deal with that information, such as in the “part one” of the Finite Oppenheimers story back in April, that perspective gets EVEN WEIRDER. The whole of reality is reduced to the consciousness of one psychotic cannibal in the midst of a cognitive civil war. It’s exactly as crazy as it sounds.
Robert Oppenheimer, represented here by the blue army, builds up enough strength to attack Joseph’s collected consciousnesses, represented by the red army. The Blues are pretty readily repelled — after all, this is a world of Joseph’s imaginings. So Robert takes his troops back to some safe part of his brother’s mind and, together, the Blue Army learns the rules of Joseph’s world. Using this new knowledge, Robert leads his team in a sophisticated attack, complete with tanks and guns and other accoutrements of war. Even with his new-found knowledge, Robert is no match for Joseph and his alien friend’s technology. Robert is left with no option but to surrender… until he gets the idea to crib from Joseph’s own psychotic playbook and “recruits” the alien by eating him himself.
Reading Manhattan Projects is always kind of a challenge. Far from making apologies for its weirdness, Hickman seems to relish it. Nowhere is that clearer than in the first sentence of this issue.
“Not-years?” “now place?” Hickman is trading in intentionally obtuse phrases here. And it doesn’t help clarity much to have two different versions of Red-Oppenheimers conversing in hmmmms in the panel. The battle for Oppenheimer’s brain is clearly an abstract concept, but Hickman is depicting it literally. We have to be careful here, because it’s not to suggest that the struggle is imaginary in any way — I believe the consequences of this civil war will ripple out through the series going forward: either Robert or Joseph will gain control of Oppenheimer’s body in the real world. We can go ahead and slap some quotes are the word “real” there: as we discussed last month, the history of this series has long since parted ways with real-life history. It’s like this not-world has the same relationship with the “real” world as the “real” world has with actual American history.
Where the evolution of the history isn’t different, though is in the power of mathematics. Early in the issue, Robert’s soldiers simply shout out numbers while they’re making war. They’re not integers, but they are real, simple, rational numbers — this is how they communicate before they’ve refined their war effort. After they learn how to fight, their vernacular changes a bit.
Their war-science is better, so their mathematical language is more sophisticated. It’s kind of a superficial connection to the real mathematical discipline necessary to develop the atomic bomb in the real Manhattan Project, but I love it anyway.
Regular series artist Nick Pitarra is absent from this issue, but Ryan Browne picks up the reigns here, and displays a similar zeal for goofy shit. Browne also drew the previous Finite Oppenheimers issue, so even if there is a sense of discontinuity with the majority of the series, that return adds some much needed cohesion to this experience. (One particular detail that’s nice to see carry over from the previous Finite Oppenheimers issue: Robert’s horse’s head is still cut-in-half. It’s still gross.) Also, I love comparing the covers of these two issues.
That’s the same basic cover, only instead of a single isolated blue dot, there are a bunch of them. We’ve talked a lot about the simple power of Jordie Bellaire’s red/blue color trick, but it’s thrown into stark, obvious relief on the covers of these two issues. Look how many blue dots there are on this cover! They’re still wildly out-numbered, but they’ve at least got a fighting chance. Every Manhattan Projects cover is graphic and beautiful and designy, but I think this is the first one that actually gets me excited on a story level.
Also, I’m totally selling Browne short on the huge variety of imaginative designs for the Oppenheimer-personalities. They are insane — and Hickman is quick to call them out as “fallen reprodemons, derivative herotypes.” Drew, do you have a favorite derivative herotype in the bunch? And did you notice that the crescent moon has Oppenheimer’s smiling face? Drew: You scooped me! The moon is obviously my favorite Oppenheimer, though I’m not entirely sure how it got there — did he eat a moon? I was under the impression that the infinite Oppenheimers each represent a person Joseph ate, but maybe I just made that up. Either way, Robert’s move to “assimilate” is a game-changer.
It also confuses the heck out of me — if Robert and the alien both exist in Joseph’s mind because he ate them, does the Alien now exist in Robert’s analogue’s mind? We’re shown a blue version of the alien in the now place, making it seem like Robert simply converted the alien by eating him, but the thought of the infinite Oppenheimers disappearing infinitely into each others’ minds fascinates me. Like, what happens if one of the red army eats Robert? Would he be turned red, or would he remain blue, but now be in that analogue’s brain?
Obviously, the mechanics don’t really matter — I’ll believe whatever Hickman comes up with — but there are some interesting ideas to think about. The even more Hickman-y ideas come in the form of abstracted war strategies. The question of innovation versus assimilation reminds me a great deal of his “get bigger” refrain from Avengers — both carry a philosophical weight far beyond the simple actions they’re describing. I suspect that the distinction between innovation and assimilation will play an increasingly important role in this series, but it actually resonates back to the use of the pulling way. The pulling way immediately got Einstein in over his head, and subsequently put Earth on the radar of incredibly powerful aliens, all of which demonstrates the danger of using unearned technology. Unfortunately, this arms race forces Robert to take that risk just to keep up.
Patrick, you suggested that the connection between this story and the actual Manhattan Projects was superficial, but I think you’re overlooking that kind of philosophical similarity. Pressured by an existential threat, the US used innovation and assimilation to create atomic weapons — weapons so dangerous, we still haven’t fully come to terms with what it means to wield them. Robert has just adopted a new strategy for winning his war against Joseph, but it’s not yet clear what the costs might be. (I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Robert is effectively waging a war against God, here.) Either way, the “body” count of the Oppenheimer civil war is set to increase exponentially. Just look at how easily the alien’s weapons turn Robert’s horse into a Damien Hirst sculpture:
Hickman and Browne manage to wring some humor out of the sequence as the torso bounces to a stop, but the point is clear: these are incredibly efficient killing machines. The closing line of the issue suggests just how dangerous this war will become: “And the Oppenheimer Civil War reignited, and raged out of control.” The cover suggests that this battle is taking place over the course of five years — 1960-1965 specifically — and I’m curious to see how this plays out in Oppenheimer’s actions in reality. This is ultimately a metaphorical battle, after all.
The previous Finite Oppenheimer issue was vastly unlike the rest of the series, and this issue more than lives up to that legacy. It’s a psychedelic fantasy war — which, actually, isn’t that unlike the rest of the series — giving Hickman the opportunity to go absolutely nuts. The fact that that insanity also carries some meaty thematic weight (and a good sense of humor) is precisely what makes this series so special.
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?