Today, Taylor and Drew are discussing The Manhattan Projects 16, originally released November 13th, 2013.
Taylor: You know that one picture of Einstein, the one where he’s looking at the camera and playfully sticking his tongue out at the camera? Of course you do — of all the hundreds of pictures of Einstein that exist, that particular portrait sticks out in our collective consciousness. There are probably several reasons for that, but perhaps one of the most powerful is that the picture portrays the author of the general theory of relativity in the way we would like to think he existed. With his frizzy white hair and iconic mustache, Einstein cuts a figure that is both endearing and intelligent. We like to think of Einstein, the grand scientist, as having a playful and childlike streak because it makes him lovable and human, rather than untouchable and superhuman. In this way, we all liken ourselves to Einstein. If that zany dude can revolutionize the world, why not me? However, this disregards the real Einstein, who was often angry and frustrated with himself and the science he devoted his life to. But which of these pictures of Einstein is more accurate and, more importantly, does it matter?
These are trying times for the participants in the Manhattan Projects. In a bid to take over the projects himself, Dr. Oppenheimer, with all of his various personalities in tow, has turned over his fellow scientists to the United States government, claiming (accurately) that they are working with their soviet counterparts. The military is busy trying to extract information from our motley crew of scientists when Oppenheimer himself decides to give it a try. Little does he or anyone else know (save Einstein and Feynman), a creature brought back from an interplanetary expedition is about to unleash itself upon those who think themselves in control.
This issue is fairly muted by the standards of this series in that we don’t see anyone’s head chopped off or see intestines flying out of any torsos. Writer Jonathan Hickman is in a more reflective mood this go around and frankly, the change of pace is welcome after the madness of the previous few issues. Don’t get me wrong, the madness of The Manhattan Projects is delightful — if not one of its strengths — it’s just that such madness is unsustainable without a break, so it’s good to have a chance to catch our narrative breath.
That being said, the real meat of this issue comes not in the scenes that take place in the present, but the past. Throughout the issue the narrative cuts to Einstein and Feynman out on another of their hunting expeditions to collect alien body parts from places of the universe unknown. While the story of them hunting a semi-hive minded organism is entertaining, the thoughts the two scientists exchange while out killin’ are the most interesting part of the story. In particular, Einstein has some choice observations.
Einstein’s assertion that some will consider him and his fellow scientists as artists is interesting not least because he mentions it’s all a matter of the environment in which they exist. In full disclosure (spoiler alert) the Einstein saying this is an imposter: he is a doppelganger from another dimension, so what he says should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, he wields a chainsaw brandished with “E=MC2” which makes him a pretty decent facsimile of the real Einstein. For the reader, this is significant because the Einstein we see in these pages is unlike our perception of him in so many ways, even if we know he’s an imposter. He drinks, he’s violent, he has unclear nefarious motives, and he’s a fraud. This isn’t exactly the friendly Einstein we envision sticking his tongue out at us in jest. Perhaps he’s a product of whatever hellscape he came from or perhaps the Manhattan Projects themselves. Or maybe the character is a reaction against an environment (our modern culture) which has taken one of the most important people of the modern era and turned him into a caricature of himself and scientists in general.
This portrayal of Einstein is disturbing and highlights one of the main undercurrents which permeate this title: we never know exactly who to root for. Is it Oppenheimer who eats people? Leslie Groves, the bloodthirsty military man? Or, Richard Feynman, the narcissistic prodigy? Or could it be one of the other equally flawed scientists who work on the Manhattan Projects? Again, Einstein puts into words a feeling that this title is so good at creating.
Who really is in danger in this scenario? Here, Einstein is speaking of a monster that is about to lay waste to their would-be captors, indicating that they are lucky to be safe for the time being. However, would it really be such a bad thing if everyone involved with the Manhattan Projects were to die? Much in the same way Einstein is seen as being goofy in our current culture, we instinctively think humans are the good guys in this story, but remember when they wiped out an entire alien species? True, that same alien species wanted to kill all humans, but come on.
I guess the point I’m getting at is there are no true heroes in The Manhattan Projects. Normally that would signal suicide for a comic, but for the content contained in these pages it’s right at home. This title makes me squirm and think in all the best ways, constantly challenging what I think about its heroes and their actual historic counterparts. It’s a truly unique experience and one I enjoy every time I open this book.
Drew, do The Manhattan Projects hit that weird sweet spot for you or are they just a little too off for your liking? Do you find the use of cultural heroes as comic book antiheroes illuminating or irreverent? Also, the pace of this series is kind of weird: some issues are all action and some are subdued like this. If you binge read it, it flows together nicely but separately I can see how it would be a little stultifying. Thoughts?
Drew: I’d say that that lumpy pacing is true of Hickman’s work in general. With rare exceptions, his issues on any series largely fall into one of two categories: those that develop the plot, and those that develop the characters. He often buries both under enough mythology to make them seem similar, but they’re almost always loaded with either plot or character work.
Taylor, I totally agree that this series has no heroes — plenty of decent guys, but no clear-cut protagonists. However, who we’re meant to root for is always pretty clear. I think Hickman has done a fantastic job of making his motley crew of scientists the lesser of whatever evils they’re up against. Once again, the threat is coming from inside, but the moment Oppenheimer agreed to kill the rest of his teammates, we at least knew who to root against. Sure, Robert is waging a war to gain control over Joseph’s body, but as long as Oppenheimer is torturing sweet, hapless Yuri, he’s the big bad.
Actually, the reveal of a monster ready to kill everyone it can may upset that assessment a bit, but it goes to illustrate just how relative the morality of this series is. Oppenheimer’s only the bad guy right now because he’s the worst thing in the room, but that equation changes as soon as you release a man-eating alien into that room. It’s a classic “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” though it may be mitigated by the locked door that separates the team from both of those enemies.
Intriguingly, the epigrams suggest that the alien isn’t the salvation of the team. Those epigrams state that both Vulcan (the development of sustainable energy) and Gaia (the advancement of human physiology through genetics i.e. the project Einstein and Feynman are collecting samples for) both serve project Charon (the super-secret project only Oppenheimer knows about). Instead, it’s Ares (the colonization of other planets) that saves the team. Or humanity. The quotes aren’t totally clear. At any rate, we don’t really have enough information to guess how Ares could have anything to do with what’s going on right now, though I do kind of hope Laika somehow returns to save the day.
Artist Nick Pitarra continues to impress me with his careful attention to detail. Much of this issue takes place in the cell where the team is being held, and Pitarra takes special care to keep the layout and orientation of the characters within it incredibly consistent throughout (including the toilet bucket that Patrick found so disturbing when the location was established two months ago). That care in making the space feel real works to balance the zanier flights of fancy — a kind of anti-cartoon to the cartoonishness of the plot. Einstein’s hair is a great example of this:
It’s a Wile E. Coyote moment, but unlike classic cartoons, this change doesn’t disappear in the next panel — or even the next page. Indeed, Einstein’s asymmetrical haircut is still clear in the present-day sections of the story (though he’s lying down for most of the issue). It’s a goofy detail, but in keeping it consistent, Pitarra injects some much-needed reality.
Taylor, I think “unique experience” is an apt way to describe a given issue of this series — and maybe the only thing that can be stereotyped about this title in general. I never know what I’m going to get, but I know it’s always going to be interesting. That kind of mystery box approach is rare in the often slickly-produced comics world, so I’m happy to scoop it up wherever I find it. Even if it’s in a piss bucket on the floor of a broom closet.
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