Today, Taylor and Patrick are discussing The Manhattan Projects 17, originally released January 1st, 2014.
Taylor: One of the more amazing things about evolution is its ability to create creatures that are perfectly adapted to their environment. For example, take the Great White Shark. It can smell a single drop of blood in Olympic sized swimming pool. It re-grows a tooth whenever one falls out. And it can also propel its massive body above water in order to capture cute little seals. The animal is basically a killing machine that can’t be stopped by any natural force. By comparison, you have to wonder if humans have been given the same treatment by nature. We make a lot of mistakes, we fart, and even though our brains are amazing, you have to wonder sometimes if they couldn’t be better. In Manhattan Projects 17, Einstein asks these same questions and the result is a creation made not by evolution, but science. The question is, is it as perfect as its creators hoped it would be?
The Manhattan Projects, along with all of its scientists, are still on lock-down after JFK sent in troops to commandeer the operation. Oppenheimer has used this opportunity to take control of all the various divisions of the projects and in doing so has pumped General Groves full of drugs to get his access codes. At the same time, a creature created by Einstein and Feynman has escaped its containment cell. This creature is the product of Einstein’s quest to create “ze future man for ze future” and as such is rampaging through the Manhattan Projects and killing everyone who gets in the way of his goal. This goal, of course, is to find his creators.
On the surface this issue is a fast paced affair which focuses primarily on a monster killing a bunch of army grunts. If that’s all there is to the issue, however, it would be an uninspiring event and writer Jonathan Hickman is smart enough to realize it. Intersected into the scenes of heads being smashed and men being interrogated, Hickman peppers his narrative with what have become familiar flashbacks of Einstein and Feynman working towards their goal of making a perfect creature. You see, Einstein wants to make a human who will be able to go toe to toe with the numerous aliens in the universe who undoubtedly want to destroy earth.
This mission of Einstein’s, rather than the monster attacks, becomes the most interesting aspect of the issue. Einstein seems to believe that mankind needs to progress on a biological level in order to protect itself in the future. However, as we see in the flashbacks in this issue (and previous issues as well) Einstein and Feynman seem to be doing pretty well for themselves when it comes to battling aliens. They kill without mercy and — in most cases — come out of their altercations unscathed. It raises the question of exactly why Einstein believes mankind needs to create a genetically superior being. After all, they’re the ones hunting and killing aliens quite effectively as opposed to the inverse.
This brings up the moral relativity that has permeated this series from the first and at this point it’s something I’ve come to expect from Hickman. Einstein has come to embody this idea and, as always, the question remains exactly what his intentions are and whether the ends justify the means. We already know he’s not the real Earth Einstein, so what is he after? In making his pieced-together monster, Einstein looks for a creature that doesn’t have any emotional ties whatsoever when it makes decisions.
We have to wonder why Einstein wants a purely logical being divorced of emotion. Does he really believe that will help mankind or does he have some other agenda up his sleeve, much like his counterpart Oppenheimer? If that’s not enough to make you reconsider Einstein, think about the very nature of his project. Not only does he capture aliens, cut them up, and splice them together, but he’s created a thinking organism that no longer feels emotions in the typical sense. What exactly would that do to person, or, uh, alien? At the very least it seems oddly cruel. All of this just makes you wonder why you still like Einstein so much.
Preventing the issue from lapsing into heavy-handed themes or morality however is the very monster that raises the questions. Artist Nick Pitarra does an excellent job of rendering a creature that is both terrifying and humorous at the same time.
The creature clearly is a mashup of several aliens we’ve seen in previous issues and its body seems appropriately slap-dashed. As if that visual gag isn’t enough to make you chuckle, the alien/monster-mashup also sports a bizarre perspective that clearly is the product of it not having any emotion tied to its analytical processes. It is at once hilarious and terrifying. A monster that is constantly tongue-tied and confused but also capable of killing without any real effort. What makes this alien mashup interesting, in light of the series as a whole, is that we even laugh at it. It’s an abomination, the product of a horrible process that has involved the murder of several innocent aliens. That we laugh at it brings into question our own morals and in that way we have to wonder if we are any better than the morally ambiguous Einstein.
Patrick, do find Einstein’s and Feynman’s creation more funny that terrifying? Do you think this thing wants to kill them or give them a hug? As this series continues to make us question our morals, do you find yourself becoming okay with bad things happening all the time?
Patrick: Oh, I love the creature. There’s a lot about this thing that there’s really no accounting for, not least of which is his SoCal surfer manner of speaking. He refers to Einstein as “man” for crying out loud. I’m not totally convinced that it’s able to make decisions without feeling any emotions, but rather that one of its brains feels while another brain interprets those feelings. That makes him hilariously self-aware. That’s why it can articulate that Groves doesn’t trigger his fight-or-flight response. It’s a blood-thirsty killing machine – presumably that blood-thirst is beyond its control, but not beyond its understanding. That’s the most upsetting part about Einstein’s experiment — and Feynman identifies it too — the monster understands everything that’s happening to him. When Groves asks what the monster can think of to calm himself down, the creature responds “everything’s been rewired, man, I have, uh, no idea… and it’s stressing me out.” That’s sorta heartbreaking: monster though he may be, he can’t even access the pleasure centers of his brain even though he knows they’re in there somewhere.
Now, that’s a damn abstract idea. We can all do the work to put ourselves in that mindspace and talk about that experience hypothetically, but, y’know, barring some kind of bizarre accident, none of us will ever actually have this creature’s perspective first-hand. Taylor’s identified this as the most interesting part of the issue, and I totally agree with him, but I can see where that may be highfalutin, even for fans of this series. But, hey for me, it’s just the right level of thinky fun. Hickman and Pitarra are sure to pack the issue with the less-thinky kind of fun, almost of as if to reassert that the series is not itself without big silly violent set-pieces. General Westmooreland asserts this idea succinctly in my favorite line of the book:
That’s right up there with Einstein’s relativity chainsaw in terms of the series expressing itself completely in an instant.
But it is interesting to note that Westmooreland is expressing this “fuck your science” sentiment as he’s defying the advice our heroes are giving him. Hickman doesn’t paint any of grunts in a particularly favorable light: their riveting conversation before they’re torn to pieces by this self-aware monster doesn’t extend beyond “You know what I like? Hot dogs.” There’s no more mundane conversation than that, is there? Even when their back-up charges in, one of the dudes’ battle cry is “Mashed Po-ta-toes!” What the hell does that mean? It seems like it’s just the moronic dribble of anyone not in the Manhattan Projects. I wonder if there’s ever disagreement between Pitarra and Hickman over which side of the series to emphasize – I suspect that there might be, because of grunts’ uniform reads Pitarra. And after a little Googling, I can say that guy even kinda looks like Pitarra too!
Or it’s just a cute Easter Egg and we’re not meant to read any further into it.
I don’t have any good segue to this, or anything all that substantial to say about it, but I love Jordie Bellaire’s bold coloring choice on the monster. When we meet it, the thing is blue – but then again, so are Einstein and Feynman, that’s just the way those flashbacks work. But the thing retains that color when it’s in the present, at which point, it’s the only thing even remotely close to that color. It’ just such an exciting electric blue that the pages the monster occupies contain a little extra energy. That effectively enforces the idea that this thing is threat number one.
Or hug-giver number one, if you feel like entertaining Taylor’s theories. It’s possible that Einstein built some loyalty into one of it’s four brains.
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