The Manhattan Projects 24

manhattan 24Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing The Manhattan Projects 24, originally released October 8th, 2014.

“How did they build those pyramids?” They just threw human death and suffering at them until they were finished. “How did we traverse the nation with a railroad so quickly?” We just threw Chinese people in caves and blew ’em up and didn’t give a shit what happened to them. There’s no end to what you can do when you don’t give a fuck about particular people. You can do anything. That’s where human greatness comes from: that we’re shitty people and we fuck others over.

Louis CK

Drew: Has the phrase “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” ever been used for anything other than falsely justifying horrific acts? It’s so strongly associated with evil advisors, it’s a wonder that it could ever persuade a unsure advisee, but it also has the unfortunate quality of being true to our experience of the world. Few, it seems, ever reach the top without the boost of standing on someone else’s neck. It’s easy to become bitter about people being used as pawns, but it’s also the stuff of great dramas — to what lengths are people willing to go in order to attain power? Manhattan Projects obviously has more in common with those heightened fictions than reality, but issue 24 never minimizes the monstrosities its protagonists commit in order to hold on to power, focusing on one of the more traumatizing events in US History.

Magic BulletOh, right: Spoiler Alert. I think we saw this moment coming from the moment Kennedy was introduced to this series, but it’s actually pretty tragic, in spite of the gory glee artist Nick Pitarra takes in carrying the bullet’s-eye-view onto the next page, which maybe takes the phrase “splash page” a bit too literally. Think about it: last issue found a paranoid Kennedy sending LBJ to close down one of the many threats against his life, only to have Johnson turn around and make a blood pact with Groves and Westmoreland to kill Kennedy immediately.

That Johnson might have played a role in the assassination is nothing new — it’s one of about a dozen conspiracy theories about the assassination, though writer Jonathan Hickman seems determined to touch on all of them. The most obvious piece is the so-called “magic bullet,” here replaced with the sufficiently advanced technology of a remote-controlled bullet, courtesy of the Alberts Einstein. But then we also have the role of Lee Harvey Oswald, used both as a patsy for a shadow government’s conspiracy but also as a Cuban and Soviet agent (though he ultimately has no agency). That conspiracy theorists have supplied scenarios so absurd to appear in an issue of Manhattan Projects with minimal alteration is telling, but is basically what this series was made for.

Of course, Oswald’s multiple roles here may be overly-complicated. In the opening scene, we see him being lobotomized/brain swapped by the Soviets in order to “at all costs, protect the American President, John F. Kennedy.” This had me excited for some kind of fascinating conflict of interest/mistaken identity scenario, but the next time we see him, he’s unconscious in the custody of Groves and Westmoreland. It’s Checkov’s anti-gun, as it were, but it fails to materialize in any meaningful way. Unless that isn’t Oswald the Generals brought up to the book depository, in which case I’m not sure I totally understand what’s going on there.

Anyway, in other news, Gagarin and Von Braun have zeroed in on the last known location of Laika, only she’s nowhere to be found — instead, they stumble onto the aliens that destroyed the science ship she had been captured by back in issue 21. I don’t think we know enough about those guys to come to any conclusions about what this might mean for humanity as a whole, but it’s certainly bad news for our intrepid search party.

Well, Patrick, this issue left me both with little to say and too much to say (in case any one is curious about going down the rabbit hole of JFK assassination conspiracy theories, I can tell you that you will thoroughly regret doing so) — perhaps because we spent so much time on recasting historical events, and significantly less time watching our scientists do crazy shit? It’s not that I dislike the former, it’s just that this series does the latter so well. Were you pleased with the treatment of the Kennedy assassination, or would you have preferred to focus on wherever the heck the Feynman and the Einsteins are?

Patrick: Oh, I definitely miss spending substantive time with our Mad Scientist protagonists. This series has an interesting habit of abandoning what I find so compelling about it: namely the weird dichotomy set up in that “feel good, bad science” tagline. The only super-science we get in this issue is the aforementioned “magic bullet” which was — as Drew mentions — already cast as something of a mystery, historically speaking. Where Manhattan Projects excels is in presenting vanilla history and injecting fresh mystery: Henry Daghlian becomes a living H-bomb, Robert Oppenheimer was eaten by his mind-stealing twin, etc. The other arm of Hickman’s alternate history is this over-simplification of historical constructs or figures, most notably in the personages of the US Presidents. Truman seems like he kinda might have been taking orders from the Free Masons? That means Hickman presents him as a raving acolyte. Kennedy seems like something of a hedonist? Then he’s constantly banging hookers and doing blow in the Oval Office. Kennedy’s assassination has to fall into this second camp, but instead of facts we only half-remember about the event, we’re presented with variations on facts we only half-knew in the first place.

And while that’s still sorta neat, the extra layers of narrative stapled on to the Kennedy assassination don’t necessarily feel like the stuff of American Legend. Part of the reason for that is that Manhattan Projects has always been able to anchor its more vile acts of horror with some genuinely moving friendships. Daghlian and Fermi, Einstein and Feynmen, Uri and Laika — it’s hard to stay mad at the MP when it seems like they’re such good buddies! Unfortunately, the budding bromance between Groves and Westmoreland has less of an emphasis on the sense of shared discovery, instead highlighting what they really have in common: a shared sociopathy.

And that kind of loops me back around to Kennedy assassination itself. Someday, we’ll stop talking about that thing, but it’s currently one of those moments that is seared into our collective memory. No tour of history of the 60s is complete without a stop at the Kennedy assassination. It’s the thing that changes the whole tenor of the conversation about American history. The nature of the Manhattan Projects demands that our boys had something to do with it, but the task clearly has to fall to the more monstrous, militaristic arm of the project. Before, at least the aims of the group were nebulously focused on furthering science or bettering mankind in some way, with some inevitable casualties along the way. This single act of violence is so public and so spectacular, and the gains are so narrowly political, that the role of this group has fundamentally changed. I know there are a lot of things that happened in the 60s that are all equally valid candidates for the moment when the “country lost its way” or whatever, just as I recognize that civil rights, etc. made the 60s a good time for growth as well, but I like how simplistically Hickman and Pitarra latch on to an archetypical American disaster and recontextualize its meaning for their own benefit. They’re using big, easy buttons to trigger base emotional responses, and Pitarra especially seems to know that all he has to do is draw a diagram of the incident to affect the moment in history.

magic bulletEven if those monsters are the point of the issue, it’s still kind of a drag having to spend the whole issue with Westmoreland and Groves. The imagery is just so much more benign everywhere else in this series. Look, as they’re beset upon by crazy bug aliens, our spacefaring heroes float among discarded M&Ms and juiceboxes. Even when they’re searching the cosmos for their lost talking-dog-friend, Werhner von Braun and Yuri Gagarin are still stopping for snack-time. Whatever else is going on, the science characters are always adorable.

M&M and chipsThat’s a little bit of a disappointing conclusion to come to: that we’re supposed to find the Adventures of Groves and Westmoreland less enjoyable than the other stories Manhattan Projects tells, but I think it’s right.

But I also think that there’s a lot to be excited about in future issues. Hickman is the master at seeding ideas and concepts to pay off down the road, and I can’t wait for him to bring all of the characters back around to what’s happening in Cuba.

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 Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?

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