Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing The Manhattan Projects: The Sun Beyond the Stars 2, originally released July 29th, 2015.
Patrick: The original The Manhattan Projects series built its mystique by taking figures and events from history and slightly distorting, exaggerating and recontextualizing them into a bizarrely compelling science fiction story. It’s a masterclass in having fun with the concept of an alternate history, and writer Jonathan Hickman seemed singularly focused on what was fun about his alternate history. Occasionally, dates and lifespans and discoveries wouldn’t exactly line up, but the series really didn’t need petty adherence to logic: the loose framework provided by those historical figures was enough to ground some absolutely bonkers storytelling. Now that we’re Beyond the Stars, that framework has morphed from historical figures to science fiction conventions, and even still, Hickman is as unpredictable and unprecious as ever.
Hickman is able to keep the audience at arms length throughout the issue by always introducing us to the action halfway through the scene. The issue opens on Primor — the Grey Sionnu with the killer spores we met in the first issue — making a deal with a refreshingly forthcoming robot. The robot is UNa, who we actually see for half a second in the previous issue: he was sitting at the table with Laika. Naturally, any reader was going to be more excited about seeing the anthropomorphic version of Yuri’s best friend that some rando robot, so that’s not an image that lingers in the reader’s brain. After a hilarious negotiation, Hickman cuts right to all of our heroes boarding UNa’s ship. The pacing at the beginning is almost unforgiving, as we gloss right over Yuri and Laika’s reunion. And when Yuri tries to ask a question that might clarify some of the action, Laika shuts him down with just about the tersest answer possible.
Laika even makes a couple of references to her transformation throughout the issue, but only as they effect what she’s doing in that moment. If Yuri’s got the same set of questions for her that I have, we don’t even get to see him pose them.
It’s wonderfully effervescent approach to expanding this universe, and Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra seem to delight in offering a strange piece of information and then refusing to explain it. There’s a short scene of a Red Sionnu reporting news of the destruction of the Red ships from the first issue to some kind of ruler character. The language they use is hilariously utilitarian: one offers “new data” while the other is eager to “partake of knowledge” and then follows up with a single-word request, “conclusions?” It’s a world where we can stop asking questions and these chumps are just like “answers? answers? you have answers?” And other than coloring in the universe a little bit, there’s not a lot of information we can glean from that scene. If anything, it just raises more questions.
The story continues like this. The only character we seem to be able to get the drop on is Yuri, and we’re allowed to investigate his motivations a little more closely. Obviously, Yuri’s anxious about everything that’s going on, particularly the unpredictable nature of people’s reactions to extreme stimulus. He’s basically stating the themes of the series as he shaves.
But this is also about the point in the issue where Hickman and Pitarra stop surprising the audience by omission and start surprising us with actively strange answers. Our heroes need to secure a gate-key-crystal thing so they can jump into Red Sionnu space, and they expect that the building will be poorly guarded, only to discover that the opposite is true. My favorite reversal of expectation, however, has to come from Judge Ryleth, who comes up with the plan to steal the crystal and then executes UNa for for doing it.
The best part about that surprise, of course, is that I totally should have seen it coming. After all, him vaporizing a character we had just started to love was basically all he did in the first issue. Also, the characterization of a Judge that’s perversely obsessed with the idea of justice is straight out of the original Manhattan Projects. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Truman’s crazy Free Mason Murder-Orgies or General Westmoreland — we have a well established blue print for this kind of character in this world.
But maybe that’s why I didn’t see it coming: I had almost forgotten that we were in that same world as the first 25 issues. Pitarra’s amazing character designs do so much to make this world feel distinctive, that it’s hard to draw a through line between this and Earth. Drew, does that lack of connection to the old series bother you or are you comfortable now that were starting to see some of the same thematic material? Oh, and also: blarg?
The bar crowded with eccentric alien designs, the bragging about the speed of the ship, the outlandish first offer — short of mentioning the Kessel run, the reference to Star Wars couldn’t be more explicit. This establishes an easy shorthand for Blarg as the loveably loyal sidekick we can’t help but root for. That shorthand breaks down when it comes to UNa, who is about as far as you can get from Han Solo — he’s not smarmy or roguish or scruffy-looking or particularly prone to herding nerfs (as far as I can tell).
Curiously, while that scene is decidedly familiar, it also establishes how alien this world is. A big point of the Cantina scene in Star Wars was to establish just how diverse and un-Earth-like this universe is. This scene accomplishes the same thing, dropping us into a corner of the universe already full of creatures from hundreds of different planets. It’s fun as heck, but it also serves as a reminder of how far Yuri and Laika are from any context we might understand them in. That’s perfectly fine if you were always reading Manhattan Projects for their story, or for glimpses into bizarre alien societies, or even if you were just along for the ride of wherever Hickman and Pitarra wanted to take you next, but it might leave you cold if you were more interested in the adventures of Einstein or Feynman or really any of the rest of the core cast.
I want to be clear that that’s not a failure of this series: The Sun Beyond the Stars owes no apologies for being different, but it certainly requires some recalibration on our part. As Patrick mentioned, we’ve moved out of historical science fiction into more straight-ahead sci-fi fantasy, which means this series may simply be appealing to a different audience. Finding a new audience with 25 back-issues in a different genre may prove difficult, but I hope it pays of, because this issue is an absolute blast.
Which I suppose brings me back to Judge Ryleth’s sudden-but-inevitable betrayal. Yuri’s reaction puts it in prefect context:
It’s not that we should have seen it coming, necessarily, just that it makes perfect sense in hindsight. Judge Ryleth is totally unpredictable and unapologetically homicidal. I suppose that makes him kindred spirits of a kind with Oppenheimer, but I love that he’s established here as more of a straight-up villain. That he knows so much of their plan will prove to be interesting, though who knows what the status of that plan is now that UNa is dead (or at least in pieces).
At the end of the issue, we’ve established an eccentric cast of characters and a whole lot of questions about where they’re headed next. I suppose this series isn’t ultimately that different from The Manhattan Projects, we just needed to get through some of that world-building before we could get back to a core team of insane geniuses at the center of it all (plus, you know, Yuri Gagarin). Different or no, I’m hooked in for the long-haul here. I can’t wait to see where this gang turns up next month.
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?