The Manhattan Project was a now legendary U.S. military programme responsible for the creation of the atom bomb, operating between 1939 and 1946. The scientists that worked for the project have become legendary figures in their own right; Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi to name just a few. Regardless of the moral implications of what came out of it, the Manhattan Project was an undeniably impressive feat of science and a major step forward in the human understanding of physics.
Jonathan Hickman, Nick Pitarra and Jordie Bellaire take this incredible human achievement and add in murder, cults, corruption, sex, drugs and the most kick-ass Albert Einstein you’re ever like to see. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Manhattan Projects.
The Manhattan Projects begins by focusing on physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Many readers will know Robert Oppenheimer as a key figure in the creation of the A-bomb, but people may not know about his psychotic twin brother, Joseph, who killed and consumed animals and people in order to gain their life force. At least, that’s how Hickman tells it.
The first arc of The Manhattan Projects, ‘Science Bad’, relates the history of the Oppenheimer brothers, their introduction to the Manhattan Project, and the ensuing breakdown of Joseph Oppenheimer’s mind into infinite split personalities. If that sounds really crazy then I’ve done my job in getting across the spirit of this series, and I haven’t even mentioned the aliens.
Hickman isn’t content to just add some mad sci-fi concepts into the true story of the Manhattan Project, but rather uses the Manhattan Project as a jumping off-point for his own crazed imagination, while still managing to tie in real-life events and people. For example; Harry Daghlian was a real physicist working in the Los Alamos laboratory when he accidentally irradiated himself leading to his death. In Hickman’s version - and following true comic book logic - this accident led to Daghlian becoming a super-powered radioactive man, held together in a containment suit and unable to touch anyone or anything. Real history, meet the bleeding edge of science fiction comic books.
The actual story of The Manhattan Projects is hard to talk about while avoiding spoilers. The narrative, as is typical with Jonathan Hickman, is complex. Events from very early on in the series may not become clear (or even reappear) until much later on. To try to describe the story itself is a fool’s errand; fortunately, the real strength might just lie in the cast of characters instead.
I’ve already mentioned a few of the scientists that make up the all-star cast of mid-century historical figures, but, in many ways, the series hinges on Major General Leslie Groves, the military commander of the group. Leslie Groves was integral to the workings of the Manhattan Project, overseeing large swathes of the Project - up to and including helping to select the cities in Japan on which the atom bombs were eventually dropped. On the other hand, he may or may not have conducted secret meetings with U.S.S.R. officials (including Laika, the super-intelligent canine cosmonaut), tortured captured Nazi scientists and fought off hordes of killer Japanese samurai robots. The series uses Oppenheimer as our gateway character, but it is Major General Groves that controls and motivates much of the action as he harnesses the power of science to change the world.
One of the questions the series raises is how morality fits into the pursuit of science. Feynman, Einstein and the other scientists seem to pursue science purely for knowledge while the series' antagonists seek to use science to accumulate power. Groves, however, has more complex motives. Being born the son of an Army chaplain, both in reality and in Hickman’s version of events, Groves’ relationship to power and morality is much closer and more deeply ingrained than any other characters’. His actions are cold and often shocking, but he sees discovery as more than just the pure search for knowledge and its applications as more than just a means to gain power. Groves may be one of the few heroes of this book - or perhaps its greatest villain.
These character sketches have hopefully given some idea of the manner of storytelling Hickman employs. He couples the extreme warping of true history with his trademark complex overarching narratives, although thankfully nowhere near as complicated as the lengthy, multi-year plots he employed in his famous runs on Fantastic Four and The Avengers.
Of course, no comic book is complete without its artist, and Hickman is aided by the supremely capable Nick Pitarra. His linework is clear, but the faces of his characters are wrinkled, marked and bumpy, full of life and expression and a fitting match the often morally-corrupt characters Hickman has written.
It also takes an artist with a strong stomach to render some of the scenes the script calls for: cannibalism, mutilation and the occasional cultish orgy are all high (or maybe low) lights of The Manhattan Projects. While it would be so easy for an artist to get distracted with the strangeness of Hickman’s story, Pitarra avoids the pitfalls of madcap sci-fi. Small details, comedic Easter Eggs and a focus that stays firmly on the characters ensures that the reader remains engaged in the story and not simply marvelling at static images of strange aliens, mad machines and gruesome injuries.
The series is supremely aided by one of the top colourists of the moment, Jordie Bellaire. While the laboratories and bunkers are military-regulation dull, Bellaires uses flat reds and blues throughout the series in a striking and innovative way. The colour contrast serves a dual purpose: it helps to guide the reader through a plot that could easily overwhelm and it illuminates the book's theme of duality. Manhattan Projects is stuffed with head-on collisions of both fists and philosophies and Bellaire's use of flat contrasting colours strengthens these conflicts on right on the page. In the war of the two Oppenheimer brothers, red and blue are also used to mark out flashbacks and to denote enemies and friends. In fact you’ll start noticing red and blue all over the place until you start to wonder whether the red blood shed by a deranged blue alien-hybrid is saying more to you than it should do... but now we’re heading into spoiler territory again.
If what you’ve read hasn’t convinced you that The Manhattan Projects is worth a try, I can only assure you that I haven’t really begun to scratch the surface of all the strange, funny, thought-provoking, explosive and sometimes downright disgusting elements that make this series truly unique.