SUNDAY SLUGFEST: The Manhattan Projects #1A comic review article by: Jason Sacks, David Fairbanks, Chris Kiser
Jason: Jonathan Hickman's new series The Manhattan Projects is pretty different from some of his more recent comics. Sure, we get Hickman's characteristic well-designed pages and immaculate sense of a story building -- with a fair amount of great work on both from artist Nick Pitarra -- in this first issue. But we also get a number of unique items mixed into its heady stew: a wonderful dose of humor, a deep and shocking mystery, and some thoroughly mad science.
David: One of my favorite comics is Atomic Robo, so I've got a soft spot of the scientifically-inclined comic book, and when you mix that with the writer of most of my favorite Marvel books of the last five years, it's pretty much a must buy for me.
Right from the start, before I even cracked open the comic, I knew this was a Hickman book. If you could see the teasers for it and think it was anyone other than Hickman, you haven't seen much of the man's work. He's something of a design nut and his work always had this strange little twinge of originality that I wasn't seeing anywhere else, until I realized that things like title pages or recaps or the team breakdown at the start of FF looked smoother than similar aspects of other books.
It's this attention to detail that makes any of Hickman's books stand out from the bulk of mainstream comics, as it applies to the plots and characters as well. And when you're rewriting history with stories about a massive government conspiracy involving many of the greatest scientists who ever lived, that attention to detail is going to make everything feel that much more believable.
Despite the fact that I know (okay, well, I'm pretty damn sure) that the Japanese didn't have a series of automated samurai that chanted "Death" as they marched out of a torii arch gateway, it's on par with the escalation of technology (with hints of magic) we see on the US side.
With the unpredictability of the Japanese forces, the potentially sinister machinations of Oppenheimer, and Albert Einstein's imprisonment beneath the deserts of New Mexico, plenty of seeds are being sown with the potential to bear some pretty spectacular fruit.
But The Manhattan Projects #1 doesn't deliver much more than potential.
Chris: In one sense, David, I can see where you're coming from in classifying this book as trademark Hickman. This is certainly a science-heavy comic, with scientists themselves as significant players in the cast and scientific theory forming the backbone of much of what occurs in the plot, much like the writer's previous efforts in Fantastic Four and The Red Wing. In fact, Manhattan Projects isn't even the first Hickman comic that sets out to unravel a secret history of the world via the untold stories of humanity's greatest thinkers. You could describe S.H.I.E.L.D. the exact same way!
However, I think your analogy to Atomic Robo is even more spot-on. Much of the sci-fi here is zany and played for laughs, more akin to something I'd expect from Brian Clevinger than Jonathan Hickman. On top of that, a fair amount happens here to introduce the major concepts and get the ball rolling with the overall story. Unlike, say, FF, which was 11 issues of build-up to an (admittedly awesome and totally worth it) payoff in Fantastic Four #600, I don't feel like I'm waiting around to find out exactly what this book is about. It all culminates in a truly shocking reveal that rewards subsequent readings of the issue while simultaneously rocketing us forward into the remainder of the series, where the titular projects seem poised to go horribly, horribly wrong.
Jason: The major doses of humor in this issue were a real surprise for me, too, Chris. Hickman has presented humorous scenes in his comics before, but this issue walks the ground between humor and horror really nicely. I think some of that comes from artist Nick Pitarra's "chicken fat" approach to the comic, as he crams panel after panel full of amazing whimsical and outlandish detail, from the General's office that seems to be as well armed as a military armory (and check out that cross-eyed look on the General's face when he shakes Oppenheimer's hand!) to the incredible depth of design of Base Zero to even the almost overly detailed scene of the Oppenheimer twins in utero.
This humor does strange things to the reader's expectations as they make their way through this book. The reader continually expects the humor to keep building as this parade of lunacy continues, but Hickman and Pitarra do a nice job of turning the lunacy into grotesquerie by the breathtaking final page.
David: I'm glad I wasn't the only one that saw the S.H.I.E.L.D. similarities. Being a series of one-shots really does help it, too, as even if you aren't super keen on one story, the next one may be right up your alley. Of course, that's if you've found yourself enjoying the art, which I'm a little on the fence about. There are beautiful panels throughout the issue (the first appearance of Einstein is a personal favorite), but on the whole, Pitarra's art feels way too rough. Either he needs to turn down his Darrow/Quitely style a bit or he needs a better inker. At first I thought my copy was messed up a bit, but the preview art looks similar. I feel like this is suffering from the same problem I had with Glory, that perhaps Pitarra could use a little more time to churn out some cleaner looking pages.
Chris: Pitarra is no doubt a graduate of the Frank Quitely school of comic art, just like Andre Szymanowicz over on Hell Yeah, the other hot Image debut this week. I think it's a great stylistic fit for Hickman's newfound madcap approach, perfectly depicting the underground bunker of the Manhattan Projects as a wild, kooky place. The thick chin and bulbous nose on General Groves' face have you reading him as an arrogant but loveable blowhard before he even speaks a word; he's the jingoistic face of America's burgeoning military-industrial complex. And I love all of Pitarra's many large, busy panels with squiggly-lined figures running all over the place. It reminds me of an old Where's Waldo, where you could spend minutes staring at all the crazy stuff going on.
Interestingly enough, I feel like the cover and title page designs David mentioned earlier work against that prevailing mood to the book's overall detriment. There's a darkness and seriousness there that just doesn't set the right tone for the story within. Granted, the final few pages are pretty hard-hitting, but otherwise you've got a product being advertised that isn't the one Hickman and Pitarra actually deliver. It perhaps sets a certain type of reader up for disappointment, while potentially excluding itself from the audience it really aims for.
Jason: I agree, Chris. Those sorts of clean and sharp page designs would be great fits for Hickman's previous Image series like The Nightly News and ordinarily I love it when he does that kind of thing. But here that style works strongly against the mood that he and Pitarra create on the inside. This comic just doesn't have the strong design element that some of Hickman's other series have had -- and that's by design. The grotesqueness of the comics inside the issue just don't go well with the design elements of the cover and section pages.
I did enjoy how Hickman brought in historical figures to tell this story. That element brings a spooky element of verisimilitude to the events in this issue. David, I know you have a lot of interest in these scientists, especially Richard Feynman. How did his inclusion work for you?
David: Now, Hickman's said that we'll be exposed to The Manhattan Projects through Feynman's journals, but if the captions are supposed to be his narration, I'm having a hard time reading it as Feynman. I've got the benefit/detriment of having listened to enough of his lectures, though, that maybe this is only a problem for me.
But even if the narrative voice doesn't bug anyone else, I still feel as though the storyline in this issue's only redeeming quality is the potential for infinite Oppenheimers. Well, that and the mystery of what role Einstein plays, which makes me feel like such a sucker, as it's pretty obvious that Hickman's setting him up for something huge and I'm completely buying into it.
I like where The Manhattan Projects is going, quite a bit in fact, but this feels like a bumpy start.
Also, I was wracking my brain a bit on those Feynman quotes until it became very obvious that they weren't historical. For anyone wondering, clavis aurea, the name of Feynman's journal that we're supposed to be reading from, is Latin for "golden key" and was frequently used in alchemical lore, meaning the means by which texts may be interpreted (thanks Wikipedia!).
Chris: I not only had to type the Latin phrase into Wikipedia but Feynman's name as well, so I suppose you and I are coming at this from significantly different vantage points. Unless it's someone with a long-established characterization over many separate works like Batman or James Bond, I'm inclined to favor a writer injecting a touch of his or her own voice into a character -- whether that character be of historical or fictional origin. It's safe to say that Hickman is playing fast and loose with history here in order to best serve the story. Feynman may not have really sounded like that, and Oppenheimer certainly wasn't... well, I don't want to gain a reputation as a spoiler-monger.
Yet, it's that ending that I keep coming back to every time it's my turn to speak up. That's really what finally sold me on this issue, even though I liked most of everything else well enough. In the age of Matt Fraction, Joe Casey and their imitators, you get plenty of comics that send wave after wave of nutsy ideas at you, but they don't all pack a punch. The Manhattan Projects, on the other hand, packs that punch in full.
David Fairbanks doesn't get many things right the first time. He studied physics in college, loves science, music, comics, poetry, movies, books, and education pertaining to all of the above. He will talk your ear off about Grant Morrison and Ben Folds, has an indie bookshelf larger than his Marvel, DC and Vertigo ones combined and if he ever actually grows up, more than anything else, he wants to still be happy as an “adult,” whatever that is.
Raised on a steady diet of Super Powers action figures and Adam West Batman reruns, Chris Kiser now writes for Comics Bulletin. He once reviewed every tie-in to a major DC Comics summer event and survived to tell the tale. Ask him about it on Twitter, where he can be found at @Chris_Kiser!