Before I get into the specifics of The Manhattan Projects, a new series from writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra, one passing observation: The Manhattan Projects exemplifies a couple of notable trends in comics in 2012 (the flagship for both of which is Saga, discussed last time around).

The first is the resurgence of its publisher, Image Comics, which has become the vehicle of choice for a pretty dramatic new wave of creator-owned comics from well-known writers and artists. The second is the dominance of speculative, and especially science, fiction as the genre of choice for those talented creators. 2012 has been, in part, the year of those two things in comicsworld: Image Comics and sf. If you’re not an habitual comics reader you won’t have noticed, of course; but the comics industry as a whole sure has.

Even if they’re both part of a bigger pattern, though, Saga and The Manhattan Projects are as different as different can be. If Saga was all about understated, relaxed mastery of the medium, The Manhattan Projects is crazy, dense, inventive, satirical, provocative, flashy and all about being uniquely itself. It’s really a whole lot easier to experience the thing than to describe it, but for my sins I’m here to attempt the latter.

THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS, VOL 1

written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Nick Pitarra, published by Image Comics

In the world envisaged by Hickman, the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb is a front for the real business: the Manhattan Projects to do anything and everything that mad science and mad scientists make possible. That’s the real business of the characters; the real business of writer and artist is to smack the reader about the head with as much madcap invention, misdirection and counter-factual entertainment as it’s possible for the pages of a comic book to contain.

Within the first dozen or so pages, you’re confronted with the image of Oppenheimer manning a heavy machine gun to fight back the hordes of steam-powered Japanese samurai robots that have invaded Manhattan Projects HQ through a teleport gate Zen-powered by Death Buddhists.

There’s more. All the other characters think this is Robert Oppenheimer. In just a couple more pages, the reader will know better. It’s actually Joseph Oppenheimer, Robert’s multiple-personalitied evil identical twin, who’s pretending to be his genius brother, having previously killed and eaten him and thereby acquired his personality as one of the many personalities within him.

The theme of things and people not being what they appear, or are expected, to be permeates the entire series. Albert Einstein is not who he appears to be. Nor is Enrico Fermi. Wernher von Braun is a robot-armed cyborg. FDR, upon his death, has his consciousness uploaded into a computer array to become the world’s first A.I. I could go on – there’s a lot more of this kind of stuff – but you get the gist.

The pace is pretty remorseless, and the narrative strands that are juggled really quite complicated. The secret history of some characters is neatly filled in, sub-plots developed, mysteries hinted at and future developments foreshadowed, even as more immediate dramas are unleashed upon the reader. We get those Japanese robots, alien invasions and alien genocide, the race to recruit German rocket scientists, the atomic bomb, gateways between universes, the digitisation of FDR and a good deal more. A lot of narrative and idea bang for your buck would be the phrase, I think. A greater density of narrative and idea, in fact, than is normal – arguably even possible – in any other medium; which is one of the reasons I like comics, and one of the reasons they’re so well-suited to sf.

Pretty much without exception all the remarkable real-world physicists re-imagined in The Manhattan Projects are presented as mad, bad and/or dangerous to know. In part, this is all zany, inconsequential fun; a writer letting his prodigious imagination loose and just seeing how many absurd shapes he can twist the historical material into. (A lot, that’s how many). At the same time, there are bits of it that carry rather more weight. The whole thing is shot through with veins of darkness and threat that occasionally rise to the surface to good effect.

The sequence surrounding the bombing of Hiroshima is bleakly funny, but more bleak than funny – reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove. (In fact, I spent much of this comic being distantly reminded of Strangelove; this is like a deranged, hyperactive second cousin of that movie). The whole Oppenheimer situation is … really quite creepy. There are episodes of casual cruelty (and worse), which are only partially diluted in their effect by the comically heightened reality of the tale.

The art by Nick Pitarra has a big part to play in all this. It’s not exactly realistic, flirting with caricature; but it’s tremendously and pleasingly detailed and close enough to realism to give the occasional violence a certain impact. In fact, Pitarra’s distinctive style is peculiarly well-suited to the subject matter: he can do intricate machinery, violence, expressive facial close-ups and comedic exaggeration all without deviating from a consistent appearance. Neat trick.

The Manhattan Projects does have certain attributes that may narrow the breadth of its appeal. It’s higher – much higher – on calculation than it is on heart (a point of major difference from Saga), and as a result there’s a distancing effect. The reader is liable to be a fascinated observer of, rather than immersed participant in, the drama. Richard Feynman comes closest to being a sympathetic character (appropriately enough, given the famous charisma and complexity of the real him), but even he isn’t an entirely convincing candidate for reader identification or emotional engagement.

There are precisely zero female characters of any consequence, which is highly unusual. I could, in fact, go on at some length about the degree to which, in hindsight, this whole comic feels to me like a rather male project, not only in its cast but also in its tone, its style, its preoccupations, its sense of humour, even its art style. I won’t, partly because it’s a complicated area, and partly because I’m not sure what, if anything, I think it signifies. I do find it interesting, though.

Whether all of these considerations count as failings is open to subjective debate, as they’re clearly deliberate stylistic choices and their end result is a remarkably distinctive, interesting and – if you’re sufficiently on the same wavelength – entertaining package. The Manhattan Projects is a highly elaborate, knowing creative game, aiming for the reader’s head and sense of humour, not the heart. It’s precisely what it was intended to be, and is overflowing with invention, bleak humour and delightful intricacy.

I suspect future volumes will explore yet more extreme reaches of madness and badness, and I look forward to that. It feels like embarking on a guided tour of Hickman’s darkly playful and highly unpredictable imagination, and that’s quite an appealing prospect.

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