Friday, September 14, 2012

Recommended Reading for 9/14: The Manhattan Projects

One of the great failings of a lot of today's media is that they retread the same ideas over and over. They might polish them up, add a little shine (or gloom), but in the end, nothing is different from countless other stories, and nothing changes. This extends to not just comics, but movies, TV, and the stage. But sometimes, something comes along that is just bursting to the seams with new ideas; big ideas, little ideas, and everything in between. The Manhattan Projects, the recent series from Image Comics written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by Nick Pittara, is a series that not only is full of ideas, but is about ideas.
The high concept on the title is simple enough: what if the Manhattan Project as we know it was just a front? That while nuclear research was part of the project, behind that were many other projects, all of them wilder and stranger than the last. And what if all the men involved in the projects were insane, evil, or just a bit off? Within each issue, there are a series of other concepts, little bits of science and philosophy, that mix to create a broad tapestry of ideas like none I've seen in recent memory.

In recent years, there actually have been a few writers in comics who really seem to love science fiction, and tend to jam their books full of ideas. It feels similar to the boom in crime comics in the early 00s; a few writers (in that case Brian Azzarello, Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker, and Greg Rucka) seem to feel something coming and start telling stories in a genre that hasn't been featured in comics for some time.  Matt Fraction, Nick Spencer, and Kieron Gillen all have written interesting science fiction comics, some within traditional superhero universes, and some on their own. But for me, Jonathan Hickman is the preeminent voice of the new science fiction comics. While I haven't read his early works yet, I can say that I was impressed with his time travel series Red Wing, and his run on Fantastic Four/FF has been the best since Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo, a run that mixes both the family dynamic of the team with his brand of super science.

But for sheer science fiction, nothing he's done touches The Manhattan Projects. One of the things that I find really impressive is that The Manhattan Projects is legitimate science fiction. When Oppenheimer, Einstein, or Feynman are talking about the science behind their madness, there is (or at least seems to be to my relatively untrained eye) a legitimate basis in fact. It's easy in comics to talk about unstable molecules and ultimate nullifiers, but instead to talk about teleportation and dimensional travel and have a reader think that there might be something to that is a completely different thing.

The issues are each structured as done in ones that build off each other. This is great, since it allows readers to pick up any one issue and not feel cheated. But reading each issue allows the reader to understand more of what's going on. You don't need to know that J. Robert Oppenheimer isn't just a multiple personality, but happens to be his twin brother Joseph, who killed and replaced his brother, but it helps. The device seen invented in one issue can come to rear its head in the next.

Now here there be real spoilers. While I've talked about this as a book based around ideas, ideas are only as interesting as the characters who speak or embody them. And, hoo boy, these are some characters. The series is an ensemble book, with each of the scientists who were really a part of the Manhattan Project recast in a broken light. Richard Feynman is the closest the book has to a central figure, since each issue is framed with quotes from his autobiography, but different characters narrate each issue, giving the reader a view into the particularly twisted mindset of that character. I already mentioned Oppenheimer is actually a brilliant, if insane, multiple personality twin of the real scientist, but I didn't mention that he also has the ability to eat the brain of someone else and absorb their knowledge and personality. Albert Einstein is not this universe's Einstein, but actually Albrecht Einstein, an alternate universe reality version of the great physicist who replaced his double when Einstein bridged the gap between dimensions. And hey, if you don't like your scientists as evil doubles, you have the narcissistic Feynman, or the A.I. based on the mind of FDR.

The somewhat malign or selfish intentions of all these characters are important because there's more than just science here. There's a look at the philosophy of power and responsibility that I feel is part of all science and science fiction. Stepping momentarily onto a soap box, I don't think people are any more vile or violent than they ever were noawadays. I just think we have the capability to do so much more evil with modern technology, and can see so much more of it because of that. Social advancement has not caught up to technological advancement. And I feel like that is reflected in these stories. Every amoral or immoral character doesn't stop to think if they should do what they're doing. They just want to see if they can, not for anyone's benefit except their own, and for their own glory.

The fifth issue of the series was particularly chilling, as mankind contacts other species. The US government has had contact with aliens for some time, but when a new race appears to meet with them, things go bad, and Oppenheimer realizes, through eating an alien brain, that the aliens they have dealt with before have been conquered. So, a group of scientists go to meet these new aliens and, unbeknownst to him, use poor, irradiated Harry Daghlian to wipe them out. Power and fear are the driving force here, not thought and hope. This is not a story of man reaching out to the stars. This is the story of man shutting his borders and killing anything that tries to climb the fence, including his fellow man. And the final two pages, with Oppenheimer looking at the door to anywhere, and paraphrasing the most famous thing the real Oppenheimer is purported to have said, sent a shiver up my spine.

Artist Nick Pitarra is an able accomplice to Hickman's brilliant science fiction madness. His art is super detailed, with gorgeous backgrounds and settings. His characters are distinct, and while I'm not familiar with how all these people looked in real life, the ones I do know look similar to what Pitarra puts on the page, with some choices stylizing them (Werner Von Braun's super robotic arm, or Fermi's non-human features come to mind). The designs of the different alien species are fascinating and different from the more traditional aliens you see in many other places.

The Manhattan Projects is not a comic to read if you're looking to turn your brain off and sit back. This is a series to read if you want to think, if you want to be challenged. Moral questions, super science, alternate history; this is a stew of concepts. You might learn something, or some away with a new view on life. Or you might just get a kick out of mad science. Either way, it's a wild ride.

The first collection of The Manhattan Projects, Science Bad, is available now, collecting the first five issues. Issue six was released this Wednesday. Both should be at any good comic book store.

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