REVIEW: The Manhattan Projects #1

"Infinite Oppenheimers"

The Manhattan Projects #1

Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Nick Pitarra
Color by Cris Peter
Letters by Rus Wooton

$3.50/Color/32 pages

Image Comics

 

A single letter can change everything.

And we’re not talking about that ill-conceived missive from McEwan’s Atonement. Though that’s the same idea. No, we’re talking about one alphabetic character. Not just a dependent granule of a larger word, but an algebraic signifier. Not just phonics, but physics.

Misplaced, a letter can alter a complex equation, rendering a day’s work, weeks of work, a life’s work, null. A single letter might represent a solitary molecule, an atom, the slightest smudge of reality. Or it can mean whole subsets of time and space. It can mean everything. When that letter is S, it turns singularity to plurality. It turns an isolated incident into, well, potentially limitless possibility. Take that same S away and maybe it’s as simple as division or subtraction. Then again, maybe it isn’t.

In Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s latest mind-bending, creator-owned tale, the addition of one little S does change everything. We know about the Trinity tests and mushroom clouds. We know of the paralysis suffered by clocks. We know of Leslie Groves, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Manhattan Project, a braintrust responsible for weaponizing atomic energies. Even that effort was inspired by a letter, Einstein–Szilárd letter, though that one was a document. When we hear or see that name, “The Manhattan Project,” we think of scientific endeavor. Probably we think about folly and regret. Certainly we think about death and annihilation. Then Hickman makes a slight alteration and The Manhattan Projects conjures up a whole host of possibilities. That’s what alternate history does. Even more than fiction from scratch, alternate history sends the needle of our internal compass whirling. Our orbit shifts just slightly and all that was certain isn’t so certain any more.

So, expand out from that kernel. More than one Manhattan Project? More than one objective? What is the endgame? More importantly, what else is different about this version of that sad tale of endeavor and fear and malice?

Oppenheimer remains at the center of events. We know the brilliant physicist Robert. Hickman introduces us to a younger brother. Not Frank, another physicist, but someone more immediate. Joseph Oppenheimer is Robert’s twin, his younger counterpart. They straddle one midnight, but it’s more than a few minutes that separate them as individuals. Joseph didn’t have it quite so good as Robert when it came to scholarship or social niceties. Joseph did some very bad things and landed in an institution. It’s a measure of the times that, during a job interview with the MPs’ General Groves, Oppenheimer must distance himself not from Joseph’s murderous proclivities, but his open support for the Community Party.

“I am not my brother.”

Short on time or interest, Groves anoints Oppenheimer to the Projects and takes him on a tour of their vast facility. It’s quickly apparent that this is about much more than a bomb, as we witness a pair of scientists garbed in hazmat suits laboring over a trembling orb of crackling green energies. Groves nonchalantly describes the process as “mining something called pan-dimensional space for the fringe materials we need to build our impossible machines.” Pitarra’s pages ooze with luscious background detail; strange tridents floating in holding tanks, engineers toiling over a partially dismantled saucer vehicle in a vast hanger.

Perhaps the most curious and enticing stop on the tour involves a solitary man in a locked room. German physicist Albert Einstein–or a similarly mustachioed gentleman–sits still and silent in the shadows, his back to the curious Oppenheimer.

“He only gets out when I’m good and damned ready,” Groves growls, never turning back.

There follows a moment where Einstein peers over his shoulder at the departing visitors, a smile of something like defiance on his face. There are far stranger, game-changing revelations to follow, but it just might be the greatest hook. In the very real world, Einstein helped develop the most treacherous technologies known to ours or any other civilization on this planet. But his own regret and a particular photograph emblazoned on t-shirts and coffee mugs in Spencer’s Gifts the world over have softened our image of the man to a cuddly, mousey little mensch. That’s fair, of course. Einstein was no warmonger. But the dissonance here is quite compelling. We don’t know what role this iteration of the physicist will play in this story, whether he’s a noble captive or a sociopathic genius. He could well be feral. But to see him with that glimmer of mischief and rebellion is a particularly exciting tease.

It should be noted that the tour ends rather violently. The Japanese army stops by, and they have some fringe science at their disposal too.

Sentient origami as a throwaway reference.

A zen-powered “Red Torii” (The iconic entrance gate of a Shinto shrine) summoned by Death Buddhists

And of course, mechanical samurai.

Here, Oppenheimer comes into his own, and we as readers realize that this is Hickman unleashed. Big, bold concepts. Thoughtful science. Exceptional mad science too. Some of these moves are broad, with the abandon of the most frenetic Saturday morning cartoon. But it’s all tethered to a solid understanding of both history, science and story. No matter how crazy things get, Hickman’s dramatic authority and attention to detail are a constant, grounding presence. For his part, Pitarra counters Hickman’s sometimes clinical voice with unkempt, organic flair. Take Groves, a big, bulky presence whose character might just be defined by the greasy, uneven spikes of his hair. Were Frank Quitely to go a little more expressive and grungy than usual, it’d look a lot like this. Mad science comics ought to look like one button is in the wrong hole and the short end of the necktie is not quite inconspicuous. That’s very much the case here, making for a perfect pairing of writer and artist.

There’s more to be revealed even in just this issue of The Manhattan Projects. You might suspect a prominent twist in this installment before the halfway point, but keep going. Hickman actually concocted something far more bizarre. If you’re anything like this reader, you’ll find yourself cackling. Diabolically.

The Manhattan Projects is off to a tremendous start, one of the big concept author’s strongest, most inventive opening chapters. Nothing is certain. Except infinite possibility.

Story: 5/ Art: 4.5 / Overall: 5

(Out of 5 Stars)

 

The Manhattan Projects #1 is on shelves today.

Comments

  1. “A single letter can change everything.”

    That reminds me so much of one of my favorite movies, Brazil. In it, this whole complicated and intense sci-fi plot gets kicked off because a fly flew into a typewriter and caused it to type “B” instead of “T”.

  2. This book was bar-none the highlight of the week. Image has a real winner here.

  3. I’m considering checking this out. The only Hickman I’ve read is the SHIELD mini, and I absolutely loved it. Skipped Redwing because I’m poor and it didn’t sound like my cup, but I think I’ll give this a shot.

    May I just say, what a brilliant cover! I’m a sucker for both simplicity and dual imaging. I dig the different placement of the numbering, etc., but I really dig the idea of the tagline/synopsis in the center. It’s simplistic but informative. Really terrific.

    • Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      If you liked SHIELD, this plays into some of the same themes. There’s more silliness/comedy here, but it’s also very dark. And obviously it also explores themes of secret history/underground organization.

    • Thanks, Paul. I enjoy both darkness and sillyness. Add secret organizations to the mix and it’s usually a win in my book. Ya just clinched it for me. Lookin forward to it.

    • Glad to hear SHIELD fans should enjoy. Unfortunately my shop only ordered 4 and they were sold out by 5. Guess i am going digital.

  4. I didn’t like Red Wing, but from the premise, this looks like it could be great fun. Can’t wait to get to it.

  5. Can’t wait to read this! I must say that Image has really grabbed my attention with a lot of the new stuff they are putting out, so much so that I have cancelled many Marvel titles (especially the 3.99 ones) to make room for all the new and exciting looking stuff that is or will be coming out.

  6. I’ve been waiting for this. Glad to see its so well received…consumer purchasing confidence!

    how did you feel about the art vs design elements? Do you think they mixed well? I’ve only seen the previews so far….

  7. This was my pick of the week, hands down. Great design, a great concept and great potential for more.

  8. This was the strongest thing I’ve read from HIckman in a while. Great big concepts — Zen Death Buddhists (I think I’ve heard Morrison use that recently), Sentient Origami weapons, idea-space (a bit of an Alan Moore Supreme riff?), etc. — but some interesting character stuff with Oppenheimer to.

    But he always STARTS out strong. If he develops his characters and keeps this going, then it will be one of the best things he’s ever done.

    But I thought SHIELD started off brilliantly too, and my hopes were totally dashed against the rocks with the substanceless mess it has become.

    Perhaps here he will have an outlet for his ideas.

    • Along with SHIELD’s strong start and descent into nothing, I thought the first three issues of Fantastic Four were fantastic, one of the best FF stories in the last decade. Then it went into boring, decompressed building blocks.

      So yeah, great first issue. Hickman is the king of great first issues. Its the other ones I’m worried about. We’ll see, Mr. Hickman.

    • Well, I feel Fantastic Four is the best thing Hickman has ever done. While I agree that “Solve Everything” (that first three issue arc) was far and away the best of his run, I still enjoyed elements of some of the things that came immediately after. Prime Elements still did SOME character work and had some subtext there. Most of the rest did not, save for the Ben-For-A-Day issue and the Johnny Storm death aftermath issue (the Johnny Story RETURN issue didn’t, though, just the typical ‘rally and save the day’).

    • I think people need to give SHIELD a chance. It is easy to say it is confusing now, but isn’t that how most of Hickman’s work is in the middle? Reading his work takes time and it is hard to judge before it reaches its conclusion because he purposely doesn’t make the story simple.

      One thing that really bothers me about comic book readers in general is that they are always clamouring for something new and different. Then when something challenging comes along they are quick to reject it. Look at Fantastic Four. Tons of people complained during the middle portion that there were too many loose ends, but look at it now, it is probably one of the most dynamic and interesting pieces of “corporate” (to steal a phrase from Kirkman) story telling that we have seen in a long time.

      Hickman is an out of this world tallent, and if you give it the time to breathe you will see that he doesn’t just put things out there, but methodically builds a world for you to play in.

  9. Pitarra can draw some really expressive eyes. You can see the lunacy in Oppenheimer’s. Einstein’s grin and that shot of him again after the Japanese invasion are enough to keep me interested in this title, but luckily MP is an all around exciting title.

    • Thanks man! I recently read the manga Pluto by Urasawa, and was just blown away at how he can capture emotion with just a glance, sometimes quite panels of a character looking off after a bit of dialouge…could just hold you and sell the moments/story beats. It’s probably the most powerful thing I’ve ever read in comics because of the life behind the character’s eyes. Its something I’ve been working on since with my faces. That and just trying to capture more life and personality to the forms (sadly at the sake of anatomical correctness…Ha!). Really glad everyone seems to be receiving issue #1 well, #2 has a lot of Richard Feynman and Robot Arm’ed Werner Von Braun. Feynman’s intro is GOLD. Anyways…thanks for the kind words lifesend!

    • Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks for a great comic I can get excited about! It seems like I’ll have to pick up Pluto, because I hear nothing but great things about it and if inspires art as good as yours, it must really be something.

  10. This book was completely insanity…so much fun.

  11. Why do I feel like I’m going to be buying a lot of Image books this year?…

  12. The cover makes so much sense now. I’m especially interested in Einstein and what role he’ll play. I really enjoyed this.

  13. Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to write up this review Paul. Really glad you like it,…I feel like Jonathan and I have started to gel more on this..its a blast to draw.

  14. I believe that, with his wonderfully complex and mature superhero stories (such as the Fantastic Four) and his mind-bending, challenging creator owned material, that Mr Hickman is the spiritual successor to the great Warren Ellis. There has to be such in every generation!

  15. Being a super fan of Feynman I can not wait for him to come into this book. It was such a great read, I can’t wait for issue 2.
    @nickpitarra I agree that some of the silent scenes in Pluto are strikingly full of emotion. Wonderful book!