Jonathan Hickman is a jerk.
Not really. I’ve never met him. But as comic writers go, no one is as consistently smart as Hickman. It’s infuriating. With his new Image Comics series, The Manhattan Projects, Hickman deftly finds a way to blend the poetry of Einstein’s Dreams, the absurdity of comic book science, and the fragility of American history. It shouldn’t really possible. If you’re an aspiring writer it’s like declaring your intention to play in the show one day with Roger Clemens hurling steroid-infused meatballs straight past your flailing arms.
What a jerk.
Aside from highlighting your own inferiority (or is that my own inferiority?) the team of Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra have created one of the best ongoing comics available right now with The Manhattan Projects.
The Image Comics synopsis is this:
What if the research and development department created to produce the first atomic bomb was a front for a series of other, more unusual, programs?
Really, volume one (titled “Science.Bad.”) goes much deeper.
The Manhattan Projects presents an entire alt-America where Robert Oppenheimer consumes and inhabits multiple personalities, Harry Daghlian carries on as an irradiated professional scientist version of Marvel’s Holocaust, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt becomes the world’s first artificial intelligence system.
The whole thing is a fantastic blend of historical truth and completely insane fiction. In the face of the atomic bomb, the trouble is figuring out which is which.
I had some hesitancy picking up The Manhattan Projects at first. For starters, as much as I’m awed and impressed by his work here, I thought Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D., similarly rooted in the historical reality of the likes of Leanardo Da Vinci, never quite coalesced into anything more than “The Illuminati is and always has been everywhere.”
I grabbed issue #7 first, and it only took one look at Harry S. Truman’s preposterously lavish free mason party/orgy to know The Manhattan Projects would be less constrained.
That image alone combines two of the brightest aspects of this book. The first is the sense of humor. This is Hickman and Pitarra unleashed, and they share a dark, bitter humor that merges well with the morally starved world of the book. The other stand-out attraction is Pitarra’s art. In a lot of ways The Manhattan Projects is a gross, repulsive, appalling look at science and government without conscience (or with a desecrated version of conscience.) At the same time, it’s not an overly serious book; this isn’t The Sandman for Gaiman’s sake. Pittara’s grotesquely real drawing captures this essence. There’s just something about the portrayal of each person that highlights their human flaws – like beads of sweat and wrinkles elaborated on aging newscasters suddenly thrown into an HD world.
To Hickman’s great credit, readers really don’t need to have knowledge of these characters to enjoy the surprisingly fluid story. You’ll understand that Hickman’s Harry Daghlian is an irradiated nuclear monster without knowing there was actually a scientist who died of accidental radiation exposure during a nuclear test. Examining the historical truths of The Manhattan Projects winds up being one of the hidden pleasures, with searches for both Joseph Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman returning truth-muddling results.
The final aspect that really makes The Manhattan Projects tick is Hickman’s restraint. The temptation with many historical-fiction comics is to turn the iconic figure into the traditional, modern superhero. For example, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Hickman’s history is warped and mangled, yes, but the plot itself isn’t driven by too many stock superhero fail-safes. Instead of Albert Einstein lifting a train straight over his head or throwing a roundhouse right that would George Foreman jealous, we have a mysterious Einstein doppelganger from a parallel universe with plans to unleash an ultra-dimensional gateway for his own gain.
Volume one collects issues #1-#5. If you’re looking for a great ongoing to start collecting, you won’t do much better than The Manhattan Projects. And yes, you’ve made it quite clear Mr. Hickman; we won’t do much better creative story-telling either. Thanks for the reminder.