The first issue of The Manhattan Projects, the ongoing comic series penned by Marvel scribe Jonathan Hickman, begins in 1942 with General Leslie Groves conducting a final interview with Dr. Oppenheimer before appointing him the civilian head of the Manhattan Projects. Midway through the issue, the two fight a pitched gun battle against an army of samurai automatons storming the War Department building in Washington, DC. In the final pages, in a flashback, Robert Oppenheimer has his heart torn out of his chest and devoured by his insane twin brother Joseph, who goes on to assume his identity.
From history to super-science comedy to horror. It's the perfect summary of The Manhattan Projects.
The basic premise of The Manhattan Projects, outlined on the cover of every issue, is that the American project to build the atomic bomb during the Second World War was merely the public face for a number of other, more esoteric experiments in all manner of comic-book science. The Projects themselves are manned by the great men of mid-twentieth-century physics and space travel, men like Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Richard Feynman, but each has been distorted into a warped caricature of their historical selves. On the surface, this premise would suggest some manner of sci-fi comedy procedural, a sort of Atomic Robo with a body count. However, the story of The Manhattan Projects is really the story of the Projects themselves, the secret history of how the men that led them shook themselves free of the American government and became forces to be reckoned with both on the Earth and in interstellar politics.
The world of The Manhattan Projects is a deeply mad one. Hickman's writing and artist Nick Pitarra's talent for Where's Waldo-styled detailed surrealism combine to create a setting that turns historical figures into grotesque clowns, fills pages with bloody violence that stays on the right side of slapstick, and creates ridiculous images that linger in the mind. This is a comic in which Yuri Gagarin chokes out an ancient Egyptian warlock while Laika the (talking) test dog dual-wields submachine guns. This is a comic where President Harry Truman presides over Masonic blood orgies in the Oval Office, decked out in ceremonial robes and a big silly hat. It is one in which General William Westmoreland appears as the 'Nammiest 'Nam vet to ever 'Nam his way out of 'Namland, complete with human ear necklace, and spends an issue having a knife fight with an alien. This is a comic which introduces Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in a casino, jawing about how much they love money and hate poor people, only to be attacked by Leonid Brezhnev, rendered as a corpulent, fanny-pack-toting version of the Thing. This is a comic where the father of the atomic bomb is depicted, not so much as a man, but as some manner of malevolent pagan god.
While the comic is silly, it is not frivolous. There is a purpose behind the jokes, the caricatures, and the violence. It is not one, however, that can be grasped easily. One of the minor weaknesses of the comic is that, while most of Hickman's other comic projects are plotted meticulously in advance, The Manhattan Projects is written more on an improvisational, month-by-month basis. As a result, characters and storylines will sometimes disappear for issues at a time, while the main plot practically speeds through others. While the comic starts during World War II, the war ends by the third issue. The presidential succession skips from Truman directly to Kennedy (a move made, according to Hickman, because he couldn't think of anything funny to do with Eisenhower), and in the later issues it becomes hard to tell just when everything is supposed to be taking place. Ultimately, The Manhattan Projects is a comic meant to be read in trade paperback rather than by individual issue. In that larger perspective, patterns emerge, and the methods to Hickman's madness are revealed.
The scientist characters of The Manhattan Projects, while being bloody bastards to a man, are also associated with images of doubles and doppelgangers, or are depicted as undergoing physical transformations so complete that the men they were and the men they become can only be seen as separate individuals. The "Einstein" of this comic is Albrecht Einstein, Albert's meaner alcoholic analogue from a parallel universe. Enrico Fermi is in actuality an alien drone that murdered and replaced Enrico in childhood. Harry Daghlian, one of the first victims of the actual Manhattan Project, is given unholy eternal life as an ambulatory radioactive skeleton, a sort of melancholy Doctor Manhattan. Werner von Braun is introduced with a robotic left arm, and over time more and more of his body is subsumed by machinery. Even Richard Feynman, ostensibly the most "normal" of the Projects' scientists, is depicted as an incurable narcissist forever preening in his hand mirror.
The presence of all these doubles serves to tie the characters of The Manhattan Projects back to their historical models, opening up new, unsettling associations. While it would be ridiculous to argue that, say, J. Robert Oppenheimer was secretly a cannibal, the question The Manhattan Projects raises is how many of these traits are merely exaggerations of characteristics that lay in these men all along. We tend to demand a lot of our scientists, trusting them to a degree we would not afford a politician, implicitly assuming that their devotion to empiricism and reason will free them from the insecurities and appetites with which the rest of us grapple daily. This can be seen in the fate of Albert Einstein, who has become the secular equivalent of a saint. By reimagining these men as monsters, Hickman (along with Pitarra's caricatures that renders his subjects alien, with only occasional flashes of recognition) breaks down the rosy clouds surrounding their legends, giving a hint of the conflicted, arrogant, and occasionally self-serving men within. It's a pet theme of Hickman's and one that's arisen in his mainstream comics work. His runs on Marvel's Fantastic Four and Ultimate lines played similar games with the character of super-scientist Reed Richards, contrasting the good-hearted family man with variants who forsook their families in the megalomanical pursuit of technological utopia.
While it does occasionally play with comic-book history, The Manhattan Projects also delves deeply into the history of science fiction, particularly the images and themes of the Campbellian Golden Age that arose concurrent with the actual Manhattan Project. Visual references come fast and furious; perhaps the crowning point is the multiversal odyssey of Albert Einstein, who visits Dune's Arrakis, a Moebius cityscape, the "Dawn of Man" sequence from 2001, and a world that appears to be The Manhattan Projects as written by Robert E. Howard. Many of the plotlines in The Manhattan Projects are also riffs and retellings of classic science fiction plots. However, in Hickman's world, each retold story ends in murder. The comic's first contact event not only ends in a bloodbath, but swiftly escalates to Leslie Groves using Harry Daghlian's radioactivity to exterminate a starfaring civilization. The scientists of the Projects eventually fight and win a secret war against the forces of financial and religious obstructionism (represented in the comic by a luchador, a five-hundred-pound Samoan man, Emperor Palpatine, and Harry Truman)—the sort of struggle described in works such as H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come. However, rather than inaugurating a scientific Rule of the Saints, the Projects "rule" as a conspiracy, even keeping the Cold War going as an excuse to sponge money and resources off the superpowers. Albrecht Einstein and Richard Feynman get involved in a program to create a new type of human who can endure the rigors of deep space, but the man-plus they create is a bug-eyed adrenalin-addled berserker made of vivisected aliens who, for reasons known only to Hickman, speaks in the mellow SoCal tones of Matthew McConaughey.
Now there are a lot of ways to take this reworking of genre conventions. On the surface, The Manhattan Projects' reworking of classic SF can be seen as a criticism of the fiction of that period. One of the great conceits of that fiction is that the universe is a blank space for mankind to settle and make its own, and humans have some special innate ability that grants them dominion over the cosmos and its lesser species. It's an old attitude in American science fiction, drawn from the visions of the frontier that have been with the nation since its foundation and that have both influenced and been influenced by the great military-industrial scientific projects of the mid-twentieth century. Certainly Hickman is critical of that attitude: while occasionally leavened with jokes, the actions of the scientists are presented to us in all their horror. The dream of the scientists to make humanity a player on the galactic stage is repeatedly shown to be farcical, with a tiny cabal on a tiny planet imagining themselves the equals of the great empires. While The Manhattan Projects is generally not interested in the fate of the average human (the most eloquent any of the countless American servicemen who are brutally dismembered in the course of the comic gets is "Do you know what I like? I like hot dogs"), the stories of Harry Daghlian and perpetual punching bag Helmutt Göttrup show that even among the Projects there are winners and losers.
And yet The Manhattan Projects is not a straight criticism. Despite all the horrors they inflict, there is a certain affection for the scientists and generals of the Projects, a sympathy for their revolutionary attitude. It's a sympathy that has extended all through Hickman's work, where the figure of the genius-monster who succeeds at changing the world at high cost appears again and again. In The Nightly News, Hickman's first comic project, the age of corporatized news media is brought to an end by a Symbionese Liberation Army-styled cult that conducts a campaign of terror and assassinations against journalists. In Pax Romana, a temporal military expedition to Constantine the Great's Roman Empire manages to avert the Dark Ages in a roundabout fashion. On a basic level, all of Hickman's work is concerned with the concept of revolution, whether political, religious, or scientific. In Hickman's hands, revolution becomes a tricky business. On the one hand, Hickman has a keen understanding of the use and attraction of revolution. In situations where the world has become blocked, where systems are bloated and unsuited to the times, and where gradualist reform merely adds to the problem, a violent disjunction can free men of their pasts and allow for a fresh start. Indeed, in some situations gradualist reform is suicidal: in Transhuman, the story of the corporate and legal battles surrounding transhuman technology leads to a pacific, outwardly utopian solution for humanity, only revealing in the final pages that said solution is an evolutionary dead end, transforming the comic into twenty-first-century reworking of Čapek's War With The Newts.
On the other hand, while Hickman depicted the manias and Faustian drives of his revolutionaries with gusto, he never endorses their positions unquestioningly. Many of Hickman's protagonists are men drunk on their own egos who lead movements that sweep up nations in blood and ruin without any clear idea of what they actually want to do. His characters argue about their actions, yet there is never any sense that their words are to be taken as the gospel truth. While his characters change the world, it's left open as to whether the new world could be considered an improvement. In later parts of The Manhattan Projects, more and more characters begin to question just what the Projects are for, why they are doing what they are doing. (Interestingly, it is the generals and bureaucrats who first express these doubts rather than the scientists.)
Alongside the ambivalence of revolution, the other great theme of The Manhattan Projects concerns the ubiquity of struggle. It's a matter intimately tied up in the matters of revolution and progress, perhaps best summed up by the question "what are you willing to do?" Perhaps the clearest expression of this issue can be seen in the character of Joseph Oppenheimer, the closest The Manhattan Projects has to an antagonist. In the course of the comic Joseph becomes the most secretive and aggressive member of the Projects, the man who pushes the scientists harder and farther than anyone else while manipulating them into serving his own ends. His aggression is fueled by another secret: aside from being a cannibal and a fraud, Joseph has multiple personalities. In Hickman's portrayal, Joseph's madness is more a literary device than a psychological disorder, a hyperbolic reworking of the inner divisions of the historical Oppenheimer. Throughout the comic, Joseph is haunted by a coterie of phantoms: both his own duplicate personas and those of the people he has consumed, a ghostly chorus that comments on the world and Joseph's actions. Starting with a handful, their numbers swell into the dozens, and then the billions. Joseph's inner world takes center stage for three issues, the "Finite Oppenheimers" trilogy, drawn by God Hates Astronauts! creator Ryan Browne, that depicts the decades-long struggle by Robert's ingested persona to gain control of his brother's mind as an immense war between wizards, incubi, golems, superheroes, spacemen, gangsters, lumberjacks, flappers, and construction workers, all of whom wear the face of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Aside from offering the sheer spectacle of millions of Oppenheimers murdering one another, the issues also depict the two brothers trying to get ahold of one another, trying to determine how to adapt their tactics to destroy the other. As well as mirroring the technological struggle of the Cold War, the war of the Oppenheimers lays bare the question of "what are you willing to do," with the brothers becoming increasingly more ruthless as the war drags on.
The struggles of the comic are also reflected in its very palette. The overriding color scheme of The Manhattan Projects, superbly handled by Jordie Bellaire, is of red juxtaposed with blue, a scheme taken to extremes in flashbacks, where every element in the scene is one of the two colors. While the colors are obvious, their precise meaning is more difficult to parse. The first flashback of the comic is that of the Oppenheimers, with Robert always being associated with blue, and Joseph with red. Such thoughts of a simple good/evil dichotomy are stymied in the following issue, with a flashback featuring Werner von Braun and Adolf Hitler. In this scene, everything, including Hitler himself, is blue—but the single orchid he holds in his hand is rendered in brilliant red. Red is associated with key objects in the pasts of the other characters too: a red bible for Groves, a disapproving father and instruments of punishment for Feynman. While various associations can be drawn from these colors, no one reading seems consistent for the entire comic. In later issues the issue is muddied further with flashbacks where characters strobe from blue to red and back between panels, and when "blue" characters begin to act in "red" ways. While a case could be made that reds are primarily associated with aggression and blues with restraint, perhaps it is a mistake to associate a particular viewpoint with each color. Perhaps it is better to think of them as team colors in a video game. The actual content of their ideologies does not matter so much as the fact that they are competing, struggling against one another, the old Darwinian stereotype pushing the world forward and tearing men apart.
(Yet even here, there are oppositions to the narrative of violence. The most recent issues of the comic have reintroduced Albert Einstein, the white to Albrecht's black, and the two men have been able to resolve their differences and collaborate peacefully for the good of the Projects. Still, it is too early to tell how these elements will be developed.)
According to Hickman, the close of the most recent volume marks the halfway point for the series. With the various members of the Projects splitting off and venturing into the depths of interstellar space, the multiverse, and the geopolitics of the Cold War, it's hard to tell just what the final fate of the Projects will be. Some clues have been provided, however, in the form of excerpts from Clavius Aurea, the collected memoirs of Richard Feynman. While the memoirs, quoted several times each issue, provide a commentary on the action, they also paint the elder Feynman as a man who laments the world he and the Projects have created, all while fully accepting his responsibility for it. There are hints of some great catastrophe looming in the future of the series, one that drastically alters the fate of life on Earth. Rather more distressingly, while Oppenheimer is quoted in the memoirs along with other members of the Projects, he not only speaks of the "events" of Joseph's internal civil war as if they were actual events, but this "Oppenheimer" does not identify himself as either Joseph or Robert.
In the end, The Manhattan Projects may well be revealed as the story of how mankind was damned to hell by its best and brightest, of how megalomania and a blind faith in progress and violence shoved the people of Earth into conflicts and evolutions they could not prepare for . . . but written as a comedy.