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‘The Manhattan Projects’ Is Pure Mad Science In Comic Book Form

A while back, I had a conversation with Jonathan Hickman where he talked about how he liked Grant Morrison’s comics because the ideas in them were so good that they made him laugh while he was reading them. Ideas like that, the ones that go right past the jealous “I wish I’d thought of that” part of your brain and go straight to “this is amazing,” are hard to find. But with The Manhattan Projects, the new series from Image that heads into its third issue this week, Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra have gotten to that level, and made it look easy

The stuff in this comic takes real-life scientists into a world of comic book mad science that’s beyond anything I ever expected going into it, and it’s just so good that it’s impossible to read it without bursting into laughter — even when it’s anything but funny.The premise of the book — laid out in every issue on the striking, design-heavy covers that have become Hickman’s calling card over the past five years — starts out with one of those high-concept questions that’s impossible to resist: What if the Manhattan Project, the government initiative that resulted in the creation of the Atomic Bomb in 1945, actually went a lot further than that? What if nuclear weapons were the least fantastic and horrifying creations those scientists came up with while they were working together? And what if that strange team of super-geniuses, soldiers and ex-Nazis were also complete and utter madmen?

It’s a premise that sets up a challenge for the book right from the start, in that each issue has to go bigger and stranger than the creation of the atomic bomb. The single most destructive force ever created by man is that comic’s baseline, and Hickman and Pitarra rise to the challenge in every issue. They set the tone right from the start with an attack on the project by a mob of kamikaze samurai robots with katanas and nunchuks, and just keep building from there, with teleportation portals and computers powered by human brains. There are new ideas in every issue that just keep coming, with even more hinted at in the text pieces that bookend each story.

It’s that last bit of the premise, though, the bit that pushes it into the realm of mad science, that probably has the most solid basis in reality. After all, Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist that the first issue focuses on, legendarily got up in the middle of a conversation about physics and attempted to strangle a friend of his with absolutely no explanation. But Hickman takes those… let’s just call them “eccentricities” and uses them as the core of characters that are so far beyond reality that, at first glance, seem to only have the slightest connection to their real-world counterparts.

Wernher von Braun, for instance, was definitely a man who led a strange life, but I have my doubts that he had a robot arm.

But the thing is, the more you look at the idea that The Manhattan Projects is based on, the less it feels like a high concept and more like just an extension of reality. When you think about the stuff these people actually did, creating the technology to split an atom or send people to the moon — which for good or ill are two of the greatest achievements in human history — even the strangest and most impossible mad science they get up to seems to follow from some kind of slightly skewed logic. It just happens to be a logic that asks you to believe Harry Daghlian survived radiation poisoning to live on as a glowing skull floating in a hazmat suit.

This isn’t a book that lets you ask why, and to be honest, it’s not even a book that lets you ask why not. This is a book that constantly bombards you with the impossible, and gives you a choice to be swept up or cast aside.

It’s the character work that makes getting swept up so appealing. Pitarra’s art has this fantastic quality to it that’s reminiscent of Geoff Darrow and Chris Burnham. He blends cartoony exaggeration with an attention to grotesque detail, and no matter how bizarre the events of the comic get, nothing looks “fake.” There’s a weight to everything and everyone that establishes this world, and even the exaggerated parts hold together. It’s the perfect way to look at a world that’s built from distorted history, and the weirder things get, the more Pitarra shines:

When you combine Pitarra’s art with the dialogue from Hickman that moves effortlessly between hilarious and sinister, the end result is a cast of characters that are completely distinctive, both visually and in personality. There’s a common thread of ego that runs through Hickman’s versions of the Manhattan Project scientists, but the way it’s expressed, from Feyman’s quiet self-absorbed sociopathy to von Braun’s megalomania and Daghlian’s lust for radioactive immortality, but they’re all different, and they’re all terrifying in completely different ways.

The breakout, though, is Einstein. I realize this is going to sound crazy if you haven’t read this comic, just trust me on this: Albert Einstein is The Manhattan Projects‘ Wolverine.

Not Wolverine as he is now, when you know exactly what he’s capable of because you’ve seen it in pretty much every book Marvel publishes up to and including Power Pack, but as he was. Back when they were just building up to the day he was going to be unleashed, and the only thing you knew was that it was going to be very, very bad for anyone standing in his way.

Seriously: Einstein is the sensational character find of 2012.

But while he’s the clear standout for me, the three issues that we’ve gotten so far — including one that focused almost exclusively on Oppenheimer — have built a cast that’s volatile, dynamic, and interesting. Appropriately enough given the subject matter, the whole thing feels like a ticking time bomb.

That’s the real strength of what Hickman and Pitarra are doing with this book. They’ve crafted something that’s unrelenting in bringing new ideas, in which every single issue ups the stakes more and shows you something that you never would’ve expected going in. But they’ve also grounded it with characters that are strong enough to stand on their own, without ever using the fact that they’re based on real people as a crutch. You can go into this book completely cold, knowing absolutely nothing about who these men and what they did, and still get every bit of story that’s presented. For something involving historical characters and at least a few actual events, it doesn’t read like a biography, and not just because it involves cyborg arms and atomic skulls.

The Manhattan Projects isn’t a history book, even though it’s the kind of book that took an incredible amount of research to create. It’s a book that takes history to a strange new place, pushing it three steps beyond what it actually is and using it to tell a story that’s monumentally thrilling to read, full of incredible new ideas that are just so good that it’s impossible to read them without at least cracking a smile.

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