There are strains of science fiction that are primarily concerned with cold, hard science, where there are lengthy passages that seem like they aspire to be mistaken for excerpts from a Stephen Hawking book, or—perhaps more correctly given the populist nature of Professor Hawking’s most well-known works—mistaken for an excerpt of an article that could conceivably share space next to Hawking in an Oxbridge journal. The type of fiction that talks about ‘allotropes’, ‘isometric structures’ and ‘valency,’ not to imply that these words are used in a meaningless way, but to point out that this is the type of fiction where the ‘science’ is paramount. The kind that lays out the explanations for its phenomena in a manner designed to assure the reader that the subjects of discussion are testable and can be replicated, that thorough, reliable, well-documented research underpins the otherwise fantastical occurrences.
And then there are the strains that are concerned not with the science itself, but rather the philosophy of science. While certainly not ignorant to the body of scientific knowledge, nor averse to borrowing its language, the exact workings of the phenomena they utilise are of less interest than the broad, sweeping implications of those phenomena; in particular the ethical, historical, existential, and yes, the emotional implications of the progress of human knowledge. This type of fiction may often, though not necessarily, have a message underlying its use of scientific concepts and their consequences, but in other cases we as readers are not being asked to judge, but simply to consider, to contemplate, to speculate what they entail for us as a species. And sometimes they are just used to create a rollicking good read.
The Manhattan Projects, Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s sinister alternate take on some of the 20th century’s greatest scientific figures, initially seems like it would fit into the former category of science fiction, but it has become increasingly clear that it fits into the latter. In this issue, there are scenes of an incisive autopsy of an alien organism, the launching of a proto-rocket ship, and the revelation of an extraordinarily powerful ‘new’ energy source. But the details of how these all work are barely touched upon; instead, each scene serves as a dialogue between the ethical and historical implications of scientific discovery and power. Hickman’s book of ‘bad science’ is less about a science gone wrong than a history gone wrong, the seemingly ‘natural’ course of our own history being knocked off course and twisted into a perverse, sneering reflection.
Further, The Manhattan Projects is less about the science itself than the characters behind the science. Hickman and Pitarra revel in the great and terrible ensemble cast they have assembled, both in their gathering for the funeral on the splash page that opens the issue, and the regular headshots of the cast that close each comic. Pitarra has warped these famous, formerly nonthreatening figures into veritable fiends, almost all sneers and scowls and perpetually lowered eyebrows. Reinforcing my earlier point, Pitarra’s art is less concerned with the details of the technology it depicts than in making sure it leaves a strong, unsettling impression in the reader’s mind. For all of its grand pronouncements about human potential, progress and exploration, the main hook of this series is still watching these old guys from history books behave really, really badly. Which is not to say that The Manhattan Projects is an inhuman pleasure—I challenge you to find too many more moving comicbook moments this year than Laika the dog’s departure in this issue—but anyone that has a cast-iron requirement for likability in their characters is probably better advised picking up Hawkeye or flicking on some episodes of Community.
As for the ensemble cast, it could be argued that the structure of The Manhattan Projects, and particularly this issue, is more akin to the episodic nature of television than any comic series since Alan Moore and Gene Ha’s Top 10. The funeral scene aside, no character appears in more than one scene within these 20-odd pages. Jordie Bellaire’s colors also emphasise this episodic nature, each scene drawing from a limited, but unique color palette—red for Daghlian’s scene to bring out his demonic aspect, brown and navy blue in Gagarin and Laika’s scene to capture the emptiness that lies ahead for both of them (Gagarin’s ‘goldfish’ quip notwithstanding). The issue ends with the series’ nominal protagonist—Joseph Oppenheimer—but his scene is almost a postscript to its events, albeit a foreboding prelude of what is to come.
The Manhattan Projects is now entering the period beyond the point where its initial shock and novelty (an issue faced by most comicbook series incidentally—I call it the ‘Twelve Issue Theory’) will start to hold less currency with a readership faced with more choices than ever. Hickman seems unlikely to run out of ideas—witness his faintly ridiculous ‘End Prelude’ pronouncement following his seventeenth issue of ‘Avengers’ this past week—but the pace at which he trots them out is going to be crucial over the next year in determining whether readers will stick with this series for the long haul. At present, there seems to be enough deliciously evil happenings coming up soon to keep the audience glued to this lovingly-designed multi-car pile-up of a story. Science bad? You bet, but also still so very, very good.