For me, 2012 was when I finally started taking some chances on creator-owned books. Before, it was always just a matter of following my favorite writers from the Big Two over into a more open, creative arena. If I bought a book that wasn’t from Marvel or DC, it still had Warren Ellis’s name on it. Or Grant Morrison’s. Or Alan Moore’s. Otherwise, I didn’t give it much of a chance. For a few years, those guys were the only reason I was reading comic books. Them and Spider-Man, which I read out of servitude more than anything else.
There were two reasons for this. First of all, the comic shop where I lived didn’t pay too much attention to smaller books. If a new Ellis book was coming out from Avatar, it was not always easy to follow it issue to issue. And if I had to special order an issue, it was like pulling teeth. The other reason was because I was happy with what I was reading and didn’t really want to take chances with creators that I didn’t already know. In other words, I kinda sucked as a comics fan.
That started to change last year. As things started changing drastically in my life as well as with the comics getting put out by the Big Two, I finally felt the need to see what else was out there, what I was missing. I wanted to feel challenged by comics again. I needed new ideas and young blood. I needed fresh four-color meat for to satiate my growing comic book appetite. I also moved to a much bigger area with much bigger comics stores, increasing my awareness of smaller titles. Now when I go in to by the new issue of Avengers, I look at the wall and I see an explosion of titles, many I’ve never heard of before, and I make sure to pick a few up.
The first title to really pop out at me was The Manhattan Projects. I remember scanning a wall full of covers depicting explosions and robots and vampires and human missiles and psychotic bat-children, and right in the middle of it all was a stylized bisected eyeball containing the letters “MP” followed by two names and a short, informative paragraph. Around the eyeball was a ring of blue and red color swatches on a white background. It looked like some kind of small instructional pamphlet. But it was called The Manhattan Projects, plural, and the mere implications of that pluralization was a greater hook for me than any crazy exploding superhero deathtrap cliffhanger crossover maxi-series foil cover variant. The book had history, atomic science and war right in the title, and the cover combined spy movie flare with art geek minimalism. How could anyone resist?
Within the pages of The Manhattan Projects, I was offered a twist on science-fiction in which the scientists themselves were the fiction. To be sure, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this spin on history, but it could be the most ambitious of such stories. The heroes of the book were a team of super-scientists, with the core members being the actual members of the real life Manhattan Project. They each have some kind of power or quirk reminiscent of a superpower, showing that the creators aren’t looking to apologize for the medium they’re using.
Robert Oppenheimer, for instance, the father of the atomic bomb, has actually been replaced by his twin brother, Joseph, a murderous sociopath who eats his kills so that they may live on in his head. Albert Einstein has been replaced by his highly intelligent, but not quite ingenious, alternate reality doppelganger. Harry Daghlian, who in our reality died of radiation poisoning resulting from a lab accident, lives on in this comic as a sort of hungry radiation ghost. The result brings to mind Ghost Rider or Mysterio, or Johann Kraus from Hellboy. It’s silly stuff, but this silly stuff then gives way to some very sophisticated storytelling.
Of course we all know that the real life Manhattan Project was the quest to develop the world’s first atomic bomb. In The Manhattan Projects, however, the development and the deployment of the bomb is handled within the first story arc. The scene is actually handled in a very tense, well-paced verbal tug-of-war between the freshly inaugurated Harry Truman and team leader General Leslie Groves. Truman, by the way, is depicted throughout the comic engaging in high-volume occult orgies, the kind that would make Aleister Crowley green with envy. Franklin Roosevelt is in the comic as well, outliving his real life counterpart as the world’s first artificial intelligence and ostensibly going on to form a shadow government.
At any rate, in addition to the bomb, there are several other technological advances that are being explored by The Manhattan Projects, including travel between planets and apparently travel between dimensions. This is all, of course, in an effort to keep America ahead of its enemies, who are at first the Japanese forces and their army of axe-wielding kamikaze killing machines, and then later the Soviets, who have their own strange army of robot freaks, as well as any possible world-conquering alien civilizations. However, as things develop, it begins to look as though the true enemies might be the other members of the team. It’s definitely a super-powered, comic book-y version of history, but one that is more clever, funny and hip than anything else I’ve seen.
The Manhattan Projects was my introduction to the work of Jonathan Hickman, a name I kept seeing pop up on Marvel titles, but who I never really sought out until this point. Hickman’s work is extremely well fleshed-out and feels well-researched, but never feels too dense. He doesn’t try to push how smart he is or how much research he’s done with overly talky characters or an abundance of explanations. Instead he lets the pages breathe and chooses well placed lines that say everything you need to know about how the character thinks and how they’re reacting to a certain scene with just a few sentences. There’s also very little expository dialogue, with much of the characters’ backstories playing out in red-and-blue flashback scenes that usually deliver very poignant character moments or set up something important that happens later in the issue.
As with Hickman’s other projects, including his current relaunch of Marvel’s Avengers, a sleek sense of design is embedded in The Manhattan Projects’ DNA. In addition to the cover designs, the book brings back the eyeball element from the cover for pages that display quotes from the characters, which add context to the story. There’s also a title “screen” after each issue’s cold open, which takes the shape of a double page spread announcing the title and using elements of the cover design. A list of cast members, which is added to after every issue and contains little jokes hidden throughout, can be found in the back of the book.
Bringing Hickman’s words to life is Nick Patarra, an artist whose work I am new to but whose career I will be sure to follow beyond this title. His style reminds me of Juan Jose Ryp and Ramon Villalobos, in that he shares their heavy lines and knack for gore, but Patarra’s work comes with a sense of playfulness that brings to mind the late, great Seth Fisher. His characters are all slightly alien-like with big heads, slender bodies, pointy eyebrows and round noses, something that adds to the outlandish tone of the comic.
Patarra’s work on The MPs starts out very loose and fluid but then within the first few issues gets progressively tighter and more lush. His panels tend to have great depth and detail, and his rendering of aliens and of machines are particularly engrossing. I think this is because when he’s working on machines his lines become very mechanical and hard, and when he’s working on organic objects his lines become softer and everything looks kind of… gooey. If that makes sense. And then you get something like a gorgeous full page spread of an atomic bomb exploding over Hiroshima and it looks like a mushroom cloud made of marmalade. Lovely. I want to eat these pages.
That’s why I love The Manhattan Projects so much. It’s a comic book first. These guys are having a blast within the medium that they’ve chosen. They’re challenging things, shaking things up within that medium. This isn’t a pitch for a movie or a TV show. This is meant to be experienced purely as a twenty-however-paged paper pamphlet. It’s a love-letter to the Lee/Kirby/Ditko age of comics, when science was a superpower and the creepiness of the art spoke to all the paranoia and panic of the times. It’s also a very cutting-edge, sophisticated series that is firing on all cylinders conceptually and graphically. And it’s just getting started. It isn’t even up to issue 10 yet. If you aren’t already reading this series, you’ve still got plenty of time to catch up.
Trust me, this isn’t one you want to miss.