In 1942, halfway through the Second World War, the USA gathered together the brightest minds they could find to take part in the Manhattan Project. Its purpose was to win the race to create the first bombs of a “new type,” with unparalleled destructive capacity. The greatest minds of the 20th century, Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman, to name but a few, a who’s who of geniuses determined to win WWII with numbers and equations, and that’s just what they did, creating the atomic bomb.
The question Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra ask in their alt-history sci-fi comic series is what else these men might have created with their collective intellect and the resources available to them. Using these intellectual giants as a main cast is a tantalising enough hook, and that’s before the Hickman twists, where no one is what they seem and the only thing more incredible than the science at play is the super science
Infinite universes, evil doppelgangers, shapechanging space aliens and Japanese Torii teleporters are a fraction of the imaginative ideas that have brought readers back month after month to The Manhattan Projects. Now that it’s reached issue 12, Geek Chocolate felt this would be a good time to take stock of one of the most talked about comics on the shelves focusing on the opening salvo of the first six issues.
The opening pages give the series’ themes immediately: a renowned scientist is first seen with a large gun at his back, a General declares the military above politics and the “secret origin” of Oppenheimer puts duality front and centre, with the first use of an effective red-blue colour palette that runs through the series. Hickman takes us on a guided tour of the project in issue one, building suspense and curiosity beautifully with glimpses of incredible technology, ancient artefacts and the understated, imposing presence of Albert Einstein.
The tour is interrupted by the arrival of a Japanese “Red Torii”, powered by “Death Buddhists.” Events like this become almost commonplace in The Manhattan Projects, but never get boring as it is here that Hickman excels, showcasing a huge imagination and brilliant black wit. With the immediate threat over, we’re given a great end of issue twist that poses the real question of the series: what if science, mad science, was put in the wrong hands? It’s brutal, it’s dangerous, and you can’t look away.
The anti-heroes, an evil Einstein, narcissist Feynman and multiple sociopathic Oppenheimers, make short work of something as simple as an atomic bomb, and are soon making first contact with alien races and discovering the multiverse, with consequences reaching far into run. As layered and richly plotted as The Manhattan Projects is, it is Pitarra‘s detailed and quirky art which gives the series its unique character. Lacking the familiarity and rigidity so often found in Marvel and DC titles, Pitarra is undeniably top flight talent, but with indie flair and charisma. Something as simple as a shot of Oppenheimer smiling becomes incredibly unnerving, and in one of the most poignant moments of the book to date was a full page image of a dying Franklin D Roosevelt, crammed full of sadness.
It is Pitarra who elevates The Manhattan Projects from being a technically excellent but ultimately superficial work of alt-history to something more involving and engaging. Hickman’s plotting, structure and dialogue are all top notch, but there is an academic coldness to much of his work, sometimes resembling a thought experiment, a “What if…?” rather than a story meant to engage, the entertainment almost a side effect of mad super science. Pitarra, however, gives emotion and depth to the coldness of the formula, facial expressions and body language perfectly executed, the designs of characters, species and crazy technologies distinctive and fresh, and coupled with the innovative colouring of Jordie Bellaire, the visuals here are first rate.
Hickman and Pitarra start very strong, riding out of the gate with a strong concept and stunning visuals, their first six issues providing an excellent hook for the rest of the series, the following six giving a greater vision of the future of The Manhattan Projects and expanding the cast while raising the stakes even higher.