The Manhattan Projects Volume 1: Science Bad

Collecting The Manhattan Projects #1-5

Writer: Jonathan Hickman

Artist: Nick Pitarra

Image Comics, $14.99, color, 144 pages

Can you like a book but not really want to read it any more?

Jonathan Hickman is noted for his  complex, dense stories. But as good as his S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fantastic Four work has been, he was necessarily constrained by the "rules" of the universe in which he was working, where characters are owned by other people and have long, complex histories that can't be violated.

So, if you can, imagine that imagination and writing predilection turned loose on a creator-owned property set in U.S. history -- where what we know is only the cosmetic surface of what really happened. And what really happened, since it's written by Jonathan Hickman, is necessarily complex and dense.

And weird. And gross.

Hickman begins his story at the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb in World War II. Excuse me, wait, -- it was really the Manhattan ProjectS, plural, and the atomic bomb was only the cover story for what those scientists were really doing. Which is outre science beyond the cutting edge of anything we're doing even now, complete with first contact, identity-swapping with parallel universes and creating aritifical intelligence in a cadaver.

The cadaver in question is that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I hasten to add. And FDR is just one of many characters here -- well, all of them, really -- who are not what history says they were. Albert Einstein has been replaced by an alternate-dimension duplicate, Harry Dahglian is a radioactive skeleton, Werner von Braun is an unapologetic Nazi with a robot arm and Robert Oppenheimer is -- well, you have to read that for yourself. Even Leslie Groves, the military head of the project, has a weird, secret history with more than a few personality tics.

This is all illustrated in an stylized, detail-heavy manner I find reminiscent of Geof Darrow. Which I can't say I'm crazy about -- I mean, it's just ugly -- but it is appropriate for the subject matter.

And maybe it's the latter that turns me off. Or maybe it's the story, which is very imaginative, but does involve some pretty gross stuff, like cannibalism. Or maybe it's the characters, since I can't find any that are remotely sympathetic. Or maybe it's the "magic" aspect of it -- the science here is so far beyond physics that it's essentially magic, which means no rules, and without rules anything can happen, and if anything can happen, why should we care what eventually does?

I find the imaginative parts of Manhattan Projects really exciting, but for the reasons above I just don't know if I can force myself to keep reading it.

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I agree with you on this as well. I read the first arc and while it was good it just wasn't something I wanted to keep with.

Wow, different strokes and all that. I really enjoyed the crazy science, although I agree that the complexity is hard to follow sometimes. Nick Pitarra's art suited the story, so I never even considered that it might be ugly (compared to most mainstream comic art). I'm definitely interested in reading the 2nd collection.

I never thought any of the science was "crazy." I'm familiar with all of it. But it is crazy for it to be in WWII, when the Wehrmacht was still dragging it's field pieces around with horses at the beginning of the war.

What really dragged me down was the art.

And the fact that I didn't like anybody there, all of whom are Dr. Strange, and can do anything. Because none of it matters. You want to kill J. Robert Oppenheimer? Fine, you can, but he's not really dead. Which means you can do anything. Wish away the universe, wish up a dead character, wish up a horse to ride to the fair. If there are no rules, you can do anything.

And as I've said here a thousand times, if you can do anything, why should we care what eventually happens? Kill people, explode planets, destroy the universe, it doesn't matter ... if there are no rules, you can just wish up a character who says "I want it all back." And, lo, it's all back.

I wish I could explain my interpretation of, and problem with, that concept better. But it's the problem with magic characters, and it's the problem with this series.

Also, the art is really ugly. But if you like it, then keep reading and tell us what happens! :)

I follow your point about the science being sufficiently "out there" that it could pass for magic. I guess I don't think that Hickman has abused that narrative power yet, apart from using it for shocking reveals, like a character not being who we think it is. As long as he doesn't then reverse things via time travel or dimensional travel or whatever else he comes up with, I'm OK with it. That potential is there, but he hasn't crossed the line yet (for me).

There are similar issues with the Image series Morning Glories (I recently read the third and fourth collections and wrote about them on my blog). There it's all about time travel, but it's the same basic problem. Is that character really dead, or is it going to be reversed in a future issue? Or maybe they only appear to be alive because we're seeing them in flashback? It's the Lost problem.

Maybe you reviewed some Morning Glories in this bunch. I've been on a family vacation this weekend, so I haven't been keeping up with the board much.

I haven't read Morning Glories, so I haven't reviewed it! Feel free to do so -- you might talk me into reading it.

And as I wrote the "magic" bit, I was in fact thinking about how death isn't the end in Manhattan Projects. FDR died, but he didn't. Oppenheimer died, but he didn't. Why invest in characters when there's no fear of death? Fear of death is a universal experience, but it doesn't exist in Manhattan Projects.

I'm not trying to be harsh, nor is the revolving door of death a deal-breaker for me (obviously, I read comics), and if the "magic" aspect was all that put me off of Manhattan Projects, I'd still be reading it. (I read Dr. Strange, for example.) I think, really, it starts with the art being unpalatable and then I find more things to dislike about it. :)

I read the first 7-8 issues of this series, and it just didn't seem like it ever went anywhere. Like Cap I didn't find any likeable character. Although, I really like Nick Pitarra's art.

I enjoyed the art of this series as well. The story however didn't do a lot for me. As a matter of face the artist, Nick Pitarra, commented http://captaincomics.ning.com/forum/topics/cappies-2011-results-thr... here a while back when his other collaboration with Jonathan Hickman won a few Cappies. You'll have to scroll some to get to his comments.

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