Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Manhattan Projects proves Jonathan Hickman is an American Comic Book God

Perhaps there are those that feel that the World War Two genre or subgenre or whatever you want to call it has been played out, that no new territory can be worn in the grooves of the many that came before.  Better to launch into neo-futurist tirades of tomorrow, perhaps, cast off the offensive caul of Hitler and be free of the smirking decrepit racists that comprise what some fabled newscaster once dubbed "The Greatest Generation".

Yet with the new Image Comics title The Manhattan Projects, Jonathan Hickman (FF, Fantastic Four, The Nightly News, Secret, upcoming: New Avengers) proposes to visit a world where superscience of the future takes a toehold in the past, giving him free room to range between the Supermax-Scifi epic arcs and individual character subplots, a strong suit he has tailor made to his areas of interest, quite clearly. Superscience World War Two's cast of loose alt/historical figures is presented with one-line bios, shown here, but really no amount of sneak peeks can spoil the actual content of the work, immensely fun and perfectly paced.  It's simple. What if the Manhattan Project of our world was expanded and amplified and continued in other projects, limited only by the expansive imaginations of a fantastical military-funded think tank?  Would the atomic bomb then be a mere incidental in the shadow of such amazing discoveries made?

Taking real historical figures and adapting them into comic books is of course as old as product endorsement for fruit pies so far as comics are concerned.  Einstein has appeared as Uncle and Robot alike in the flatland, as consultant and as hero and as villain. Likewise, Hitler, who so far in The Manhattan Project has had but one cameo, is mutable along various mediums, the message of course most always derisive, or at the very least chiding.  But what precident does Oppenheimer have in the comic book universes? A brief appearance in one panel of The Invisibles and perhaps a scattered shot here and there in a flashback sequence elsewhere. 

In The Manhattan Projects, Hickman takes Oppenheimer, with his famous quotation "I am become Death, destroyer of worlds", and delves into the core of his tangent twin, revealing a nesting doll with more parts than even Schrodinger could calculate.  The theme of The Manhattan Projects is scale applied to pseudohistory.  

The fixed idea of this series can be found on the grand tour/briefing in the first issue. 

And the root of this, as it always is with comics, is the art.  Nick Pitarra was fated to work on this comic book. The man is a master of the form, installing high-grade perspective into each panel, pulling out and zooming into amazing pages that hearken to Geoff Darrow streamlined, Seth Fisher refined, and a certain something else, an economy of line in some places akin to a third-generation Moebius. His sense of composition demands repeated examination, and it stands up to that and more.  The demands of expression are delivered in a fashion that even Frank Quitely could only capture on a decent day. A Where's Waldo luxury comes out of such styles, but the real money is between the panels. And it works perfectly.

The Japanese have of course refined the fine art of Robotic Samurai. What's that turtle doing there?

The potential for the series is critically influenced by a number of things Hickman's found along his career path.  When working on The Fantastic Four, revitalizing the title to such status that it got a spin-off, he took Reed Richards to the next level of achievement, and juggled subplots for months at a time without dropping any too catastrophically.  But with this title, none of the restrictions of the Marvel Line-up are in place and these characters, plucked from history and suspended in alt/real fluid, can play out their experiments and provide a chuckle at the surprising bits.

We find our potential central protagonist (although with such an ensemble cast it's hard to say if that's possible) after initial introductions in young Richard Feynman, supergenius with daily mirror affirmations down pat.  It feels as if Hickman's work with S.H.I.E.L.D. gives us a tone for our soldier Leslie Groves that sounds like a Nick Fury tuning fork before he broke up with the Howling Commandos.  Albrecht Einstein is a whiskey-shooting troublemaking rebel.  Enrico Fermi is an inhuman and Harry Dhaglian is an irradiated skull in a bottle.  Zen Death Buddhist Gate invasion marks our introduction to the series and a key to the first arc overall.  Hickman's script calls for the ghost of FDR trapped in a supercomputer to play a pivotal part.  There is in this title a sense of capturing that giddy thrill of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but tapping history rather than literature to draw forth the fun.  We see the Pandora's Box of Hickman's plot constructed like a Operatic leitmotif echoing, for some reason, the scope of The Dune Saga, all intrigue and adventure, perhaps a coming of age thrown in, a splash of humor, hateful heroes, sympathetic villains, perhaps a few parallel reality twists, maybe even a betrayal or two.   

An explosive title, totally underhyped because I don't see it being overhyped, the clean design of the cover and introduction, with critical quotes from The Recorded Feynman, show the echoes of reality come to play best in the medium of comic books when there is a proper sense of wonder and discovery captured.  Thanks to the path leading to this point, that is Hickman's strongest case for status as god (or demigod, Tony Stark might say) of comic books.

Oh yeah, and they nuke Hiroshima.

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