REVIEW: The Manhattan Projects #1

I must admit, I have never really been a big Jonathan Hickman fan.  The first I’d heard of him was when I picked up Secret Warriors.  I thought the central concept behind that series that the first issue set up was delicious, and marked out Hickman as a talent of note.  It was also my first exposure to the slick graphic design aesthetics that have become something of a Hickman motif.  But my interest in Secret Warriors waned after the first few issues, and I ultimately dropped it.  But I kept hearing tales of Hickman’s brilliance, which erupted to new levels of hyperbole upon the release of S.H.I.E.L.D., so I gave that a try too.  That was a case of really wanting to like a book, but just not being able to convince myself.  I ended up giving up on that after 3 issues too.  I’m not particularly a Fantastic Four fan either, so all the praise for his run on that franchise didn’t move me to sample it.  I’d never read any of his creator-owned stuff either, and I hadn’t enjoyed his Marvel projects enough to want to make the leap.

I’m not going to fault Hickman in this.  Enough people have held his work in high regard to suggest that the fault lay with me, and that his output just wasn’t clicking with my particular tastes.  I had read enough to know that he was a very talented writer, just not one I’d go out of my way to read.  With this in mind, The Manhattan Projects wasn’t really on my radar at all until this week.  But Image has really been on fire lately, and so this latest high-profile number #1 sandwiched between Fatale and next week’s Saga – along with that eye-catching cover – prompted me to give the first issue a tentative sample.  I’m glad I did.  In my admittedly limited experience, The Manhattan Projects #1 is my favourite single issue of anything I’ve read by Jonathan Hickman.

The basic setup, for those who don’t know, is that this tells the untold story of Robert Oppenheimer, a scientist who was famously part of The Manhattan Project: the creation of the atomic bomb.  In this alternate history, Oppenheimer was actually recruited to work on much stranger, more subversive projects on the far fringes of science, with the creation of the atomic bomb simply acting as a cover.  But not all is what it seems, and a more sinister narrative is unfolding in the background…

This first issue reads like a concentrated dose of all the things that first made me want to like Hickman’s work.  There’s the dizzying level of inventiveness, intricately weaving crazy high concepts into the fabric of the narrative.  There’s the canny revisionist history employed previously in S.H.I.E.L.D., recasting historical figures in a new light.  There are those nifty graphic design elements, with the traditional, sequential comic narrative broken up with chapter markers and quotes from a fictional retrospective of the events in the narrative.  And there’s the jaw-dropping twist that turns the book on its head… but we won’t get into that.  But there’s an urgency here, a relentless pacing that makes The Manhattan Projects feel more direct and engaging than his other work in my experience.  It feels like a lot happens in the space of this first issue, even though when going back and rereading it for this review, I realise that a whole lot is still being held close to the chest, that this is merely the opening salvo of a much larger narrative.  In particular, I’m highly intrigued as to what role Albert Einstein is going to play in the story.  His panel-time is limited here, and he has no dialogue, but there’s a sense that he could be reinvented as a super-science badass action hero.

One of this comic’s biggest strengths is the artwork of Nick Pitarra.  His rounded, stylised figures are reminiscent of Frank Quitely and Chris Burnham, and there’s something about that particular style that seems ideally matched for depicting the strange and the psychadelic.  As a result, Pitarra strikes just the right tone for this tale of weird science: it feels suitably kitschy when the robot samurai are attacking, but it straddles the line between fun and creepy so well that it can turn on a dime with the shift in tone and aid the atmosphere when things take a turn for the nightmarish.

One standout sequence for me is when Pitarra depicts over six panels the development of life from conception to birth, cleverly making the early stages seem like some kind of exotic sci-fi, or a strange foreign species under a microscope.  It’s a visual representation of the idea – which proves to be central to the narrative – that perhaps the strangest things of all lie within us.  This is my first exposure to Pitarra, but based on his work here, he’s definitely a talent to watch.

I also want to give brief mention to the work of colorist Cris Peter.  His smooth palette is the ideal companion to Pitarra’s pencils and inks, and he does some stellar work with red and blue washes in the flashback sequences.  And indeed, on a second reading, look out for the use of red and blue throughout the whole issue, and its thematic significance.  Once it’s seen it can’t be unseen.

I picked up The Manhattan Projects #1 on something of a whim, but it ended up being one of the best comics I read this week, and now I’m onboard for at least the next few issues.  Image’s hot streak continues.  As for Jonathan Hickman, the style and inventiveness of his work here makes me curious about sampling his other creator-owned work: The Nightly News, Pax Romana, and particularly The Red Wing, as I hear that’s another collaboration with Nick Pitarra.  It also makes me want to revisit and possibly re-evaluate the work of his I’ve previously read.  At last, it would seem, I’ve joined the ranks of Jonathan Hickman fans.

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