It’s a strange thing to say, but The Manhattan Projects could very well be the best team book in the comic market today. Better than Justice League, better than The Avengers, better even than Wolverine and the X-Men, this oddball group of 1940s-era scientists has pulled off that dynamic of balancing a large ensemble cast and making them all cool and compelling with more pinache than anything in the superhero genre to which the “team book” moniker is normally associated. The whole concept of scientific figures from history reimagined with a liberal helping of “artistic license” and put together in an Expendables style dream team is a high concept that always draws a smile, but as the series’ third major arc kicks in, the team network is now well established, and the seeds are sown to demonstrate this is a world with the legs to sustain a lengthy run.
The focus of this particular issue is Harry Daghlian, also known as “skull face in a hazmat suit.” Funnily enough, not too long ago, a Facebook fan page opened up for The Manhattan Projects, I noticed that the majority of the fanart was for ol’ Harry, and remarked that it really was time we learned more about his character. Of course, I know that in real life Harry Daghlian was the first person to be killed by radiation poisoning during his work for the actual Manhattan Projects. But I – and judging by the fanart, many others – was intrigued to learn how that would be reintrepreted by Jonathan Hickman for this alternate super-science universe. What we get is a tragic tale of isolation, a powerful examination of “love” and “fear” as the two constants in life, and a heartwarming depiction of a most unorthodox of friendships.
Even as a big fan of The Manhattan Projects, I would have to acknowledge that, though it is a series brimming with intelligence and big ideas, it did little to engage emotion, outside of the rather frequent tickling of the funny bone. Appropriately enough for a book about scientists, it encouraged more of a detached admiration of its technical mastery than really making you care deeply about its protagonists on a human level. But here, oddly enough, the most externally monstrous of the core group is revealed as the most poignantly human. There’s a real sadness to the character and his grim fate, from the obvious flourishes of “I just wanted some ice cream” to the subtler touches such as his numerous paintings of flowers – items which would now wither and die before he could get close to them in person. This issue also works as a great showcase for Enrico Fermi, a character who up until now hasn’t done much of note outside of turning into an alien badass killing machine a few issues back, but who here shows admirable compassion in his relationship with Daghlian.
Not that this issue is all character study. The plot takes great strides forward too, as the series settles into its fresh status quo following the climactic happenings of the spectacular issue #9. The Manhattan Projects is a much bigger operation now, burdened with the enviable problem of having accomplished all its goals, and needing to come up with new ones. Joseph Oppenheimer presents some hugely ambitious proposals that give us something of a framework of what to expect from the series moving forward. It should be highly exciting!
Hickman is doing some highly impressive work here, but let’s not forget the incredible contribution made by artist Nick Pitarra. Last issue saw him replaced by fill-in artist Ryan Browne, who did a commendable job of capturing the spirit of Pitarra’s work on the book. But here, the regular artist makes a welcome return, and the issue is stuffed with visual delights that demonstrate the unique quality Pitarra brings to the series. A big part of the success in rendering Daghlian so sympathetic in this issue comes from Pitarra’s ability to imbue this ostensibly inhuman presence with so much relatably human body language, managing to somehow channel expression and emotion into a jawless skull. The splash page of Daghlian’s irradiation is a stunner, the kind of instantly iconic tableau you want to tear out of your comic and hang up on your wall. The realisation of the team’s new base of operations is also a delight: I won’t give it away, but I will say it has “quite a view.” Also worthy of note is the visual symmetry in the past and present sequences that close the book, though I’m sure Pitarra and Hickman must share the credit for the realisation of that particular story beat. The visuals are rounded out by the colors of Jordie Bellaire, who continues to make striking use of that stark red/blue pallette at key moments.
In my gushing praise of Saga, it feels shamefully dismissive to talk about The Manhattan Projects as “the OTHER breakout Image comic of 2012” or “the second best comic on shelves right now.” But I feel like I really ought to give it more recognition, as it has remained a consistently excellent comic since its debut, and one that seems to get more refined with each passing issue. I’ve gotten used to saying “It’s Jonathan Hickman’s best work since The Nightly News,” but the longer the series maintains this level of quality, the less certain I become about even that caveat at the end. In a storied career that has seen Hickman do some acclaimed work on some iconic franchises, comics history may yet remember his work on The Manhattan Projects most fondly of all. And in Nick Pitarra, he has the perfect collaborator. Pitarra is doing star-making work here, and has quickly been elevated to one of my favourite artists. The Manhattan Projects #11 suggests that there’s enough steam in this narrative to sustain this comic for a long time yet. Let’s hope that is indeed the case.
The Manhattan Projects #11 is in all good comic shops now.