People will often talk about The Walking Dead – or, more recently, Saga – as the harshest, most ruthless comic on the shelves, refusing to pull punches with how they put their characters through the wringer. But surely, surely, The Manhattan Projects must also be ranked right up there in any discussion of such qualities. This book is fucking brutal! Especially when you consider that here, the unrelenting cruelty certain characters are subjected to is at least partially played for laughs. But in my review of The Manhattan Projects #11 last month, I praised Jonathan Hickman for shifting from the gleeful heartlessness that had populated much of the book’s run to give us a disarmingly poignant, moving little story of a most unlikely of friendships, two outsiders finding kindred spirits in each other. Perhaps Hickman wasn’t such a callous monster after all?
Oh, how wrong I was.
After a mere page, the warm and fuzzy rug we were given in the previous chapter is pulled out from under us. While last issue focused on the lonely life of Harry Daghlian, this chapter is a character study of Enrico Fermi. Fermi has long remained one of the more mysterious members of the cast, with the most we’ve gleaned from him previously being that he’s “not human.” We were first told that in the delightful little character profiles in the monthly backmatter – unforgivably absent this issue, boo! – and saw it for ourselves when Fermi turned into his true alien form and ripped some bad guys to shreds several issues back. But here, we learn Fermi’s true nature, and the way this sheds startling new light not only on his character, but on the larger narrative of the series up until this point makes for exhilarating reading, and testament to Hickman’s skill in crafting labyrinthine, multi-layered plots that really pay off in the long run and reward continued investment from patient readers.
Fermi as characterised here alternates between monstrous and oddly sympathetic, with a few moments that skillfully navigate that horrifying/darkly hilarious balance mentioned above. But though the ostensive spotlight is on Fermi (the awesome alien-themed cover and the title of “The Fermi Paradox” would suggest as much), for me it is Harry Daghlian who continues to shine here. Indeed, this issue very much works as a pair with the previous one. In an ensemble cast full of characters who are horrible or at least amoral, Daghlian serves as the beating heart of the ensemble. Ironic, considering he’s the one guy on the team who has no physical heart. But he wears his hypothetical heart on his sleeve, and that emotional quality makes him a relatable figure in contrast to the cold, clinical personalities that surround him, in spite of his ghoulish appearance. A great little line Hickman throws in for Daghlian is, “You know you can’t physically hurt me.” The word “physically” is key, here, as of course emotionally, Daghlian is deeply wounded as he says this.
Visually, this issue is just a delight. Nick Pitarra has the chance to draw some of the craziest, most out-there stuff of the series thus far, here, and he knocks each sequence out of the park. There’s a massive fight scene involving most of the team, which Pitarra excels at depicting. For a book often credited for its big ideas, it should be acknowledged that Pitarra really knows how to cleverly frame some action-packed sequences when called upon to do so. Daghlian and Fermi in his alien form are two of the most visually interesting figures in the comic, and here they get to interact quite a bit. We also have cute baby birdsnakes, the ethereal image of Daghlian floating through space, and chainsaw-wielding Einstein. Chainsaw. Wielding. Einstein!
And despite what I talked about regarding the mile-wide mean streak of The Manhattan Projects, Pitarra shows commendable skill in really drawing out human emotion, especially from non-human faces. In spite of the brutality and the “Ha! Gotcha!” reversal of the touching previous chapter, there is still a sense of tragedy and battered humanity to be gleaned from happenings in this issue amidst the grim hilarity of it all, and those moments hit home so well largely due to the contribution of Pitarra.
I mention the impact of the coloring on The Manhattan Projects perhaps more frequently than any other comic I review, and with good reason, as Jordie Bellaire continues to strike. Mentioning the brilliance of the blue/red sequences is pretty old hat by now, so I want to touch on all the lovely green hues that spring up here: Fermi, Daghlian, the cold expanse of the moon. Top notch work.
And since I’ve mentioned everyone else on the creative team, I must also give credit to letterer Rus Wooton here. There is one incredibly tricky sequence here where one conversation has an entirely different conversation superimposed over it, but it has to be done in a way to let certain exchanges from the base conversation have connotations that impact on the additional dialogue operating on a higher level. Even describing it to a letterer must have made it sound like a nightmare, but Wooton pulls it off with pinache, navigating these difficult waters and never making the pages feel cluttered in spite of the onslaught of information being thrown at the reader.
The Manhattan Projects has always been good, boasting big ideas and a fascinating cast of oddball characters from the very beginning, but since issue #8 I’d argue the series has upped its game to a whole new level, with an unbroken chain of 5-star masterpieces. With this insanely high standard, The Manhattan Projects is beginning to challenge even the mighty Saga as the most consistently awesome comic currently in the market.