❉ A comic series of outlandish brilliance, which calls to mind what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons accomplished in ‘Watchmen’.
While the mainstream popularity of superheroes like Superman and Captain America is as strong as ever, the comic book business where they got started is challenged to say the least. At their peak, the top titles from DC and Marvel would sell hundreds of thousands of copies monthly. Now it’s rare to have more than a couple issues pass the 100,000 mark in any given month. Even flagship characters and iconic storylines seem to exist mainly as source material for movies and merchandise – in other words, where the big money is. If there’s a silver lining in this, it lies in the market gradually opening up to a broader range of genres beyond the superhero stories that dominate “the big two”.
Interestingly these stories are often the work of leading writers and artists from the superhero genre, such as Eb Brubaker’s crime/horror fusion ‘Fatale’ or the media-based thriller ‘Satellite Sam’ from Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin. Another prime example is Jonathan Hickman, whose superhero work includes Marvel’s 2015 crossover event ‘Secret Wars’ and a run on ‘The Fantastic Four’ that’s widely regarded as one of the best ever. As good as some of those stories have been, his original series ‘The Manhattan Projects’ from Image Comics, which he created in collaboration with artist Nick Pitarra, is equally rewarding.
As the title suggests, the series uses the real-life Manhattan Project as its starting point with a cast of characters that includes Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Harry Truman and later Yuri Gagarin and Laika (yes, the Soviet space dog). However, despite the presence of familiar people and and events, both the project and those surrounding it are far removed from history as we know it. The series is also far removed from the standard alternate-history approach. Put another way, this is a comic that trades much more in WTFs than what-ifs.
It’s hard to offer many details without spoiling the story, but a telling keyword is “multiple”. The scientists involved are engaged in multiple projects beyond the atomic bomb, we encounter multiple US presidents (sometimes in unusual forms) and Doctor Oppenheimer has multiple personalities for good measure. It’s difficult to discuss the plot in more detail without spoiling some intriguing twists and turns, but suffice it to say that all these multiples add up to something fascinating in the early issues and pave the way for even more far-flung stories in later volumes.
It’s a risky proposition to compare any current comic to one of the medium’s landmarks, but the world-building of ‘The Manhattan Projects’ calls to mind – and in one key respects outdoes – what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons accomplished in ‘Watchmen’. Both series convey a history that feels both recognizable and distinctly different as well as unseen events that could support comics in their own rights (even if it isn’t necessarily a good idea). Hickman and Pitarra may not bring the same bravura style to their work that Moore and Gibbons did, they compensate with a scale that extends not just beyond America but also way beyond our solar system.
What ultimately makes ‘The Manhattan Projects’ so satisfying, though, is its blend of approaches. With one foot in the pulp tradition of 1950s comics like ‘Strange Adventures’ and ‘Tales to Astonish’ and the other in multi-layered serialized storytelling, the series gives readers both bursts of outlandish brilliance and time to embrace its characters. There’s no other comic quite like it, and even if there was it just means you should read this one too.
‘The Manhattan Projects’ is currently on a hiatus, while Hickman works on other projects, giving new readers plenty of time to catch up. To date, there are six trade paperback collections which are also available in digital formats, as are the individual issues. Whether you want to jump in with the first collected edition, Science Bad, or dip your toes in with just the first issue, either one will be an engaging introduction.