When someone says that a comic is “mind-blowing,” they might just mean they were surprised, but they might also mean that Jonathan Hickman wrote the thing. Readers of mainstream comics might know him from his recent long and acclaimed run on Fantastic Four, which returned that series to relevance. Casual superhero fans might know him from that time they picked up a comic called S.H.I.E.L.D. thinking it was going to be about Samuel L. Jackson in an eye-patch but in fact, it fact turned out to be about Isaac Newton torturing Nostradamus into telling him about the future and Michelangelo giving Nikola Tesla cybernetic implants. I remember him as the man who wrote a four-issue miniseries titled Pax Romana, which Wikipedia describes thusly: “Vatican-backed research has discovered the secret of time travel. With it the Church plans to fix the future by altering the past. They send a warehouse of modern weaponry and enhanced soldiers to Rome in 312AD. Plans change quickly as the cardinal in charge of the mission is shot.” If that does not make you want to read that series I’m not sure we have much to talk about.
Hickman’s latest venture into the realms of the unreal is titled The Manhattan Projects and while its one-sentence description is not quite so exciting, I assure you that in practice it is suitably bonkers. The basic premise is that the Manhattan Project known to history (about the atomic bomb) was in fact a cover for many other, crazier Manhattan Projects, and that the Russians were also somehow involved. Wernher Von Braun, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi, and several other real historical figures feature as main characters, along with Franklin Roosevelt, or as he prefers to be called, “The Omnipresident”. As you might have guessed from that last bit, these are not exactly the versions of those figures you remember from history class.
The eighth issue of the series has just been released, and it features lots and lots of action, violence, and Albert Einstein shooting the Omnipresident’s robot avatars with a machine gun. The issue opens on some kind of secret, ancient cabal that feels the scientists of the Projects are threatening to usurp their death grip on the strings of the world’s puppet show. Just these first couple of pages are enough to send you down a whole series of rabbit holes, from the dialogue to the character designs. One member of the cabal seems to be from Ancient Egypt, and Hickman fills his word balloons solely with hieroglyphics. There isn’t a great deal of character development as the issue continues, but there is a heck of a lot of blood and guts, and that’s almost as good.
The art duties are handled by Nick Pitarra, an almost total newcomer to the comics scene. He had worked with Hickman on one previous mini-series, The Red Wing. His work is a little bit gonzo, squishy, squirrelly and strung-out, which fits with the overall tone of the piece. He reminds me a little bit of Juan Jose Ryp on this series, though that may not tell you as much as I’m hoping. Pitarra likes a lot of little, squicky details. It’s not really the eye-popping visuals of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s much more punk rock, but I think that’s more in line with the tone of The Manhattan Projects in any case.
If The Manhattan Projects sounds like something you would enjoy, I’m not sure I would recommend issue #8 as that mythical creature called the “jumping on point.” However, the first six issue volume of the series, “Science Bad”, is now available as a trade paperback from Image Comics. It’s very much worth checking out. I think we could all use a little bit of Jonathan Hickman’s balls-to-the-wall alternate history in our lives this new year.