Jonathan Hickman decided to create a comic book that told the secret history of science in the United States. The Manhattan Projects tells this story, but with an injection of fiction. I don’t mean “it is fictionalized,” because obviously it is, but rather that the comic itself is about injecting the history of science with a healthy dose of magic.
That’s the conceit, really. While there is a heavy dose of radiation and parallel dimensions and space ships, MP manages to play in the realm of fantasy as much as it does in the world of science. The conflict of the first issue centers around a Japanese invasion of the Manhattan Projects labs via a gateway powered by death cultists. Robert Oppenheimer is murdered and eaten by his mentally ill and superpower-possessing brother Joseph. His superpower? Eating people in order to have them live inside of him forever.
This is used as a plot device more than once.
My relationship with The Manhattan Projects can be summed up pretty simply: I like the concept, but I don’t understand why Hickman isn’t doing more with the concept.
To be clear, I think that the scope of the comic is brilliant. FDR is turned into a superintelligent AI after his death, Enrico Fermi is revealed to be some sort of nonhuman or alien lifeform, and Harry Daghlian will live for 24,000 years as a skeletal weapon of mass destruction because he accidentally touched the Demon core. As entertaining as these reimaginings of science and history are, I can’t help but feel that they all fall a little flat.
Part of this is that these ideas are the kinds of things that you come up with after four beers at a table with friends who actually know a little bit about the history of science (or people who fall down Wiki holes.) “Yeah…but what if FDR became a rogue AI!?!” “Or wait, what if Albert Einstein wasn’t really himself, but a slightly-less smart version from another universe who just wants to get home?” It isn’t so much that everything is predictable or trite, but more that in the post-League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Once Upon a Time world, you have to step your game up if you want to pull the “superteam from famous figures” card as the basis of your comic.
I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like the comic. It isn’t among my must-buy comics right now–those are The Massive, Fury MAX, and Godzilla: Half Century War–but it really does excel at some things. There’s a beauty to Hickman’s ability to present us with a cast of characters who are willing to do anything it takes in order to achieve scientific breakthroughs. Former Nazi Wernher Von Braun, with a huge cyborg arm, is presented as equally heroic, despicable, and driven. Daghlian, whose body emits deadly levels of radiation, is deployed as a weapon to commit genocide against an entire race against his knowledge. The pain of that, of learning what a body can do, is plainly painful for him. These moments are few and far between, but worth hooking into the series to witness.
I will close with a huge, gaping problem. In a world of fiction, where you have the opportunity to blend fiction with fact to make something unique, why would you choose to completely eradicate women? There have been ten issues of the comic so far. There are around 30 pages in every issue. In 300 pages of a fictional history of science, there has not been a single woman. I will be up front with it: that’s fucked up, and it is wrong. I mean, holy shit, at least take a look at Wikipedia to find the massive number of women who have made significant contributions to science during the time period that the comic is set. Additionally, I don’t think there have been any people of color short of Japanese death cultists.
In a comic that is about imagination and characters taking what they want from the universe, folding and bending it under their will, there has been a sad lack of that on the part of the writer. So while I love it, I hate it, and I hope that Hickman will do better in the future.