By Jonathan Hickman, Nick Pitarra, & Jordie Bellaire
Of all the incredible comic book series currently in production, The Manhattan Projects has to be among the very best. This is a series that demonstrates the lengths to which absurd story-telling can reach, while simultaneously showcasing how fantastic comic books can be. The book is incredibly well-plotted, the characters are amazingly-bizarre and interesting, and there is always something new happening in every issue. This last point is something that even the best in the business neglect at times.
Issue #14 exemplifies Hickman’s ability to consistently move the story forward by introducing exciting new plot developments. In this installment the story takes a couple of fairly big turns that really open some new directions for the book to move towards. Story elements from earlier issues, such as the alien genocide inflicted by the scientists, appear to be catching up with the team. It’s great to see earlier developments creeping their way back into the story in a way that feels natural. The other major twist in #14 was far less expected, involving the imprisonment of the team, while Westmoreland and JFK have left the ever-twisted Oppenheimer in charge of operations. Again, there is consistently something new happening in this story which has kept every single issue feeling entirely exciting.
This book is also very character-driven, quite appropriate given the array of strange individuals present throughout the series. There are some particularly wonderful additions to the already expansive character development found throughout issue #14. In one scene, Wernher and Yuri are relaxing in a sauna; not an immediately strange premise. Of course, Wernher is practically a limbless torso propped up against the wall, as his mechanical limbs have been placed outside. Furthermore, Yuri is never one to be without his cosmonaut bubble-helmet, and this remains in place as he basks in the steam. Little details like this help exemplify the quirks of each character without requiring a great deal of exposition. Although the characters are bizarre, there are streaks of real emotion that crop up throughout the series. In this case, Yuri’s worry and loneliness caused by Laika’s current mission is palpable in each panel he appears in. Hickman also continues to apply these memorable quirks to new characters, such as the necklace of ears worn by Westmoreland.
The visuals provided by Nick Pitarra are always appropriately absurd and strange, and everything he has done in this series is perfectly suited to the tone set by Hickman’s story. The little background elements really help to convey the feeling of each scene, often with an accompanying sense of disgust, shock, or surprise, such as that seen when a wider view is provided of Einstein’s lab in Project Gaia; jars of alien body parts are stacked around the room while one of Fermi’s legs sits hacked up on a nearby table. There’s something about the facial expressions in this series that just keep getting better as well. As already mentioned, the look of worry on Yuri’s face is excellently executed, and Joseph Oppenheimer’s expression of pure derangement and lunacy has always been done with perfect form. However, there are more subtle indications of a true understanding of emotional expression and body language apparent in issue #14; the first time the original Robert Oppenheimer reappears amidst all of the other hallucinatory versions of Joseph is magnificent…just look at the expression on Robert’s face. A sense of forgiveness and even understanding appears to be written all over it without the need for words. Aside from Pitarra’s wonderful illustrations, the colors contributed by Jordie Bellaire continue to show why these three have been so successful together as a team. Her work perfectly complements the feel of Pitarra’s own visuals, as the fairly monochromatic tones used throughout the book are well-suited to the strange, often cartoony appearance of the series. The bright colors used throughout the book further enhance this aspect and really make the whole thing pop, such as the first appearance of the alien fleet that looks incredibly rich. Again, there are more subtle details that really amplify the story progression with requiring a great deal of overly-specific exposition, such as the separate eye-colors seen on Oppenheimer in the final panel as he discusses his growing confliction.
Manhattan Projects #14 doesn’t necessarily change the landscape of the medium on its own, but it certainly carries this sensibility from earlier issues. While we have become much more familiar with this absurd tale that initially felt like nothing else out there, it remains consistently well-developed and well-paced. Every issue adds something new and exciting to the story which is what all writers and other artists should aspire to. The story of this strange team keeps getting bigger with each passing month and there is no telling just how far the creative team might take it!