By Steve Morris
In its second issue The Manhattan Projects bridges the time between the start of the Second World War and it’s multiple slow, partial ends. With the fall of the Nazi Party and suicide of Hitler, the future was uncertain as the world attempted to reconcile what just happened for the past decade with what they’re going to do now – and to what extent they can reconcile with the people of Germany.
The bookend to the issue focuses on Wernher von Braun, the man who was essential in creating the technology which sent America to the Moon in 1969 – but also a member of the Nazi Party, brought into The Manhattan Projects with more than a bit of apprehension. Bringing the character into the series raises a question for the creative team about the ethics of the Project as a whole, and their answer is simply to explain that there are no ethics within the project. The characters here are entirely cruel and self-serving, with even Einstein – whose modern-day image is of a face-pulling cuddly eccentric – shown here to be a cold, oppressive personality.
Einstein has far more to do in this issue than the small tease of the first issue, and we somewhat bluntly find out that here he is an alcoholic. However, the main scene of note for the character is when we find that the Buddhists of the last issue have now been co-opted into slavery, working for the Manhattan projects in chains and holding together portals that the characters use to move from office to office across America. This is a shocking story choice for the reader mainly for the casual way it is presented: the characters have enslaved their enemies simply so they have a more convenient method of transport.
Again, with all the mad science shown through the series already, the choice to have the only people of colour in the storyline be chained up and props for the central, all-white cast at this point in time feels more intended to reflect on the internal workings of the book rather than the creative team themselves. We are expected to find this unacceptable, and the fact that Einstein is the one who acts as our perspective on the scene – he chokes out one of the Buddhists and say they had this coming – shatters our pre-existing ideas of who Einstein is meant to be.
This is still an aspect of the storytelling which the comic needs to be fully cognizant of: if future issues don’t continue to reinforce that the characters are slavers who put science ahead of human decency (especially when bringing a Nazi into the story) then that’ll increase the problematic elements of the series as a whole and almost assuredly detract from any storytelling in future.
The issue not only introduces a Nazi presence into the central cast of characters, but also the far more stranger presence of broad farce. Whilst an alternative history narrative which is designed to surprise readers and change existing figures of history into whatever makes for the most interesting narrative, the larger surprise of the central conceit is the extent to which the creative team decide to use this to create a story which broadly delves into the style of classic farce. Richard Feynman’s introduction sees him reciting mantras into the mirror to boost his self-worth, and throughout the issue we see him struggling to maintain his inner motivation and personal self-belief.
When he subsequently parachutes down to the front line of the war, we see a quick scene where he believes he’s landed on the wrong side of the battle – and promptly surrenders immediately, offering them every secret he has in exchange for his life. More than anything, this is a scene which comes straight out of something like Blackadder, and although it quickly shades in the idea that Feynman is a coward, it also illustrates a broad approach to humour which informs the way the reader sees future scenes.
In the final sequence, Von Braun proposes a toast to all his comrades as their Nazi fortress is about to be taken over by Allied forces. Having already been led to expect that the series ir prioritising dramatic irony, farce and humour, the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen here before any of the characters do: and sure enough, the toast is poisoned, leaving Von Braun as the (almost) only survivor. It’s an obvious joke, but also a fatalistic one which leaves a group of unnamed people dead in its wake – as with Einstein’s laissez-faire approach to the dying Buddhists prior, the approach is ridiculous but the consequences, when considered thoroughly, are unnerving.
A discussion between Von Braun and Feynman breaks this down further, with Feynman asserting that the actions of the Nazis are essentially evil: there is no way of escaping that the very core of Hitler’s thinking was malignant. Von Braun rejects that idea, however, saying that his cause was not fascism, rather that his cause was always the science. Fascism was just the way he paid to explore that cause and further his understanding. If anything, this seems like a mission statement for the comic as a whole: if you overlook the context for The Manhattan Projects, then the work these people are doing is miraculous and revolutionary.
However, how can anyone in their right mind look past the context?
As if to stamp permanence onto that concept, the issue ends with a note from Feynman that not only does Von Braun live for at least another decade (thus ending the possibility that the character will be killed off or otherwise removed from the series), he’ll also be essential in one of America’s greatest achievements as a nation – landing on the Moon. And, for the purpose of the comic, going much further. “Good” and “bad” are not ideas that this series is going to trade in. Instead, The Manhattan Projects is about “achievements” and “failures”, and there’s no room for morality in such an approach.
Issue 02: Rocket Man
Published in March 2012
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Nick Pitarra
Colorist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Rus Wooton
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.