For a comic book that has nothing to do (ostensibly at least) with superheroes, The Manhattan Projects certainly deals a lot with masks, metaphorically speaking. I once called this book the most layered and nuanced of its kind, and just like those that came before it, Issue 13 continues to show how great Hickman and Pitarra are, not just in establishing intricately-layered versions of history’s most imposing minds, but also in openly, unabashedly vivisecting them in front of their audience. Faces and masks: some don’t peel away as easily as others, but the team here clearly has fun at cutting both.
As such, revelation as a whole feels more earned in this title than elsewhere, even if it is a false catharsis. The way I see it, for every bit of narrative “skin” that Hickman skewers and flays, he smooths over two new layers ... before then gorily ripping them away ... only to reveal yet more new skin to cut underneath. In so doing, he and Pitarra have created a limitless surgery in The Manhattan Projects, one which grows more interesting with every incision.
In this case, the bulk of their dissection is focused on the work the titular team has begun one year after the death of the traitorous inhuman known as Enrico Fermi. Within each cursory exploration into the new projects originally pitched by Oppenheimer, some kind of “mask” is simultaneously ripped away and reinforced with secrecy. In Project Gaia, for example, Einstein and Feynman (in a pitch-perfect visual representation of the Hickman and Pitarra process) cut through the cryptozoological facade of the universe’s children, as they dissect alien fauna for ends that seem worrying, at best.
Meanwhile, Yuri the cosmonaut shucks his own candy shell to reveal a center not as meaty as we have thus far been led to believe, as Project Ares sends his beloved dog to prep the cosmos for their inevitable conquest. At the same time, the irradiated skeleton of Harry Daghlian rips away his containment suit skin for a refreshing dip in some lava at Project Vulcan, while we are invited to question whether his true face (not to mention those of his colleagues) is that of a scientist ... or a sinner.
Every step through this book is a Machiavellian maneuver against itself and its players, particularly in the last part, which sees the issue’s only steadfast mask - that belonging to The Infinite Oppenheimer and his secret Project Charon. Their intentions and faces are by far the story’s most opaque (and intriguing), in that they cannot be clearly seen, even by Oppenheimer’s own digested, demented doppelgängers, let alone his fellow scientists, who are becoming both more expendable, and edible.
Nick Pitarra’s innocent artistic savagery continues on unabated this issue, and in a graphic world of unique styles, his stands out the most for me right now. Whether it’s a dog bravely piloting a rocket into the unknown, a conversation between a human general in a moon suit and a disembodied brain in a bulbous robot, or even the quiet wonder of a coked-up JFK having a mental breakdown, his stuff portrays a gnarled sort of innocence unlike anything I’ve seen in comics today, and matches the oddity of the story with expert ease.
Hickman, in his expectedly arresting way, continues to wax philosophical on the state of humanity and its terrifying tendency to ruthlessly believe in something (in this case: Science). His instantly recognizable voice works particularly well to move along slower stories, like this one, smoothly. I can see why his choppy narrative and dialogue flow could be contentious and may not be every reader’s bag, but for me, it’s hugely gratifying.
This was definitely a more measured issue than those previous, with an energy that is potential, rather than kinetic; more the anticipation of the whip than the crack. But with the usual great colors from Bellaire, who provides such a uniquely integral facet to this story, I found The Manhattan Projects #13 to be yet another great example of gripping, character-driven storytelling. It’s going to be very interesting to watch these small steps transform into giant leaps.
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Nick Pitarra
Colors: Jordie Bellaire
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: 8/7/13