When it comes to reading Jonathan Hickman, it often behooves you to limber up. I don’t mean that physically (although studies have shown that light calisthenics dramatically increase personal health during daily activities); but rather, mentally ... or emotionally? What I mean is, his concepts regularly smolder with a rich yet mirky luster and demand a perhaps more academic reading. But that’s not necessarily true of his entire body of work. Case in point: his arguably breakout Image hit, The Manhattan Projects. That thing’s a whole different kettle of what the fuck. As headily introspective as it gets, however, and indeed as deep, The Manhattan Projects is just as much a theater of the absurd as it is a hot and heavy mind-fuck. His previous run, for instance, saw (amongst other things) Robert Oppenheimer defeat his cannibalistic twin brother Joseph in a color-coded mental civil war; a pan-dimensional doppelgänger Einstein take out a luchador kingpin with a championship belt shot; a traitorous alien in the shape of Enrico Fermi murder a bunch of folks; and a cult-leading Harry S. Truman conducting ritualistic murder sex. Spoiler by the way. All the while, these forces - good, bad or something else entirely - vied with and/or against each other for universal domination through bat-shit crazy super-pseudoscience. And guess what? It was an uncontested hoot.
Well ... most of it was.
Somewhere around the finale of the so-called “Oppenheimer Civil War,” which was simply breathtaking, The Manhattan Projects lost the plot. And not in the fun way. Part of that - in my view, anyway - was thanks to Hickman’s own nuclear explosion and ascension as the “it” creator on the mainstream scene, which perhaps distracted him from the title. It was also hindered by multiple, lengthy delays, thus necessitating a break, and this, its relaunch. But does this new series of The Manhattan Projects - subtitled, “The Sun Beyond the Stars” - have the same hedonistic hutzpah that made it so instantly iconic, and still my 100% successful go-to recommendation for non-comic book readers?
“The Sun Beyond the Stars” follows the ongoing misadventure of historic cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the continuation of a subplot that saw him traversing the spaceways in search of his dog, the equally-historic Laika. In the process, we are taken to a space night court, which quickly descends into a comedy of errors before crashing in an impactful reunion. Framing this story is one that sees a space heist, which quickly flits from Mexican standoff to bio-space-terrorism, and should be interesting to see play out.
And for what it was, I enjoyed this new start to The Manhattan Projects. Like I said earlier, this is Hickman relaxing a bit and having some fun. He’s easily able to show off his dynamism here as a writer by pulling off some genuine laughs. In fact, in its space-based preposterousness, “The Sun Beyond the Stars” reads a lot like something out of Hitchhiker’s Guide, with Yuri acting as a Soviet Arthur Dent, beset on all sides by the sheer unpredictability of alien idiocy. And it’s as great as that sounds.
My only gripe is that this doesn’t really feel like a Manhattan Projects story. I know that Yuri and Laika featured large in stories past (“Mystic arts be damned, a dog with machine guns is always problematic.”), but theirs were my least favorite of all the assorted goings-on. I already miss Einstein, Feynman, von Braun and the rest. Their machinations were always the most intriguing parts of the series, and while this is so far a fun and absurdist sci-fi aside, I do hope we get to see their scheming return.
One thing that continues to be absolutely phenomenal is the shared artistic output of series regulars Nick Pitarra and Jordie Bellaire. Pitarra is one hell of a creative guy ... by which I mean, “weird-as-fuck.” Because of that, I love his stuff right down to the goddamn ground. His alien designs have always impressed, and this issue they offer a whole lot to explore, with original, but also familiar-looking faces amongst the rabble.
The so-called “Garru: The Dirty Ratfucker,” for example, looks like what might happen if Zorak, Disney’s Figment and The Fun Gang from Labyrinth all slammed uglies and communally shat out a space baby ... and even that description doesn’t scratch my memory itch with the character. But I love him all the same. Pitarra (presumably in tandem with Hickman) also makes some interesting visual character tells here. The series’ budding antagonist, for example, is the only one of his kind seemingly without two faces. Given his actions this issue, that’s a little ironic, and I’ll be interested to see if that feeds into anything deeper.
Joining in on Pitarra’s artistic riot is Bellaire’s colors, which once again pop hard, whether in the electric pink seethe of an amniotic despotic spore, or the hyper-florescent skins of the book’s cast of alien characters. Being so capable in colorfully conveying setting, Bellaire once again proves that her biggest strength is her infinite adaptability in the art of narrative through spectrum, the like of which is constantly setting new bars.
Even with a name like “The Sun Beyond the Stars,” and with all of the positive things going for it, this isn’t the best The Manhattan Projects has to offer. Don’t get me wrong, it has boat-loads of charm, but it doesn’t grab me the same way the first three trades of the original series did. So while I enjoyed its easy wit, it also lacked the challenging spirit of the book’s origins. Fun? Absolutely. But in a way, it felt almost too limber. Still, I’ll most definitely be sticking around, if just to see where this star trek boldly goes.
The Manhattan Projects: The Sun Beyond the Stars #1 Writer: Jonathan Hickman Artist: Nick Pitarra Colors: Jordie Bellaire Publisher: Image Comics Cover Price: $3.50 Release Date: 3/18/15 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital