Oh 'Manhattan Projects', what happened to you? Through its first three arcs, Jonathan Hickman's atomic alternate history was thrillingly sharp and strange, an avowedly insane melding of weird science, extreme gore, and egotistical famous men. But then, without warning, the book simply lost steam. The main plotline wrapped up, more or less, and the book sputtered along trying to find something to do with itself. Eventually, MP split its large cast into separate, unrelated mini-series. I had hoped this would be just the thing to shake the once great book out of its lethargy. Instead, 'The Manhattan Project: The Sun Beyond the Stars' , the first such mini, has been a limply scattered space-opera, seemingly divorced from the strongest parts of the series bur bearing all of its weaknesses. Issue four finds cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, Laika the space dog, and a bevy of aliens I can't begin to care about surrounded by an evil empire bent on recapturing one of its own. Yuri's ship quickly gets boarded and what ensues is horrible bloodbath that gets more widespread and ridiculous as it goes on. The series has in past mined some humor out of ridiculously over-the-top gore, but here, devoid of any stakes, it has a repetitive quality. It's an extra-long issue and near the end things seem to pick up. The focus is brought back to Yuri and Laika, the two characters from earlier in the series, and we are given the first emotional beat the series has attempted in quite some time. And then, that same beat is subverted with a bad joke. Ah well, it was nice for a moment.
That all sounds horribly negative, but with a book as strong as Manhattan Projects used to be, there are a number of elements that still work. Nick Pitarra's cartoony but hyper-detailed art continues to be a joy. And Michael Garland (who replaced Jordie Bellaire recently) makes excellent color choices (which keep Pitarra's art from collapsing under its own frenetic convolution). Similarly, the relationship between Yuri and Laika, for all that it remains unexplored, is surprisingly sweet, as this whole messy space escapade is predicated on one man's search for his dog. As such there is a bit of charm that keeps the whole issue from sinking entirely.
What's odd though is that the element that fails here is the one that I would expect to be most consistent, the writing. Jonathan Hickman has been turning in his best work to date in East of West and a little book called 'Secret Wars', but this doesn't feel like the same author. The story seems like a small excuse to connect a series of juvenile (though occasionally funny jokes) and avoid progressing the main story of the titular projects. Gone is his odd sense for epic moments and well-placed foreshadowing. Instead, we have what feels like a half-baked attempt to tie-up some loose ends.
And tie them up Hickman does. The book ends on a note of extreme finality which is hugely disappointing not only because it unceremoniously concludes the stories of two characters I like a lot, but because it indicates the direction the rest of these mini-series may take. It seems that the disparate plotlines may not ever come back together but instead reach their own dead ends and disappear. I have invested enough time into the series to remain on-board, but I really hope Hickman's script catches up with Pitarra's lovely artwork.
The Manhattan Projects: The Sun Beyond the Stars #4 Writer: Jonathan Hickman Artist: Nick Pitarra Publisher: Image Comics Price: $3.50 Release Date: 2/10/16 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital