Friday, November 23, 2012

direct message 004: the manhattan projects

by Alec Berry and Chad Nevett  

We didn’t die; we didn’t quit.

We just slept.

Chad and Alec return to Direct Message and pick up where they left off to discuss The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra.

Aren’t you glad?

Alec Berry: Hickman’s taking a bit of a leap here. While there’s still his usual sensibilities of design and a fascination with powerful figures, he’s approaching his grand thoughts through simpler, more traditional comic book means by placing an emphasis on the cast and pushing an assortment of bombastic occurrences. It could be a result of the Marvel gig, but The Manhattan Projects just seems to be aware of its pop-historical core. Hickman isn’t writing some hardball mini series like The Nightly News. Instead, he’s crafting an ongoing series in which Einstein has been replaced by an evil counterpart. The idea demands a specific approach, and Hickman’s clearly writing to that approach - a sign of a writer bending his abilities for his story.

And I enjoy the result. The Manhattan Projects evokes something innocent and free spirited versus his more contemplative mini series of the past few years. This book doesn’t seem preoccupied with proving its significance and trying to reach a non-comics reading audience by twisting the form into some sort of graphic literature. The plot’s wacky, and the pacing is a little more lucid in some ways. The sub-plots keep stacking with each new issue. The detailed relations between cast members remind an experienced reader of the usual mechanics of a superhero team book - each character complete with his or her own costume and unique specialty. And, if it weren’t enough, the color palette brings a bright, vibrant appearance with its bleeding reds, greens, blues and yellows.

Yet though free spirited, Hickman isn’t without some larger ideas and takeaways. He’s playing with the time period and investigating the major transition in technology, science and outlook after WWII. It’s a Cold War comic book bent on general themes of knowledge, discovery, responsibility, curiosity and ability, and Hickman may be linking all of that to our current interest and desire to constantly progress without hesitation - a skill most every member of The Manhattan Projects cast possesses. Or it could just suggest that with every good comes a bad.

Any point you wish to derive from it is yours, but The Manhattan Projects certainly has my interest, and it’s easily way better than Saga, so Chad, hit me. What do you like about it?

Chad Nevett: I like the pretty blues and reds.

It’s funny that you call it a “Cold War comic book” when the most recent issue seems to be pointing to a different direction. It’s a series that’s been deviating more and more from our world as it’s gone along and, cancelling out the Cold War is another step. It won’t be limited by such bland conflicts -- it seems poised to keep exploring the idea of genius unrestrained. As I write this, I’m rereading The Boys and there’s a similarity between what Hickman is doing with the genius scientists here and what Garth Ennis did with superheroes there. Each group is immensely powerful (in it’s own way) and we’re unaccustomed to seeing either completely unrestrained, free to do as it will. In both cases, death and destruction follows. Granted, Hickman is stacking the deck with his faux Oppenheimer and Einstein, but there’s still an undeniable core in this comic of wondering what would happen if these mad geniuses could simply do what they want. What is the leash were off? In some cases, that means purposeful abuse and monstrosities; in others, it means the pursuit of pure science without considering the consequences. Mostly, it means genocide.

I hadn’t considered its place in Hickman’s creator-owned work. It’s the first ongoing work he’s done, so that no doubt explains, partly, why there’s a looser, more character-driven feel to this title. The constraints of a singular idea or a tightly-woven plot aren’t there. He can spend an entire issue with a character, advancing the plot only a fraction. Hell, it wasn’t until recently that any sort of larger plot became apparent. It’s like a wacky S.H.I.E.L.D. But, you know, better.

AB: It’s actually a lot like S.H.I.E.L.D. when you mention it, and you have to wonder if Hickman just threw his hands in the air, abandoned S.H.I.E.L.D. and chose to try it again with this.The approach didn’t work that time, and I’m sure the Marvel constraints weren’t allowing him to go as far as he wanted to go (plus, all of those delays and the dragged-out publishing schedule certainly inhibited things).  

The fact of it being an ongoing does allow Hickman room to run and write at a different speed, but I also feel Nick Pitarra is essential to understanding the beat of this book. He’s an artist who places attention on character body language and the way in which they interact with their environment. There’s a great scene in issue 3 when Feynman enters Einstein’s lab for the first time, and you watch as Feynman studies the room and shows some sense of bewilderment. A small touch, but it adds so much to a scene. And it’s 100% visual.

Also, his line tends to depict emotive faces through the numerous marks put on the page, and the bumpy quality of it shows the characters to be ugly rather than clean cut - which is obviously an extension of what Hickman’s writing.

Visual developments.

These things just inherently give The Manhattan Projects a lively quality and move it from Hickman’s usual ice cube tone, and Pitarra certainly dictates much of this comic’s attitude (along with colorist Jordie Bellaira and the numerous others from earlier issues) that way. The style’s similar to a Geoff Darrow, sure, but beneath the style it’s evident Pitarra grabs chunks of the story, makes them his own and expands the entire thing. He’s even loosened up a bit since the first issue. A sign of the artist’s confidence growing …

On your point about characters running rampant with power and getting to see that, does The Manhattan Projects remind you at all of something like, say, The Authority, and is this a subject you like to see?

CN: You’re dead on about the visuals, Alec. When we discuss the focus on ‘character’ in The Manhattan Projects, a big part of that is Pitarra’s visual depiction of these characters. I’m so writing-oriented that I often forget the effect an artist has on what I interpret as the writing. I’ve always enjoyed the art and said so, but... did I know to the full extent? I don’t think so. You talking about it immediately made it click into place and I could see a rush of visuals speed past my eyes and it’s like “Holy shit, the art on this comic is amazing! I had no idea! What the fuck is wrong with me?” Another “Art Discussion Month” is needed probably...

Oppenheimer’s twisted body language is my favourite visual bit, I think. You just see his evil, fucked up brain through his whole body...

There’s definitely an appeal in watching people with power run unchecked to a degree. What would happen if the biggest brains the US government could round up were set loose to do as they will? There are so many possibilities, so much potential for wonders of the imagination. For comics to do what comics can do: you know, anything. There’s an off-handed casualness to the way that Hickman presents the genius unrestrained, too, that I enjoy. They kill off an entire race and it just happens over a few pages. It’s a minor plot point in many ways as we see the march towards global domination by threatening all aliens that Earthmen Are Not To Be Fucked With.

Going back to S.H.I.E.L.D., this title isn’t as cute as that one. That one featured the mythic geniuses of the past five hundred or so years, men who have progressed beyond men and into a weird realm where them all hanging out and working as part of this organisation alongside Mr. Fantastic and Iron Man’s dads seems... cute. Here, though, many of these characters knew one another, so there isn’t a giant leap from our world to this one. Turn a couple evil, take the leashes off, and see what happens.

AB: You’re right, and I think the close connection MP has with our own world only adds to the comic’s sinister bite simply by reminding us of what the atom bomb signaled and pushing the point that that could’ve only been the beginning. Oddly enough, there’s also an urgency to this work. It may seem slow in plot, but the visuals suggest an ever-present race against the clock. Especially the colors. The palette and bright hues create a violent sense of lighting. Sequences using the blues and reds usually accompany dialogue. Pitarra will grid these scenes out in small panels, and the back and forth between blue and red take a reader from a hot to cold light. You feel submerged and then exposed, and there’s a motion associated with that, so you feel sort of out of breath even in a scene with old white guys sitting around a table. It’s wacky and bizarre, yet it’s frightening and disorienting as well.

The way in which Hickman has revealed the story has also added to that urgency. While the plot meanders, I always feel each issue either has a point or supplies enough interesting interactions or ideas to combat the sluggishness, and the time Hickman takes allows this elaborate version of our world to spread itself and take more shape. And yeah, there’s time taken, but I always felt from page one that Hickman had automatically written in some greater threat or secret just off-panel where we couldn’t see, and by slowing the reader down, taking this time, he builds the suspense, urging us to read on. As is every Hickman project, it seems, but the wait is more bearable when Oppenheimer savagely killing and eating a member of an alien race is at our reading disposal.

There’s definitely an engrossing ‘what if’ element when it comes to the subject at hand, and you’re right in that Hickman’s interest lies in showing the evil of it all. Feynman offers somewhat of a balance, though. He’s the young guy of the crew, the rookie, and Hickman uses him as the series perspective at times, or at least gives him a narrative duty with the quotes from his memoir introducing and concluding each issue. The touch sandwiches all events between his words and gives the story a reflective quality. As portrayed here, Feynman is in on the acts of The Manhattan Projects, but Hickman writes him with a sense of question always present. I’m not sure he’s a good man, but he seems like a character who hasn’t accepted his internal evil yet. Issue 2’s scene with him in the mirror, performing his morning ritual of “good morning Mr. Feynman. You’re a very special person.” suggests that he persistently needs to reassure himself of his own worth; it shows that he truly sees himself as a good man. Or that he’s really just self-conscious that he might in fact not be. The opening quote in issue 1 sort of backs this up.

“For when the time came, I could find no good in myself, only mischief.” - The Recorded Feynman

How do you read this character and his role in the series? I imagine his arc will be a main one. And, while we’re at it, is there anything about The Manhattan Projects that doesn’t work for you? We’ve been pretty positive, but I’m interested if you’ve had any negative reactions or complaints.

CN: Were I to guess, I’d say that Feynman is both our perspective character and the one that will act as a summation of the others. He’s the ‘innocent’ in many ways and we will see him corrupted. We will see him without limits do monstrous things and go too far. It’s easy to see how many of the others can do those things, but him? When he falls, it will mean something. He’s the central genius and what he does is what matters most in many ways. He’s the moral barometer, I guess.

There’s only one thing about this comic that I don’t particularly like and that’s the second Einstein. After the series began with Oppenheimer’s evil twin brother replacing him, to see that Einstein was replaced by an evil alternate version of himself was disappointing. It’s like, we saw this already. It also makes it too easy for these men to go too far. There’s no real fall, no pushing of the limits in a way that necessarily means anything. Evil versions of characters do evil things is not exactly interesting. There’s no true conflict there. It also takes away from the sinister twist on our world. Well, no shit, if the best and brightest minds were replaced with serial killers, things would have turned out differently! The agency and corruption is taken away to a degree. One evil doppelganger is enough. Two is kind of dull. I almost wish we’d seen Einstein be forced to kill his lesser, more sinister alternate self. An act of self-defence that opens a doorway for him.

How about you?

AB: Even though I asked the question, I gotta admit that I really have had no complaint about these comics. Maybe that makes me a bad critic, but The Manhattan Projects has supplied something worthwhile and entertaining each issue. It’s doing what I want comics to do. There’s room to think and dig, but on the surface a layer of outlandish fiction thrives. And the craft is there, on both sides of the line. It’s one of the best monthly titles.

But you raise a good point, and I may agree. To play devil’s advocate and to try and understand Hickman’s reasoning though, I can see why he has strayed away from an internal conflict when writing Einstein. For one, the effort needed to pursue that direction would outweigh what he’s currently writing (which sort of backs you, because that just means lazy writing), but also by creating a separate Einstein and externalizing the conflict, it communicates the struggle in a clearer fashion, and in an action comic it serves the action when a protagonist can actually hit his or her antagonist. And as for him already killing anti-Einstein (as I will dub him), it would be too early. That’s going to happen, I feel. Einstein will find his way back through the portal, and the moment will feel more climactic for the wait. Like much of the comic, Hickman seems comfortable with a slow burn.

It does feel repetitive when you realize Oppenheimer’s situation is the same, but Hickman does write Oppenheimer’s evil as more naturally ingrained in the character. His twin was the root of his evil - operating as an external example of the character’s own faults, most like - and this twin shared the womb with Oppenheimer. Einstein’s other half is merely an alternate version from another dimension and had to travel to replace him. Those little touches change the situations and suggest some attributes and truths about the characters. Plus, good Opp dies while good Einstein lives. Slight differences in the details, but they are differences, and I’m sure there’s a point to the contrast Hickman is seeding between the two characters. I have faith.

I feel lame for not having a complaint and trashing this comic somehow, but I keep thinking and find nothing. Oh well.

Anything else worth mentioning? If not to leave this piece without mentioning the art team again, Nick Pitarra, Jordie Bellaire, Cris Peter and Rachelle Rosenberg fucking nailed it and deserve a lot of credit. They’ve brought The Manhattan Projects to life, and Hickman owes them for that. From design to interiors, it’s certainly a visual standout on the shelf, and the aesthetic says it all.

CN: It does. So I guess I’ll just shut my big mouth ...

There's also this podcast on which Alec said much of the same stuff. 

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