Surpassing Our Humanity: Image’s Manhattan Projects
This is a question that I can’t seem to pull from my mind. It’s an inescapable consideration for me, an endless cycle of point-form notes spinning in my mind, like player stats for a fantasy football fan or quantum entanglement equations for a physicist. There are times, I admit, where I find myself writing these blathers (…blatherings? Blatherations? Fuck it) and somehow, without my conscious knowledge, the topic of my choosing is magnetically pulled into this direction – whether it’s Robert Loren and his Think Tank, or the malaise of Jupiter and his legacy, or even my most recent exploration of John Prophet’s Earth Empire.
It’s an addiction. I admit it – the future of our civilization is something so simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating (strange how the two feelings are such common bedfellows) that it almost blinds me to the day-to-day goings-on of my life, and yet I can’t seem to look away. It dominates my thoughts in such a profound way that even when I watch the news, I rarely find myself listening to the talking heads or reading the captions; instead, I’m imagining where it’s all headed, the possible scenarios that could erupt from these events, spiraling us towards destruction – or, just as possibly, pushing us beyond the limits of our imagination and showing us a whole new reality, one where we master our weaknesses and emerge from the chrysalis of today to show that what we once thought was our pinnacle was merely a stumbling step up the ladder of our infinite potential.
But that’s the scariest part, isn’t it? Despite the amazing achievements of the last century, it still feels like we haven’t done a damn thing: we’re still dying of cancer; still filling the air with pollutants and predator drones; still blowing up marathons and embassies, beheading our fellow brothers and sisters in the name of any of the dozens of contagious sicknesses that we call ideologies.
The more things change, the more they stay the same…
And yet, progress is an unstoppable force. The past decade has not been a cascade of horror, but a raising of the veil – it seems on the surface to have shown us the deepest shadows of our nature, but the reality is that this has always been our nature; it is only now that we are coming to grips with it. We have glanced in the mirror many times over the ages, but it is the 21st Century where we have no choice but to stare ourselves right in the face and say, “There’s something seriously wrong here.”
And that, my friends, is a wonderful thing.
This is a little heavy for everyone, I’m sure, but it’s these subjects – human nature, ideology, psychology, social and biological evolution – that permeate everything we have created throughout our history; every piece of art, architecture, mathematics, literature, science, music, and so on carries within it a kernel of us, and with so many kernels around … well, we could make one massive bowl of popcorn.
But for me, it’s today that holds the greatest interest; it’s only now that we have the technology, energy and burgeoning creativity to explore these subjects in such profound, diverse ways – and we’re so good at it that it seems like we’re not even exploring them at all. To me, the greatest trick we’ve ever pulled, we pulled on ourselves – hiding the truth about who we are so carefully in our art, music, and literature that it’s taken us all these centuries just to put it together.
And this truth, this giant bowl of unpopped corn that we call culture is why I spend my days and nights reading issue after issue of fifty different comic series. This is why Julian Munds explores the concepts delivered in the Marvel Universe’s favourite children week after week.
This is why people write comics in the first place.
As I said last week, it is in our imagination that we see the possibilities unfold. It is when we ignore the reality of today and consider what could have been, where we could have gone and what we could have achieved if this thing or that person had been slightly different, if we went left instead of right or sat down instead of walked outside, that we unlock our potential.
It’s not opposable thumbs or analytic brains that put us at the top of the food chain folks: it’s our foresight, our ability to consider what’s next and leave a legacy.
Ah, legacy. Such a lofty, almost holy goal … yet, consider the things we’ve done to ourselves – to each other – for the sake of legacy. No offense meant, I assure you; it’s a glorious thing to dream of, canonizing ourselves in history, galvanizing the ideals of an individual in the annals of time. It’s something we all hope for even if none of us are making moves toward it, a dream we all hold for ourselves – to transcend our mortality and achieve some level of greatness beyond our lifetime. To pass beyond being a simple man or woman and become a monument.
Consider it for a moment: if you could hold the future of mankind in your hands, the greatest knowledge, finest tools, and infinite resources at your disposal … what would you build?
More importantly, would you build it for us, or for you?
These questions are the foodstuff (literally) of Manhattan Projects, a story about the greatest minds of the 20th Century – their genius, their hubris, and their humanity … or lack thereof.
Me, I’m a history nut. I’m also a huge science nerd. So this comic is like pornography to me – nothing gets me excited more than watching brilliant men like Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer reborn in cartoonish detail to act out their own greatest fantasies. But it’s not the historical aspect that got my attention, nor is it the cartoonish way that the most notorious think tank of our time is portrayed. To me, it’s the way that writer Jonathan Hickman shows the near-impossibility of these colossal minds to be something more than human.
Each character in the comic is – or was, rather – a historical figure, and for the most part, each had their own part to play in the development of the real Manhattan Project – with a few exceptions, of course. But Hickman has this amazing way of explaining their eccentricities, brilliance and personality in a way that makes them seem both less human and more relatable at the same time.
Take for example Enrico Fermi, a brilliant nuclear physicist who carries the title “father of the atomic bomb”, is an alien from a planet whose intentions for Earth are miles behind the noble mark.
Or Wernher von Braun, renowned rocket scientist who was “inherited” from the Nazis during the infamous Operation Paperclip (if you don’t believe me, please look it up. Fascinating stuff). While still an unbreakable will with a wit to match, he now wields a massive – and dangerous – robotic arm.
Albert Einstein carries a significant role in the story, though it’s not quite the Einstein we all know (you’ll have to read it to find out what I’m talking about…).
Even Laika – the little-known (at least in the West) hero dog of Soviet Russia’s first foray into space exploration – makes a cameo.
And then there’s Nick Pitarra. If Hickman invented the characters, it’s Pitarra’s art that brings them to life. While not quite realistic, the rendering of these historical figures is accurate, almost like caricatures. Fermi’s prominent ears enhance his face – both human and alien – and Einstein’s mustache is, for lack of a better term, perfect. Even Richard Feynman, a man who is almost synonymous with the real Manhattan Project, is drawn in youthful detail to mimic his 20-something years as part of the organization.
But for me, the piece de resistance of this comic is the incomparable J. Robert Oppenheimer, the most legendary personality to walk the halls of the famous Los Alamos testing facility. Historically, he was politically motivated in his later years, even leaning towards Communist at the end of the Second World War; a dichotomous man of intense ambition coupled with an almost contradictory sentimentality. Hickman’s interpretation of the man, however, paints him as a monstrous force of nature, a man who could barely be called a man at all – even more so than Fermi’s alienness or Einstein’s own otherworldy nature. The Oppenheimer of Manhattan Projects is not a great thinker; he does not think of great ideas, he consumes them – literally. Time and again as the story progressed, I found myself staring in revulsion as Oppenheimer ate his opponents – alive if need be, dead if necessary – and, in so doing, absorbed their knowledge, assimilating it into himself to be accessed at any time.
But it’s not just knowledge that he consumes; somehow, his physical consumption of their bodies also carries with it a piece of their consciousness, an aspect of each of their personalities that manifests itself as a slightly different Oppenheimer. While the Manhattan Projects move forward at dizzying speed, battling Communists threats and Chinese invasions, alien encroachment and governmental crackdowns, advancing our species in ways that even now seem to be in the realm of impossibility, a war rages on within Oppenheimer himself. And there is yet to be declared a victor…
I know I keep throwing these real think-piece comics at you guys, and I’d like to say I’m sorry, but I’m just not. If you don’t like expanding your mind through this art like I do, that’s cool – just know that you’re missing out on so much!
I talked at great length this time about the importance of finding ourselves in our art and culture, and Manhattan Projects is exactly that – a combination of history, science and philosophy brought to life through great storytelling and wonderful art.
And permeating all of it is the great question, the conundrum of our age, one that Einstein himself feared even eighty years ago, when he claimed that “our technology has surpassed our humanity.”
What are we becoming?
Until next week.
Posted on January 19, 2014, in Image Comics, Manhattan Projects and tagged Albert Einstein, Earth, Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Jonathan Hickman, Manhattan Project, Marvel Universe, New York City, Operation Paperclip, Richard Feynman, Stan Lee, Thought. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.