Tip Of The Mushroom: The Manhattan Projects #3 Reviewon May 18, 2012 at 7:57 pm
This was back in the mid-80s, so this was a big thing to try to do; these days, I’m pretty sure you can Google “How to build an atomic bomb” and get three different working designs, provided you don’t mind getting a particular red mark on a file with your name on it, and having to get your prostate tickled every time you go within 500 yards of an airport.
No, back then you needed to hit libraries and read every book you could get your hands on about the subject, from John McPhee’s The Curve of Binding Energy (Which I highly recommend, if only to scare the living shit out of you; the next time a politician tries to terrify you with ephemeral ideas about Soviet-bought dirty suitcase nukes, it’s easier to giggle at their ignorance when you know that you can make a dirty bomb with a pile of uranium, an ammunition press, a .44 handgun and a public toilet. I am not joking) to Richard Rhodes’s phonebook about the original Manhattan Project, The Making of The Atomic Bomb, which still sits proudly on my bookshelf.
I read everything I could get my hands on about the original Manhattan / Los Alamos project for clues on how one might build such a thing (I also asked my chemistry teacher how to synthesize hexamethelinetetramine in case I needed to make RDX high explosives, and I wasn’t referred to law enforcement, but what the hell; it was the 80s. We knew what freedom was then. Freedom and Aqua-Net). I was fascinated by these guys out in the desert, trying to build something that, for all they knew, would turn all the nitrogen in the atmosphere into plasma and make the Phoenix Force look like something that could be knocked down by Midol.
All of this is one hell of a long way to go to explain why, although I am generally not the biggest fan of Jonathan Hickman’s comics, I am totally digging his work on The Manhattan Projects.
The concept behind the book is deceptively simple: what if the atomic bomb was only the simplest project that the geniuses at Los Alamos were working on? And it takes this concept, stocks it with characters based on the actual scientists who were working on the Trinity bomb (I’ve always found it cool that the scientists who were there called the bomb “The Gadget,” while the official name of that first device was based on the Holy Trinity, implying the power of God himself. It’s always indicated to me the basic mental disconnect that the scientists designing the bomb must have been laboring under. Mental disconnects and, presumably, bourbon), and by nature gives them access to unmonitored and uncontrolled Mad Science. For example, Wernher Von Braun, who invented the V2 rocket and was instrumental in the design of ICBMs in our world, built himself a robot arm in this world.
But in this issue, the Mad Science isn’t the primary focus, although we do see Harry Daghlian, the physicist who gave himself a fatal dose of radiation doing a criticality test on Plutonium but, sadly, is best known for being played by John Cusack in Fat Man And Little Boy, as an irradiated monster who feeds on raw Plutonium. And, presumably, bourbon.
No, the focus is the delivery of the Hiroshima bomb in the face of FDR’s death and Harry Truman’s instatement as President. Of course, being Hickman, the entire historical event is wrapped up in Mad Ideas, such as using the death of Roosevelt as an excuse to rip his brain into a Univac like a Springsteen CD, and showing “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” Truman whimpering like an infant while trying to recall the Enola Gay.
Which is all interesting in a Grant Morrisonian sense, if you like that kind of thing (and I sometimes do, on a case-by-case basis. The Invisibles, yes. Final Crisis, ewwww). But what works here for me is the sense of relentless, yet blind and amoral, curiosity shown by the scientists at Los Alamos. These people are ignoring the orders of a sitting President vis-a-vis dropping the Little Boy bomb, while bodily fucking with the brain of the newly ex-President Roosevelt, all while responding to questions as to whether what they’re doing is right – or even allowed – “…do you see anyone stoppin’ us?” Having read so much over the years about Oppenheimer and Feynman and General Groves, this is exactly the attitude I always imagined these guys having. I always thought that you’d need a certain willful moral blindness in order to say “Fuck it; let’s see if it works,” when working on an object that at best could kill anyone in its sight line. Hickman captures this characterization, and it utterly works for me.
As does the art by Nick Pitarra. His stuff reminds me a bit of Geof Darrow: thinly-lined and detailed, but in the interest more of grotesquery than detail. His facial expressions are, well, expressive, but there ain’t a damn person in sight who doesn’t look either borderline deformed or completely and irredeemably insane – for example, Harry Truman’s neck looks like it should be topped by a pink gum eraser, rather than the Phil Collins puppet from the Land of Confusion video-looking melon with which it is actually terminated. There is little action here to critique – a strange thing to say about a comic book that includes the detonation of an atomic bomb – but Pitarra’s storytelling is as clear as is necessary for a talk-heavy book such as this. Plus, he makes Oppenheimer’s nose look like the head of a cock, and I’ll let you know when I become mature enough for that to stop being funny.
Jonathan Hickman’s stories and I have a love / hate relationship. I’ve often found it ambitious but bloodless, and at other times simply plot-heavy and ridiculous. But, purely by chance, he is hitting a subject in The Manhattan Projects #3 that work for me: an alternative historical fiction about people and subjects I love and am familiar with, and he’s striking a tone that feels authentic and true. If you’re even remotely interested in the atomic bomb project, check it out…
…and before you ask, my atomic bomb design would never have worked. However, it was close enough to snag me a cool B+ on my Senior physics project in high school, giving me time that other students were using for research to devour more comic books. And, presumably, bourbon.