Scientists Invade the Comics

By Jason Rothhauser

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This holiday season, two comic books that share one thing hard to find in today’s popular fiction: scientists are the stars of the show. One comic proposes an outrageous alternate history in which a cabal of real-world scientists use their public research as a cover for far more bizarre experiments, and the other imagines a world in which scientists are our rock stars.

The Manhattan Projects, written by Jonathan Hickman with art by Nick Pitarra, asks a simple question. What if the government program to build the first atomic weapon was actually the cover story for a far more audacious project? And what if that project went terribly wrong? In this world, the likes of Joseph Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, and Enrico Fermi are on a quest not simply to build a weapon, but to push the very boundaries of science.

In Hickman’s world, scientists have already mastered interdimensional travel, advanced cybernetics, and artificial intelligence by the start of the Cold War. The names that round out the cast of characters are all familiar (among those already mentioned, expect to meet Werner von Braun, Albert Einstein, and Yuri Gagarin), but in this carnival-mirror alternate universe, none of them are what they seem. Oppenheimer is a brilliant man with a disturbing secret and an evil twin. Fermi may not be human, von Braun wields a massive robotic arm, and Feynman smiles serenely through the madness he (along with the reader) is quickly introduced to.

Any suspicions that this story would be played straight are immediately put to rest by Pitarra’s brilliant, barely contained artwork. To match the outer limits of Hickman’s deranged imagination, Pitarra has created a Day-Glo world full of bright, popping color barely contained by his line work. Depicted literally, this story would be an unbelievable mess, but Pitarra matches Hickman’s cartoonish plotting with outrageous details. Take, for example, General Leslie Groves, the leader of the secret project. In reality, Groves was a dutiful military officer. As drawn by Pitarra, Groves is never seen without an arsenal of weaponry strapped to every square inch of his person, with a slightly maniacal gleam in his eye. He wears an oversized pineapple grenade as a lapel pin. Groves’ Russian counterpart, who we meet later, is simply a robotic body controlled by a brain floating in a tank of pink liquid.

Anyone searching for a book that even attempts to represent science as it is performed in reality should look elsewhere. Hickman uses almost every familiar scientific stereotype, carried to the extreme. Almost everyone is some version of the classic mad scientist, brilliant but completely disconnected from the world, both socially and morally. In The Manhattan Projects, science tends to work as a type of dangerous magic, practiced by a small coterie capable of understanding it, with the potential of bringing about terrific destruction. Actual scientific concepts are almost never introduced. This world is not science fiction. It’s science fantasy. If you’re OK with that, Hickman and Pitarra have produced a wonderfully weird tale that is well worth your time.

The first three volumes are available in collected paperback editions, and the series continues in a monthly format.

Nowhere Men

Whereas The Manhattan Projects is about scientists working underground and in secret, Nowhere Men takes the opposite approach and gives us a world in which scientists are the new rock stars. Picture an alternate version of the 1960s in which a group of four young men, each a brilliant scientist and inventor in his own field, formed a super group that rivaled the Beatles in international fame and influence. Imagine now that this group also became the world’s largest corporation, World Corp., a mixture of Apple and Halliburton, with a touch of NASA. This is the premise of Nowhere Men, written by Eric Stephenson with art from Nate Bellegarde and Jordie Bellaire.

Stephenson takes a more realistic, relatable approach to his premise. The tone here is thoughtful and speculative, and the narrative features real human beings compared to Hickman’s caricatures. The accompanying art from Bellegarde and Bellaire is clean, clear, and vivid. The pages of the comic are interwoven with magazine interviews, book excerpts, and other miscellanea that show the unique way in which science is the culturally dominant force in this alternate reality.

That’s not all there is to the story. Just as in The Manhattan Projects, something has gone horribly, wrong (this seems to be a ubiquitous outcome when scientists are involved in popular fiction). World Corp. has sponsored a secret expedition, and their far-flung crew members undergo some very unusual changes. The first volume has only hinted at the full nature and results of this transformed crew (which includes a scientist invulnerable to the cold, a hulking red monstrosity who nonetheless has retained his human intellect, and a crew member who is able to become intangible), but the ground has been laid for this tale to take things even further into the realm of science-fiction.

Stephenson has set in motion a fascinating tale in which the contrasting personalities of America’s scientific superstars (who have splintered and become rivals in the present day) compete to shape the future. The characters are plausible scientists, and while you may not see a lot of postdocs pottering around a lab here, Nowhere Men may as well be The Origin of Species compared to the Average scientific content of today’s fiction.

The first volume of Nowhere Man is available in a collected edition, and the story continues in a monthly format starting in January.

Anyone who finds comic books synonymous with men in tights would do well to give these books a try, or see if any other titles arouse their interest. Both The Manhattan Projects and Nowhere Men are from Image Comics, a newer publisher that has been pushing the creative boundaries of the format for more than a decade. These are just two of Image’s many critically acclaimed hits (you may already be familiar with The Walking Dead, Image’s best-selling title), and these innovative stories are just a small sample of some of the strange and wonderful tales to be found at your local comic book shop.

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