Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Ryan Browne
Publisher: Image Comics
Over its now 21 issues, Manhattan Projects has progressed from an intriguing concept (what if the Manhattan Project was only the beginning of covert scientific exploration?) to an increasingly absurdist alternate reality (what if Oppenheimer ATE HIS OWN TWIN BROTHER!). Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra have created an absolutely bonkers comic book, where Albert Einstein is a vodka-pounding maniac, FDR is a rogue artificial intelligence, and the boundaries of science are as limitless as the world of the Kree empire or Jack Kirby’s New Gods.
After some truly giant revelations in previous issues then, it’s actually a bit of a relief to see that issue #21 takes a moment to present the relatively straight-forward adventure of Laiku, our Russian cosmonaut dog. Last we heard from Laiku, she was manning the crew’s space vessel into deep space in order to explore Mars, infinity, and beyond! Naturally, she ran into a giant spaceship, and issue #21 finally shows us what happened after the alien spaceship collected Laiku for part of their scientific information retrieval.
The aliens of “Manhattan Projects #21,” drawn here by Ryan Browne of God Hates Astronauts fame, bring to mind Marvel Comics Rigellian recorders with their mantra: “The great universal library must… expand.” In Manhattan Projects, the attempts to retrieve information and advance knowledge tend to end in people getting eaten alive or enormous explosions. The biggest twist in issue #21 is just how humanely Laiku is treated. Rather than face sinister and disgusting alien dissection, Laiku is politely fed a universal translator and generally treated quite reasonably until she is locked in a prison with other collected species. I’m not saying I’d necessarily want to be locked in a prison for collected species, but all things considered, if I had to be, I’d prefer to find one without all the torture and cutting.
In many ways, it appears that this depiction of the alien scientists is meant to serve as a mirror to the Manhattan Projects science team of Earth. Whereas our team has performed murder on numerous occasions in the name of science, the aliens capturing Laiku are relatively harmless. As a comic, Manhattan Projects is rarely pointedly about the actual atom bomb we know the Manhattan Project for. In this case, though, we can see a clear parallel; in our own reality, our brilliant scientific minds teamed together to create the ultimate weapon, and not only that, but we used it on other people. We want to think humanity is supreme to all other potential life forms, but as Laiku realizes when she compares the alien’s scientific practices “Now that I think about it… we’re just as awful as you are.”
The remainder of “Manhattan Projects #21″ follows a straightforward narrative arc as Laiku and her prison mates suddenly find themselves escaping the floating science collection lab. Laiku’s cellmates are immediately entertaining, with a blue blog named Rys only able to say “Blarg!”, as well as UNa, a “series nine infiltration and espionage droid – disinformation a speciality.” What UNa means is that everything he says is a lie. This makes for some quality comedy, and honestly provides a challenger to Lying Cat from Saga in the form of the new Lying Robot.
There are some important developments for Laiku as the escape progresses, but largely “Manhattan Projects #21” is a nice breather away from the insanity on Earth. Laiku’s Russian companion and owner back on Earth pining softly and drunkenly for his lost dog is consistently endearing, and it’s looking more and more like the two of them may reunite one day after all. Then again, with a book like Manhattan Projects it’s just as likely that they’re both impaled by the severed leg of a surfer-dude alien. The joy is in the never knowing.
Verdict: 7.7 out of 10
Manhattan Projects is at its best when the absurdity is blaring full-steam ahead, but it’s nice to have an issue that resembles a familiar narrative arc. Manhattan Projects has been pretty viscerally violent lately, so it’s actually nice to have a relatively straight forward clean adventure where Laiku escapes capture and undergoes some enhancements along the way. If you’ve been reading Manhattan Projects, issue #21 is a no-brainer, and if you’re on the fence about the series, give the first volume (6 issues) a shot. I’d expect you won’t be disappointed.