Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Books: The Manhattan Projects


The Manhattan Projects
Vol. 1
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Nick Pitarra

Available now from Islington Libraries
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Would it not be enough for me to just say: "you should really read this comic - it's really actually just totally great" and just leave it at that? No? You want me to say more? Pad it out a little? Well - ok then.

I came to The Manhattan Projects pretty much totally cold. The only name that meant anything to me - Jonathan Hickman - has been responsible for books of such varying qualities [1] that at this point
you could pretty much replace his name with a question mark and I'd had just as much of a clue as to what exactly I was letting myself in for.... I mean: I guess it would have some sort of gee-wiz attitude to science (like one of the kids from Tom Strong grown to semi-maturity) but without the need to obfuscate that you sometimes get with Grant Morrison or (at a push) Warren Ellis: nah - Hickman is always so to the point that I doubt that "obfuscate" is even in his vocabulary: he's more like the guy who cuts all his big epic concepts into small bite-sized pieces and then serves them with some salad and extra mayo in a tasty white bun. And as for the artist - Nick Pitarra - well I'd never heard of him - so I didn't even know what the book was going to look like [2].

So when I got a copy of Vol 1 in my hand I opened it up with a pair of tweezers - ready for anything: prepared for the worst (while hoping for the best) and - well - boom. I don't know how exactly - but somehow it managed to get behind and whack my brain from an angle that I wasn't quite expecting: which (in case you couldn't work this out yourself) is almost exactly the kind of thing I love.

And in terms of Hickman-ology: well - I think that I'm starting to get a grip on him - the way I see it - it's like this: with some authors - even when doing work-for-hire stuff so that they can just do some blah and cash a big fat cheque at the end of it (am thinking mainly of Alan Moore and Warren Ellis here - but hell: it's not even like that kind of attitude is just restricted to the world of comic books [3]) the stuff that's put out without that much passion is still well worth a read: but Hickman - well for this reader at least: I can really tell when he's faking it - and (well gee) - it's kind of embarrassing when he does [4]. The flip-side of that tho is that when he's doing something that he really believes in and is willing to commit to (and isn't bound by the restrictions of mainstream comics [5]) well - then you get the good stuff.

Or - to put it another way: it's like that friend with the varying moods. Some days he's awful, irritable and grumpy like a camel with twisted bowels: other times he's polite and socially respectable - but just kind of hangs there like magnolia wallpaper and then - somedays (every once in a while) - they're like a beautiful sunny day where there's not a cloud in the sky and every traffic light you get to turns green.

If you still want more: well - the thing it made me think of (in a very roundabout sort of way) is the story of Syd Barrett after he was kicked out of Pink Floyd: (I don't know if this is true or not) but it's been said that he used to spend all day in bed - not because he was lazy - but because he believed that from that starting point it was possible for him to get up and do absolutely anything: he could start a new band, become a painter, king of the world - anything anything anything. Only (his thinking went) as soon as he got out of bed all of those possibilities would collapse into one: and no matter how great that single possibility would be - it wasn't worth sacrificing all the other ones: and so - he stayed in bed, lying completely still - keeping all those possibilities alive.

And if you want to know why The Manhattan Projects reminds me of that - well: you're going to have to read it to find out. Sorry.

[1] All the way from the sickingly lows of his stint on the Fantastic Four (which I'd say is one of the very worst comics I've read in recent years) to the middling middle of The Red Wing and his science-fictional take on The Ultimates all the way up to his very splendid S.H.I.E.L.D. which left me with a warm all-over glow that I still treasure today.

[2] Except: oops - when I tagged this post - his name popped up already loaded: which is how I discovered that he was actually the artist on another Hickman book called: The Red Wing (which is also good - but (for me): not as good as The Manhattan Projects - which (I guess) I'd mostly put down to The Red Wing (because it's just one book) seemed kinda rushed and squeezed in - while Manhattan Projects has a lot more space to kind of take things slow and roll out it's (many splendored) ideas one at a time. And as for what his like art looks like - well: it's like Geoff Darrow: only it's like ketchup instead of mustard (hope that helps).

[3] Steven Soderbergh famously has a "one for them, one for me" approach to film-making that seems to suit him down to the ground (which is only confused by the fact that a lot of the time his "one for them" films are much better than the "one for him" ones: but go figure).

[4] Meg Ryan he is not.

[5] And - well yeah: I guess that's my point - some people do really well when you give them somesort of restriction to work within: but Hickman's wings and sense of imagination are too unwieldy to be contained in a small box - so when you put him in a small space: the stuff he comes out with feels stifled and (dur) boxed in but if you set him free and leave him to his own nutty devices - well - then (not always - but mostly) then he starts to get some altitude and starts to really let loose and (goddamnit) he spreads his wings and soars.

Further reading: S.H.I.E.L.D., The Red WingFeynman, B.P.R.D.PlanetaryThe Invisibles, The UltimatesProphet, Hard Boiled.

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