Fidel Castro and Che Guevara walk into a casino and discuss how much they love money and hate poor people.
This isn’t a joke. It’s The Manhattan Projects… and also a joke.
The series has always presented history with a equal parts humor and irreverence, but that’s never more obvious than when new characters are presented. The Manhattan Projects #23 unleashes three titans of the Cold War for the first time, and it probably has Archie Brown (it’s okay to read things besides comics) employing a hearty facepalm across the Atlantic.
In addition to the dull witted, cruel spirited, and vainglorious depictions of Cuban revolutionaries, this issue introduces Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Subtlety is out the window with this Texan. He dresses like a cowboy and literally shoots from the hip. He stands in stark contrast to the drug-addled and sex-crazed John F. Kennedy. It’s not difficult to imagine the ghost of John Wayne possessing Nick Pitarra as he draws this rendition of LBJ.
That doesn’t even touch upon the increasingly sickening visage of Leonid Brezhnev accompanied by a three-headed cyborg. His tentacles twisting, ready to manipulate appearances to suit his nefarious needs.
Now stop and step back.
After reading the first few paragraphs of this review, something about how The Manhattan Projects functions becomes abundantly clear. It is a comic rife with history and politics. Every character is a caricature of an historical figure. They are morphed and transformed into mad parodies, but those parodies only function based upon an understanding of the history, the politics, and the nuances they are based upon. Enjoying this comic requires an understanding of post-WWII history and Cold War politics.
The Manhattan Projects is an incredibly smart comic playing itself off as being a dumb one.
Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra are having a lark at complex issues, playing to their truths while exaggerating the story to insane extremes. Hickman has never had a reputation for being silly. His love of complex plotting and nuance fit perfectly within a fascination with one of the most secretive and dangerous periods of world history. Pitarra’s wonderful designs, farcical details, and perfectly executed sequences allow the comic to be easily read. On its surface it can be seen as a silly romp. Yet he’s the same man who is pulling out the details that sting a little too. He’s the artist that strung a necklace of ears around General William Westmoreland’s neck. That’s the some dark stuff. It’s also hilarious.
The Manhattan Projects isn’t for everyone. The madcap humor and crazy designs function alone, but are only truly great when placed in context. With context they become subversive, and insightful, and poignant, without ever losing the sense of fun that inspires them. It’s a strange line that Hickman and Pitarra are walking, but they walk it well. They have woven historical commentary into a story so out of this world that it could only be told in comics. It’s unexpected and continues to take me by surprise even after twenty-three issues.
Smart comics and fun comics are not two different things. The Manhattan Projects #23 is proof that they can be one and the same.