What is this all about?
(Spoilers ahead!) A re-imaging of the Manhattan Project, notable physicists Drs. Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman, along with Albert Einstein, Harry Daghlian, and Enrico Fermi are recruited to work on the top-secret government project that would become the atomic bomb dropped on Japan. But, this is where historical accuracy ends.
What follows are a series of scientific projects with more sinister purposes-including artificial intelligence, dimensional portals and established contact with alien lifeforms-along with disturbingly horrifying realizations about the scientists themselves.
The story begins with General Leslie Groves recruiting Dr. Robert Oppenheimer for the top secret government initiative known as the Manhattan Project. You get your first hint of something being not quite right when General Groves questions Dr. Oppenheimer on the fact his twin brother Joseph supports the communist party. His exact words, “I don’t have to concern myself with you suffering from your brother’s affliction, do I?” seem to indicate that this goes beyond political loyalty and has something to do with mental illness. Dr. Oppenheimer, however, doesn’t flinch and simply states that he is not his brother. But, as a reader, you can’t help but have a kernel of doubt.
Each section of Vol 1 is separated by a quote from the recorded diary of Richard Feynman, who documented all of his experiences on the Manhattan Project. It gives readers a glimpse of how Feynman’s perspective on the project and the people he worked with slowly changes. “On my first day, I was given a government-issue disaster packet. It included: a solar-powered radio beacon, antibiotics, a cyanide capsule, an eternal flame, a collapsible knife, an infinity pen and a journal,” says Feynman, illustrating that the US government was prepared to have the scientists on their payroll die for the project.
After the formal agreement, General Groves leads Dr. Oppenheimer through the facility, where he encounters Albert Einstein, inside a locked room. General Groves indicates that he has no intention of letting Einstein out until he’s ready when a proximity alarm sounds. Japanese forces are on a collision course with the base and the General must gather his forces together.
In the middle of this emergency in the present-day, you’re taken back to the past where we receive confirmation on our earlier hunches: General Groves was correct to question Dr. Oppenheimer about his twin brother Joseph. Where Robert studied minerals as a child and became a member of the New York Mineralogical Club, Joseph would examine animals and then consume them whole, thinking that now their souls were within him. While Robert excelled at academia, going to Harvard, Cambridge, Caltech and other institutions before teaching at Berkley; Joseph’s academic career aspirations failed as he sunk deeper and deeper into psychosis, murdering fifteen people before being apprehended by law enforcement. Joseph was sent to a mental health facility, where he says his goodbyes to his brother and claims that he is the “dark half of the world” before Robert leaves him behind.
Back in the present day, General Groves and Dr. Oppenheimer find themselves right in the middle of the fray when the Japanese showcase their new technology: a Red Torii gateway powered by Death Buddhist monks that allows their forces to teleport. The Kamikaze Killing Machine proceeds to decimate the General’s forces, until Dr. Oppenheimer moves behind the Gatlin machine gun and methodically mows down the opposition. The US forces have telepaths at their disposal as well, who captured the monks on the other side of the portal and were keeping the gateway open, tipping the victory to the side of the Americans.
In the aftermath of that victory, however, you’re given yet another clue that there’s something not quite right with Dr. Oppenheimer. He completely overreacts and smashes one of the Kamikaze robots touching him in the middle of its death throes and you’re finally given the reason as to why he’s been acting so oddly. Two days after Robert had received the letter appointing him the civilian head of the Manhattan Project, Joseph escaped the mental health facility, stole a car and brutally murdered his twin brother. As Robert lay dying, his brother whispered, “Now I will become both halves of the world.” So the Dr. Oppenheimer you have seen this entire time is actually Joseph Oppenheimer, who has consumed his brother and therefore, carries Robert’s memories and knowledge within him and has multiple personalities.
The next section opens with another quote from the Feynman recordings. “In the beginning-when, I first joined the projects-before his internal civil war, before the great culling, before the amalgamated Oppenheimer coalesced, thirty-two distinct versions of the doctor existed. From there, the rate of the fracture increased exponentially and by 1968, that number was virtually endless.” This direct quote from Feynman adds to the general sense of unease that he felt about Dr. Oppenheimer and tells you, the reader, that he sees what you see and is just as disturbed.
We join Adolf Hitler in 1940, strolling through the garden with his most distinguished scientist, Wernher Von Braun, who has a replacement robot arm following an accident. Hitler wishes to accelerate German engineering into rocket missiles and directly assigns Von Braun to report to Himmler. Von Braun reiterates that his commitment is to the cause and the scene closes out.
Back in the present day, Richard Feynman is introduced, following a night with his latest conquest. Feynman is told that he’s needed to examine the Red Torii portal with Albert Einstein, whom is finally let out of his prison. They’ve reversed engineered the gateway mechanism but the Death Buddhists keep committing suicide rather than be used. Einstein threatens one of them before leaving through the portal to Los Alamos with Feynman, joining the meeting with General Groves, Dr. Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi & Harry Daghlian in progress. President Roosevelt had decided, following the Allied victory in Europe, that in order to gain the upper hand in the conflict with the Japanese and keep the Soviets at bay, they need to co-op some German scientists to help with the Manhattan Project. Feynman is elected to fly to Germany to infiltrate the German science stronghold of Oberammergau. Unfortunately, all the scientists, including Von Braun, drink poison and Feynman along with American forces break through just as they die. Strangely, Von Braun seems unaffected by the poison and he agrees to go with Feynman, who initially skeptical on how he could trust the German when they have nothing in common. He is convinced, however, when Von Braun said “But we do-the most important thing…There is only one thing of consequence, Doctor Feynman. And that is the cause.” Von Braun then joins the Manhattan Project.
A flashback to 4 months previous to the attack on the German science base, reveals Einstein sitting in his laboratory, staring at his monolith. Feynman asks Einstein for his input on the design of the delivery system for the bomb as the team is currently at an impasse between the gun-type fission bomb and the implosion type nuclear weapon, to which Einstein simply tells him to build both designs.
You then see Daghlian and Fermi grab the plutonium from the core and move it where you also get the full story of why Daghlian is just a skull inside the radiation suit. Unlike real life, where Daghlian died of acute radiation poisoning, the radiation stripped him of his skin & organs but prolonged his life by some 24,000 years. As they do this, President Roosevelt passes away.
Vice President Harry Truman is then sworn in as the new President, while in the midst of what looks like a cult-like Freemason ritual. Meanwhile, Daghlian and Fermi work feverishly to connect President Roosevelt’s consciousness into a computer, thereby turning the former President into an artificial intelligence running a computer. As the scientists work to preserve President Roosevelt’s consciousness, General Groves is on the phone with the newly sworn in President Truman, telling him that he has a few minutes to green light dropping the atomic bomb.
Daghlian succeeds in transplanting President Roosevelt’s consciousness into the computer, creating the first artificial intelligence which uses the ticker tape to communicate the words “All we have to fear is ourselves.” General Groves defies direct orders from President Truman and orders the soldiers in the plane to drop the bomb.
Following the bombing of Hiroshima, General Groves and his counterparts from Russia and the UK, along with Dr. Oppenheimer, expect to hold a meeting in New Mexico with the Aoulo-Daa Federation but instead receive the Siill as they’ve conquered and annihilated the Aoulo-Daa. The Siill tell the General and his compatriots that they want something from them and in exchange, they’ll give the people of Earth the stars. The section ends with an ominous to-be-continued feeling.
We join the next section in the past, where Einstein is awoken from a sound sleep to build the monolith that Feynman would later find him staring at a few months in the future. You’re then taken back to the present, where Feynman is working on calibrating the Roosevelt artificial intelligence so that the scientists are able to communicate verbally to the computer.
The President Roosevelt artificial intelligence claims that there are three traitors in the War department (and as a reader, you think, is he right) before Einstein calls Feynman to join him in the lab. Einstein claims that he’s forgotten to open something and needs Feynman to help him find the key. As they walk into the lab, Feynman examines the monolith and discovers the slight depressions in the monolith, he presses them in tandem and gains access to the device’s controls. Then, using the Pi series of numbers as coordinates, Feynman opens the portal.
As you can then see in the past, Einstein is able to open the portal as well and finds his doppelganger on the other side. His doppelganger hits Einstein over the head and drags him into the other dimension, claiming that the other man is the genius because he could never get the portal to work on his side. And so, as we readers now know, the Einstein we’ve seen the entirety of Vol 1 is, in fact, the imposter doppelganger as the real Einstein has been trapped in the other dimension. In the present day, Feynman marvels over the portal as the imposter Einstein says that he has some ideas on how to use the portal.
We return back to the meeting between General Groves, his counterparts and the Siill in the New Mexico desert where the Siill demand that the respective governments give up what’s known as the Passing Way, which is the portal Einstein build. Dr. Oppenheimer steps up and puts an end to the proceedings by shooting their spokesperson in the head. This leads to an all-out shootout with the aliens, where the General’s Russian and British counterparts are slaughtered and the aliens are killed by a grenade. It’s then that General Groves learns the terrible truth about Dr. Oppenheimer. He catches him consuming the aliens’ brains and the Doctor defends this practice by saying now he knows what the aliens know.
Two days later, General Groves calls a meeting with the entire Manhattan Project committee to let them know what he and Dr. Oppenheimer have learned. The US government had been in contact for decades with the peaceful Aoulo-Daa but with their recent defeat at the hands of the Siill, Earth is now in danger. As the Siill want the Passing Way and possess a hive mind, all of them are now aware of what the US government has done and what they will do next. As General Groves, the rest of the committee and the President Roosevelt AI ponder their next course of action, Feynman pipes up with the fact that he and Einstein have a portal that works. Einstein glowers at him but Feynman is undeterred.
Four days later, Daghlian leads the team of Fermi and Weiss into the Siill home planet through the monolith portal and Weiss’s helmet is smashed in a show of offense from the aliens. The Siill sitting on the throne says that they will not bargain with Earth, as they consider them subservient and less than them. They are, however, willing to be merciful if Daghlian’s team brings them gifts.
As we flash back, Weiss is in conversation with General Groves, who tells him to do what he has to do. And in the present, Weiss makes the decision to smash Daghlian’s helmet, which causes him and the rest of the aliens to slowly suffocate as they’re succumbing to radiation poisoning. As Fermi and Daghlian survey the resulting carnage, they’re warned by the remaining alien, Raal, who tells them to tread with caution the next time they choose to reach for the stars.
The story ends on a cliffhanger as Dr. Oppenheimer opens Einstein’s portal and steps through as his multiple personalities state “We have become death, destroyers of worlds.”
The addition of the horrifying and compelling science fiction and mental health elements (the President Roosevelt AI, Daghlian surviving radiation poisoning, the Red Torii and Einstein’s portals and Dr. Oppenheimer’s multiple personalities) makes things more exciting than a straight political event but Vol 1 has a tendency to drag in spots and is overall, overstuffed.
The character of General Leslie Groves is important to the story as you need a straight laced government man to keep the proceedings running and make the hard choices but the same cannot be said for some of the other characters. Dr. Oppenheimer’s multiple personalities and the actions he undertakes are absolutely horrifying and yet you can’t deny the knowledge he possesses. Einstein clearly has more cards up his sleeve, based on the fact he’s an imposter and you don’t know at this juncture if you’ll see the real Einstein again.
Daghlian’s most interesting aspect is the fact that he survived the acute radiation poisoning but we don’t actually know the implications of how it’ll affect his life. Yes, he has a long life now, in spite of the fact that he lost his skin & organs, but does that make him immortal? Even with the addition of Feynman’s recorded diaries, Feynman himself seems to be little more than the sidekick, being forced into situations such as negotiating with Werher Von Braun to join the Americans and opening the monolith portal for Einstein. You could stand to argue that any one of the other scientists could have had this role.
Regarding the other characters, we learn next to nothing about Fermi, Weiss and Von Braun-other than the fact that Fermi looks to be an elf and Von Braun has a robot arm and had worked for the Nazis. Weiss’s ultimate sacrifice at the end of the book can’t garner sympathy from me because I know nothing about him. These characters seems to be more expendable and it is my hope that there may be more focus on Von Braun, Feynman, Fermi and Daghlian, rather than leaving them behind.
I enjoyed Vol 1 overall but I believe that too many characters were overlooked and that there were certain elements such as the one of the portals and President Roosevelt’s AI that could have been left to another issue in order to space out the sequence of events better and avoid over-stuffing. President Truman was also expendable and barely present in Vol 1 and arguably, could have, been left out of the story altogether as General Groves didn’t need his orders to drop the atomic bomb and President Roosevelt’s AI became more compelling. My hope for the next volume is that there is more character development and the pacing is less crowded.
Reviewed by Lilian Sue
The Manhattan Project Vol 1
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by: Nick Pitarra, Jordie Bellaire, Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Release Date: 9/12/12