Abstract: Infinite Oppenheimers and Postnatural Metahistory: Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects

Below is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting at the 2013 Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Conference, taking place October 3-6 a Notre Dame University.

Infinite Oppenheimers and Postnatural Metahistory: Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects

From the perspective of what number of young scholars and nuclear critics are calling a second nuclear age, I would like to suggest that one site of the “postnatural” can be found in the remarkable cultural intersection between narratives of nuclear history and contemporary ecological understandings of catastrophe and risk. Though there are any number of instances of such aesthetic correspondences and dissonances, for instance the spectacle of cinematic destruction that dominated the last decade, one might do well to look to texts that, parallel to the non-event of Mutually Assured Destruction, eschew moments of narrative disaster. Writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra’s The Manhattan Projects (Image Comics, 2012- ) is such a text, imagining that work on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos was “a front for a series of other, more unusual, programs.” Hickman’s writing picks up a tradition of re-imagining nuclear history, familiar to any reader of Thomas Pynchon, and adds a superheroic twist: J. Robert Oppenheimer is consumed by his infinite personalities, Enrico Fermi is an alien, F.D.R. is reborn as an A.I., Albert Einstein plays the role of Wolverine, etc. This paper will argue that Hickman’s work emerges from a particular moment in which nuclear, information, and biological sciences are raising a host of interesting questions for contemporary narrative. Hickman’s radically alternative history of twentieth century science and politics emerges from a postnatural perspective whose horizon surpasses the globe, positioning nuclear history within a galactic ecology in order to rigorously problematize the posthuman.

Alternate Nuclear History: Manhattan Projects

I’ve picked up the first three issues of The Manhattan Projects, written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by Nick Pitarra, and I am finding it absolutely delightful. The premise is pure alternate nuclear history joy: “What if the research and development department created to produce the first atomic bomb was a front for a series of other, more unusual, programs? What if the union of a generation’s brightest minds was not a signal for optimism, but foreboding? What if everything . . . went wrong?” (from the cover). Already in the first three issues, a insane Robert Oppenheimer suffers from multiple personality disorder, and gets to mow down killer Japanese samurai robots

Wernher von Braun has a robotic arm, Richard Feynman is a narcissistic pretty boy, Harry Daghlian is an irradiated skull, F.D.R. becomes the world’s first artificial intelligence (“We have nothing to fear but. . . ourselves” are his first posthuman words), and, as Chris Sims has pointed out in an early review, “Albert Einstein is The Manhattan Projects’ Wolverine. . . . Seriously: Einstein is the sensational character find of 2012.” (Wired also has a review and an interview with Hickman here.) And perhaps the least compelling aspect of the book so far is the end of its third issue, which reimagines Hiroshima in a darkly humorous fashion. I’m really looking forward to continue reading this.