Quick Hits: Science Gone Wrong with Hickman/Pitarra/Browne/Bellaire, Gilbert Hernandez, Joe Orlando, and More

Time to get your electrodes aligned and your Tesla Coils polished! It's the Panel Patter team taking quick looks on the theme of what happens when comics creators delve into the darker corners of science fiction. It's a gruesome grouping we call...Science Gone Wrong, and it leads off with the master of long-form storytelling, Jonathan Hickman, working with his cohorts Nick Pitarra, Ryan Browne and Jordie Bellaire in a lab called Manhattan Projects...

 The Manhattan Projects
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Illustrated by Nick Pitarra and Ryan Browne
Colors by Jordie Bellaire
Letters by Rus Wooton
Image Comics

If you want to know the real truth behind American history from the middle of WWII to the beginning of the Vietnam War, you're not going to get it in a PBS documentary, nor are you going to get the true nitty-gritty from reading a history textbook. No, you need to be reading The Manhattan Projects, one of the most inventive, perfectly crazy series you'll ever read. The series is all about pushing boundaries, creatively, narratively, and the boundaries of good taste and discretion. This book travels through important historical events, from the furthest reaches of outer space, to the twisted workings of one character's mind.
From creative interpretations of well-known historical figures (Cannibal Oppenheimer! Einstein wielding a chainsaw, killing aliens! Harry Truman at the center of a gigantic, murderous orgy ritual! Robot FDR!), to twisted takes on significant historical events such as the dropping of the atomic bomb and the assassination of a certain beloved president, no topic is off-limits or safe from the view of the creators of The Manhattan Projects, Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra. The series feels like a unified creative output from two crazy creators working at the top of their magnificently ridiculous game. It would be almost impossible to imagine the series without the art of Nick Pitarra, however there are several capable fill-in issues provided by Ryan Browne, who shares Hickman and Pitarra's similarly offbeat sensibilities (see his series God Hates Astronauts for an example). The colors from Jordie Bellaire in this book are bright, big and a very important part of the storytelling in this book.

This story continues Jonathan Hickman's exploration of the idea of a powerful secret elite, and the ways in which they can try and fail to advance scientific goals (and shape the world). In this book, you have a powerful, genius elite acting completely on their own, without (in some cases) any recognizable moral compass. Their allegiance to science outweighs that of any loyalty they may feel to any government, and the results are often hilarious and frequently disastrous or horrifically violent. The creative team here is not afraid to push boundaries in the series, as far as violence and good taste are concerned.  An amazing, frequently hilarious, sometimes shocking and disgusting book that also happens to read better in collected editions. (Review by James Kaplan)

Judgement Day and Other Stories
Primary Illustrator: Joe Orlando
Primary Writer: Al Feldstein
Published by Fantgraphics (originally EC)

In 1954 American comics culture was changed forever by the introduction of the (almost dystopian enough to be considered science fiction itself) Comics Code Authority. Two years later, Bill Gaines of EC Comics is struggling to find stories that can get Code approval into his books. After the story that was scheduled to run fails to pass the Code, Gaines sends in Judgment Day by Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando, originally printed in 1953. The Code Authority promptly refuses to approve the story on the grounds that the main character is a black man – but changes their reason for disapproval (to the fact that the man is sweaty) after accusations of racism. Gaines responds with a “fuck you” and prints the story anyway, then folds all of his books except for Mad Magazine, essentially ending EC and the Golden Age of Comics.

Judgment Day and Other Stories contains 23 stories illustrated by Joe Orlando from 1953 to 1955. They range from corny generic sci-fi to angry allegories criticizing the world in general. Orlando’s style is detailed, yet clean enough that one never gets lost in it. His monsters and robots are often unique and original. Every page is enjoyable to look at, even if the story itself is somewhat less than exciting. Beyond the title story, I found myself enamored with The Teacher From Mars, Harvest, and Outcast of the Stars; though most of the stories were at least entertaining (even if I found the Adam Link segments to fall somewhat flat).
Fantagraphic’s EC Library is an excellent collection of classic comics. The history behind what is included in Judgment Day and Other Stories by Joe Orlando makes it a must read. But even if that’s not the kind of thing that excites you, Orlando’s art and the wonderfully subversive nature of many of the stories will make it worth your while. The entire EC Library gives these old comics the high quality reprints they deserve, and this is an excellent (albeit somewhat pricey) way to discover these relics of a very different time. (Review by Guy Thomas)

Fatima: The Blood Spinners
Written and Illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez
Published by Dark Horse Comics

While still doing periodic new Love and Rockets material, Gilbert Hernandez has been steadily, perhaps almost stealthily, putting out short mini-series/graphic novels with Dark Horse Comics. This one is a few years old (singles in 2012) but wasn't collected until 2014, which saw two other Hernandez books released from Dark Horse as well. While I wasn't keen on Loverboys (see review here), this one, with its outrageous sci-fi zombie premise, was a lot of fun to read.

In a zombie-plagued world, Fatima fights as part of an agency defending what's left of humanity. They're up against a drug (Spin) that increases a person's drive, but at the cost of turning them into a zombie by the end of the drug's lifespan. It goes viral among drug dealers, and Fatima and her cohorts try to stop the spread. That doesn't go so well, and we're moved into the sci-fi part of things, with Fatima and company put in sleep chambers, computerized glasses, and mad plans to rebuild the world by impregnating "clean" humans, regardless of gender.

To put it mildly, this sci-fi horror story is batshit insane, and Hernandez's exaggerated visuals, which are actually a bit restrained here (Fatima and the other women are very busty, but not as much as is typical with Hernandez.), work well for this story. Because he's not trying to be perfect or consistent in the line work, the drawings are able to take on a life of their own. The character faces are definitely familiar to anyone who reads his work regularly. It was fun to see him use a bit of Kirby Krackle on one page, too. But the visual stars of the show are the horrific creatures Hernandez draws, starting with his basic figured, zombie-fied and moving to the grotesque mutants who ooze their way over the hapless victims, making great use of the tentacle porn trope without being the least bit sexual.

A great sense of story and character, watching Fatima's journey through time and seeing humanity's fall--and her faith in others along with society--is a visual pleasure, and well with picking up if you can still find a copy. It's a weird sort of EC-horror story through an indie artist lens, mixing tropes from both styles, and I thought it was great when I first read it, and again on re-reading. (Review by Rob McMonigal)

Nowhere Men
Written by Eric Stephenson
Illustrated by Nate Bellegarde
Colored by Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by Fonografiks
Image Comics

Nowhere Men is on of the coolest, most inventive, stylish comics I've read in recent years. I described it recently as what happens when you get a super-team together (in any context, not specifically superheroes) and felt like the history (and decline and fall) of the Beatles, meets the Fantastic Four (except, imagine it's a team of four Reed Richards types), meets Watchmen.  In the world of Nowhere Men, "science is the new rock & roll" and the lives and careers of scientists are followed with the same passion and enthusiasm with which we follow pop singers or reality TV stars (yeah, their world does sound better).  
The biggest stars of all were the founders of WorldCorp, a scientific super-team. Unfortunately, it seemed to fall apart almost as quickly as it came together, as each of the members seemed to have their own agenda and ideas for how to succeed. The story shows the disastrous consequences of the failure of these geniuses to work together, along with demonstrating the consequences of science without morality. In a highly creative manner, this story chronicles WorldCorp's rise, fall, and the years of fallout from it. It's also got teleportation, mutants, conspiracies, clashing personalities, and wit to spare. It also has some of the most engaging back-matter and supplementary materials I've seen in a comic. News articles, interviews, and advertisements for in-world products; these things all enhance the experience the story and really provide the sense of a fleshed out world.

The art on this book (including spectacular design wok on covers and in the presentation of the supplemental materials) is first rate. Illustration is by Nate Bellegarde, who provides a detailed, expressive, exaggerated style and brings to vivid life both small moments and out-of-this-world crazy science fiction action (his style is somewhat reminiscent of that of Ryan Bodenheim). Jordie Bellaire proves her versatility here by providing bright, gorgeous colors (that smartly vary widely based on setting and time period for the specific part of the story).

Nowhere Men is an excellent, engaging, clever, terrifically rendered book. (Review by James Kaplan)

Weird Fantasy Archives Volume 1
Written and Illustrated by Various Creators, including: Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein, Gardner Fox, Harvey Kurtzman, and Wally Wood
Published by Dark Horse Comics (originally EC)

This is such a great time for fans of old comics, it's not even funny. There's archives for everything from the original Archie material to the comic book version of Popeye to Craig Yoe finding seriously messed up romance comics in the quarter bins of history. When you think about the concept of "science gone wrong," what better note to end on than this, the first of Dark Horse's reprints of the Weird Fantasy comic from Bill Gaines.

"But it's called Weird Fantasy, Rob!" you say? Yeah, that's confusing as all heck, but remember, we're talking 1950 here. Tolkien is nearly five years away at this point (and nearly fifteen from being really popular), Sword and Sorcery doesn't even come around until about the same time Stan and Jack are charged with creating a counter to DC's Justice League of America, and the rules about what terms belonged to what genres of speculative fiction were far more blurry than they are today. So Weird Fantasy, which leads off with a man in a robot body trying to get his life back courtesy of Gaines and Feldstein and ends with the depressing, Penn and Teller Get Killed-style story "Rescued" from Wally Wood about a series of doomed space exploration missions is very much a clinic on cautionary tales of science delving where man is not meant to go.

Unlike the Fantagraphics reprints, such as the one Guy discusses above for Joe Orlando, these reprints offer the original issues in chronological order as well as in color. While it's great to read story after story from a particular creator, there's a lot to be said for seeing them as they were originally ordered, with Wood's often dark tales contrasting with the more quirky tales from Mad Magazine's Kurtzman. It allows you to see how Gaines and Feldstein, who of course feature in a story themselves, in a longstanding "comic creators inserted into the narrative" tradition, put this magazine together from the ground up. They were trying to build something new and different, and watching their successes and failures is valuable, I think. Not every story is going to be a winner, especially when the creator involved isn't at the level of Wood or Orlando or the other notables to come out of the EC line-up.

Despite the walls of text, which I really recommend you mostly skip, this is a lot of fun to read, and actually has quite a few good stories, like Kurtzman's "The Time Machine and the Schmoe" (in which a guy is too dumb to realize a time machine with an electric plug can't go into the past) or Harry Harrison and Wood's "The Black Arts" that uses the Necronomicon to pull one over a guy who wants to manipulate women. Feldstein's art is a bit stiff, but the unbridled enthusiasm and imagination of the plots here, where people from Venus can appear to stop a plot of Martians or a robot can get sick of being lorded over by his creator. And some, like the discussion of nukes in "Cosmic Ray Bomb Explosion!" show that these stories had more depth than they were given credit for.

The modern re-coloring is a bit off-putting (I wish they'd preserved the original tones or gone black and white, like Fanta did), but if you can handle the price, this beautiful hardcover is a must-own for any science fiction fan with a soft spot for horror and unrestrained creativity. (Review by Rob McMonigal)