Now that I’ve gotten the sales-pitch portion of the review out of the way, it struck me partway through reading this that Jonathan Fetter-Vorm‘s Trinity was a much better read than fellow-Jonathan Hickman’s The Manhattan Projects. I’m not sure if Mr. Fetter-Vorm ever intended to outdo that series by presenting the drama and poetry of actual history as opposed to just slapping together a bunch of labels in the silly-label-maker together and calling it “alt history,” but there you go. If anything, Trinity is a far more daring and ambitious project, attempting to encapsulate the science, politics, and ethics that exist in the story of the creation of nuclear weapons, starting (chronologically speaking) with Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radioactive elements and ending with the start of the Cold War.
Pages are devoted to anecdotes, diagrams of what happens in the nucleus of an atom during fission, and even humorous or dramatic asides. Three separate panels involving three different personnel demonstrate how the U.S. government compartmentalized the Manhattan Project to ensure secrecy, a joke I won’t spoil. The way Fetter-Vorm’s art and writing coalesce on the page is very much in keeping with the pop/surrealist tradition of Jim Steranko. In one sequence, dealing with the technological history of warfare, Fetter-Vorm samples Picasso’s Guernica when depicting the bombing of the Spanish town, which is far more inventive than Nick Pitarra’s art on Hickman’s series.
Where Manhattan Projects cynically exploits historical figures to showcase fantasy violence, Trinity engages in the great moral dilemma behind the war-ending bomb. Hickman’s Oppenheimer–the fictional, psychotic twin brother of the real scientist–is a genocidal madman (“Welcome Worldbreaker. Welcome Trickster. Welcome Liar. Welcome Destroyer.”), and used to pervert not only the idealism of actual J. Robert Oppenheimer, but also the meaning of the Bhagavad Gita’s “Now, I am become Death. The Destroyer of Worlds.” This is because The Manhattan Projects writer isn’t interested in how the drive to end the second World War forever changed the nature and scope of warfare and its place in the public’s conciousness; rather, he throws references to fringe science and images of assaulting Japanese robots “Zen powered by Death Buddhists”–a phrase so stupid it hurts just to type it–to be “cool” or “awesome,” as if he’s leading on a bunch of tweens Pied Piper style (*shudder*). Fetter-Vorm, on the other hand, engages in the murky nature of the Project: when the bomb is detonated, whether in test or warfare, the explosion and its effects are given the full scale of a page to show the godlike awe and terror of what had been accomplished. One page showing two Japanese boys in Nagasaki talking about what super-powers they would have–one teases the other about his crush on a girl when the latter says he’d have invisibility–leads to two double-page spreads of the bomb going off, minimalist in design (the page is mostly blank white), before revealing the invisibility-boy crying from his horrific burns. This is the actual context for Oppenheimer’s “become Death” invokation: a realization of his (and our) own capacity for annihilation; his later comment to President Truman that he feels he “has blood on [his] hands” wouldn’t fit with Hickman’s “alt history” interpretation (which is used to cover his bogus history). Another image Fetter-Vorm hinges the narrative on is dominoes: he uses it as a metaphor to explain the chain reaction that is required in fission, and then ominously intones “The chain reaction had started” when the Trinity test succeeds, suggesting the next fifty years in one sentence. That historical connection, both the origin of the term “Ground Zero” and the modern remains of the various Project sites are touched on, is important to reading Trinity as a reminder of our responsibilities.
Somehow, I feel like I’m doing a disservice to Trinity by comparing it to Manhattan Projects, even favorably, because what Fetter-Vorm has done is so much classier, and not just because it deals with the real story, because fiction is just as important as truth (Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla is perhaps one of the finest demonstrations of the bomb’s emotional impact). Trinity is classier because it charges head on, and isn’t afraid to show us the cost of war, whether it’s the destruction of cities and a culture (Japan’s, specifically), the start of the arms race, or even the recognizably human reactions of various figures’ relief or guilt (a wife who tells her Project-employed husband “They dropped it on families”). It’s classier because it doesn’t treat the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century like a nihilist’s action figures. Most of all, it’s classier because its explosions mean something.