The third collection of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ horror-noir series delves into the history of the Femme Fatale and the ancient society that watches her and worships ancient gods. I’m tempted to call these four issues a prequel or a diversion from the main story, except the series has always moved around in time. But it’s never gone back this far before. In these four issues we learn about some of Josephine’s earlier activities, as well as two of her fatale predecessors.
In “The Case of Alfred Ravenscroft” it’s 1936. Josephine is in Texas seeking a writer named Alfred Ravenscroft, with the help of a policemen who has fallen under her spell. Ravenscroft had published a horror story with details of a demonic ceremony so close to Jo’s experience that she had to find out where it came from. The writer tells of a cult his mother joined, and takes Jo in to meet her. She is a ghostly presence with the demonic tentacles that we have seen before. As Josephine flees the scene, the writer realizes “she didn’t even know what she was.”
“A Lovely Sort of Death” goes way back, to France in 1286 A.D. The fatale of this era was named Mathilda. She has the usual powerful effect on men, and when the White Brotherhood comes for her–dressed in the now-familiar robes with yellow crosses on them–she even survives being burned at the stake. But she finally succumbs to whatever they summon during a later blood rite (very subtle visual here, just a flash of light and a horrified expression, with the rest left to the reader’s imagination). An old book does survive her, a book which we have already seen several times in the series.
“Down the Darkest Trail” is set in Colorado in 1883. “Black” Bonnie Smith is the current fatale, drawn with a close resemblance to Josephine (I suppose because it’s closer to the present). She’s had a hard life in the West, but she learned to control her power over men, and is an outlaw when the main action begins. She is once again being pursued by men who may not be human. A professor who has been studying the group takes her and his Native American guide to a church, seeking a copy of their bible. The professor dies in the assault, but the other two take the book and live the rest of their lives together. So in the end this chapter turns out to be mainly about the movement of the cursed book. From the professor’s description the book is some kind of grimoire: “men who worshiped gods with unpronounceable names…and whose bibles sometimes drove them mad.” The book itself appears to have magical properties.
“Just A Glance Away” gets us back to Josephine. It’s Romania in 1943, and she has wound up in a Nazi prison, as a result of the investigations begun by what she learned in Texas in the first story. She knows the shadowy things she has seen are real, and wants to know what her role is. An old woman in occupied Paris teaches her practical magic, like warding symbols. Seeking further answers, she follows the Thule Society to Romania, where a secret SS unit has been excavating ancient burial grounds and temples, gathering arcane knowledge. But the Nazi affiliation is just a front: once again, these “men” are not human. The man/demon in charge tells her he saw her predecessor die, “although death isn’t exactly the right word…devoured is more accurate.” She has been drawn to this place, for a ceremony during the convergence: and “she’s for our Master.” He reads from the book that keeps appearing, but the ceremony is interrupted by an American soldier named Walter. She knows she was to have been sacrificed, but he sees the secret world, just like the old lady. So she stays with him, knowing he will eventually grow old and weak.
So, what have we learned? There have been a succession of femme fatales, each with the same power over men, which all of them have apparently needed to learn how to control. They live for a long time without seeming to age: Josephine appears unchanged since the 1930s. And they all appear to have been striking brunettes who resemble Josephine. It may be possible for them to die of natural causes, or at least it’s implied in the case of Bonnie. The story says “she followed him [the Native American called Milkfed] to the grave a year later.” Although it also says “the earth broke open and an entire city burned…and she finally understood the words written in that book.” So possibly she was the predecessor Jo was told about when the Nazis were about to sacrifice her. The large-scale burning resembles the scene after Mathilda comes to her horrifying end. The White Brotherhood watches the fatales so they can be ready for sacrifice to the Master at the proper time, which happens when there is a “convergence” of some sort.
The second volume of Jonathan Hickman & Nick Pitarra’s The Manhattan Projects collects issues #6 – 10. They have apparently decided to do without subtitles, like the American Vampire collections. They’re doing without any kind of description of the series as well (like the East of West collection), other than the series motto “Science. Bad.” Even the most charitable reading of the action would have to call that an understatement, to say the least.
The main focus at the beginning of these issues is a rocket scientist named Helmutt Gröttrup, a second-rater who escapes Wernher von Braun’s mass homicide at the Nazi Science Stronghold, only to run into the arms of the Russian army. They take him to their science center, Star City. There he invents a propulsion system which enables the Russians to send the first man into space: Captain Yuri Gagarin. After his return Gagarin always appears in his space suit, with helmet, with his cosmonaut dog companion (also suited). It’s the sort of surreal visual that the series delights in.
But the real action begins when the scientists decide to bypass government oversight to harness their technology to defend the planet from the extraterrestrial threat. The Illuminati (a paranoid’s version of the Real Powers, with members like Freemason President Harry S. Truman, a man in charge of the world banking system, a man in charge of the world’s religions, and the A.I. of the late President FDR) decide they must be stopped, and shown their true place.
The naked struggle for power begins with the invasion of the science facilities by cabal forces, and the revolt of the A.I., who turns on the scientists who created him. It’s a short, violent struggle, but in the end the scientists come out on top. Einstein and Feynman are the big action heroes (Oppenheimer appears in several scenes, usually complete with his gang of multiple personalities displayed in ghostly form, but doesn’t contribute much to the action). But they are topped by the extreme heroics of Von Braun, who saves the day at the expense of quite a few body parts. In the course of this poor fall guy Gröttrup gets screwed again, a recurring event in this story arc. And Gagarin’s dog Laika speaks for the first time, so he must be much smarter than we thought.
Just when you thought the battle was over, it goes on for another issue. I was surprised to see that most of the Illuminati actually took part in the invasion: I’d have expected them to stay above the fray and let the robots and human cannon fodder do the work. But since they’re locked in the science lab with the scientists and General Groves…let’s just say that those pieces are definitely off the board, permanently. Poor Truman gets a visit from Oppenheimer. In the words of the Borg: you will be assimilated. This sets the scene for a new President, with a blank check for the Manhattan Project. He’s not named, but there is a resemblance to JFK, complete with a “we choose to go to the moon in this decade” speech given at a University. The pacing here is a bit surprising, much like a conventional super hero book. And they have skipped over Eisenhower, reminding us that this is an alternate history, after all. I’m guessing he was just too bland a historical figure to be useful, even in altered form. It’s always possible Hickman has some other idea in mind, like having Eisenhower take over when JFK is assassinated. It certainly suits the scientists to get a President who is ready to support science as a national priority. It will be interesting to see how long JFK survives in this time line.
Things take a much different tack in Issue #10, “Finite Oppenheimers” (a callback to the first issue in the series, which was titled “Infinite Oppenheimers”). This issue takes place entirely in Joseph Oppenheimer’s mind. Robert Oppenheimer (the famous scientist brother who Joseph has been impersonating after killing and eating him in the first issue) becomes conscious. He witnesses Joseph’s mind splintering as a result of all of the personalities he has assimilated. And he decides to take action: “the Oppenheimer Civil War began.” Looks like Oppenheimer is coming back to center stage.
One other thing about the series. Like many of Hickman’s projects, the graphic design features interstitial pages with quotes setting up the coming action (e.g. “He believed the lie”), as well as quotes from an imaginary document called Clavis Aurea: The Recorded Feynman. Although they always have some relevance to the narrative they precede, I found them to be an unnecessary distraction after awhile. They don’t add anything significant to the story, and The Feynman quotes especially come off as pretentious.
If Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples were titling these collections, this one could have been “Meet the In-Laws.” Marko’s parents had arrived at the end of the previous volume (via a magic helmet, so maybe “appeared” would be more accurate). The tension between them and Alana is immediate: they’re very conscious of the ancient enmity between Wreath and Landfall. I’d almost forgotten that the Marko/Alana union is a classic Romeo and Juliet story. The fact that they have a child–which is apparently something that was not even thought to be possible–makes things even more complicated.
The action continues on three other fronts. Marko and his mother Klara use the teleporting crash helms to rescue Izabel, the dismembered specter who has been serving as guide and babysitter. Klara hit her with a banishment spell when they first appeared, taking her for a captor. So they find themselves on a nearby planetoid, and immediately encounter a huge giant. Marko’s ex Gwendolyn joins up with freelancer The Will. The Will had given up on finding Marko, but he needs Gwendolyn’s help to rescue a little girl from the slave planet Sextillion. And the drone Prince Robot IV is still at large (you know, the guy with a computer monitor for a head). We also meet Lying Cat, The Will’s sidekick. The cat has the annoying habit of detecting and announcing untruths.
The series really clicked for me with this second collection. I’m sure the arrival of Marko’s parents was a big factor, as it just increases the family dynamics that form such a large part of the series.
Marko and Klara do find Izabel, and they get her back to the ship just in time. The planetoid turns out to be a gigantic egg, which hatches into a Timesuck, a planet-sized predator. Staples provides a stunning double splash page of the birth, a nice flashy visual in a series that generally favors a more subtle look. The Will’s ship (with Gwendolyn and the Slave Girl) arrives just then as well. But the reunion is postponed as both ships make their escape. In the process Lying Cat is saved from death in space, but Marko loses a family member.
The final issue in the collection catches up with Prince Robot IV. It turns out “blueblood” is a literal description of royalty in this universe, as we see when he gets injured on a battlefield. Later he finally tracks down the author named Heist whose book served as such an inspiration to Alana and Marko’s romance. The prince decides to wait on the planet Quietus for the insurgent couple to arrive. But they’d already been there a week (presumably undetected), which sets up the next volume.