I must admit that I have a bit of a love affair with this book. I’ve read it since the beginning. Actually, it was one of three books that got me back into comic books, in general: Fatale, Saga, and The Manhattan Projects. Personally I feel that it sits alongside both of those titles in terms of quality of story and execution. But after a run of titles like Image has had over the last two years, it isn’t hard to see how this gem might have gone over-looked. Not entirely so, but it certainly isn’t discussed with the same fervor as either of the aforementioned critical darlings. On many levels, I would say this book is criminally underrated: the comedy, the sizable world with detail upon detail, the insane twists and turns. Few books do it better. Case in point is the 19th issue. I could not have asked for a more absurd or enthralling piece of madness than what we get here. We have seen just how much work Jonathan Hickman has put into the building of this world. Now we get to see how much fun he has tearing it all down.
What’s been established from the very first issues of this book is that few of the men we associate with the team that made the Big Bomb were who they said they were. Either they are an alien, a doppelganger, or some kind of horror film premise come to life. Particularly the two most well-known scientists of the whole bunch: Einstein and Oppenheimer. Their “body switches” or identity swaps have, by far, been the most pivotal to the overall narrative of the story. In addition, these two sub-plots have provided some of the best pieces of laugh-out-loud comedic violence and brutality of any comic book I’ve ever read. Focusing on the Infinite Oppenheimers conundrum, the continued fracturing of his mind, over time, set up a unique artistic device for both the writer and the visual artists. Sadly, when I saw the cover art, I knew things were about to come to an end.
This, however, is very far from a traditional spoiler. The writer himself gives you this information, smack-dab on the front of the book: Finite Oppenheimers: A Memorial. But how he gets us there is a whole other story. Without giving away too much, the main focus has shifted from the chaos outside of the prison cell to the inner sanctum of the mind of Joseph / Robert Oppenheimer. Things have been at work in the furthest recesses of the brain of a murderous psychopath that would rival any of the greatest wars known to man. We just didn’t know it. How we come to know this is done in a hilarious and wildly enjoyable way. What could have been very grim is made into a farce; albeit a brutal one, not lacking in theoretical bloodshed. What stands out the most to me, though, is how realized this “Oppenverse” is. It has its own words and cultures, leaders, followers, and everything in between.
Artist Ryan Browne’s exquisitely detailed characters are various and they are plentiful. Granted, they’re mostly all the same person but in every conceivable way imaginable. At first, when the Infinite Oppenheimers arc was introduced, there were different personas. But there weren’t many that were drastically different from the original personality, either tonally or literally. Now, things are just plain off the rails and that is exactly what this book does best. This book has always excelled when it is at its most insane. When it has to stop and reset the pieces, there has been some noticeable drag in pacing. But here, in the land of anything goes, this book is back to its A-game.
This is all interspersed with quick moments of what is happening in the reality of this book. On the outside, Einstein and Oppenheimer are scheming on some pretty unspeakable things, but something isn’t right with Robert. As far as anyone knows, that’s the entirety of the problem. But on the inside of his mind, it is like a cross between the mid-’90s Michael Keaton vehicle, Multiplicity and the peak moments of Dr. Strangelove. Without spoiling how this ends, I will say this: it is glorious. If you’ve been following this book, this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, and it didn’t let me down in the slightest.
The issues that are clearly going to be problems for potential new readers are glaring. To pick this issue up and use it as a jumping on point would be like turning on the National Anthem during the fireworks and the jets flying overhead. This is the crescendo and 90% of it takes place in someone’s head. The language and the tenor of this story has grown to such a scale that to try and take this on without any prior knowledge would actually seem like reading the ravings of a madman. Even I, who has been reading since the start, had to scan over a few lines of dialogue more than once to make sure they made any sense. But, if you’re a dedicated reader of the series, this couldn’t have been more rewarding. Once you get a grip on what’s happening, it’s like a Magic Eye painting. You can see that underneath the veneer, there is something hidden deep below the surface.
When you look at this issue from the perspective of the overall narrative, it is hard to qualify this book. What was happening for two issues previous to this is barely addressed at all. This felt like a hard brake right into a nose-dive through a kind of controlled phantasmagoria. That, at first, feels like a bit of a cheat. But, once this stand-alone story gets going, there isn’t a point where you aren’t enjoying yourself. It is so fun. And at the end of the day, this book was never intended to be anything but that: insane fun at the expense of some of the world’s greatest minds. While I wouldn’t dare recommend this issue to new readers, it is great enough for me to say that if you’re not reading this book, you’re missing out on something significant.
“The Manhattan Projects #19” earns a heady 9 / 10