Reviewed: Anomaly

How could so much money produce something so flaccid?

Anomaly
Skip Brittenham (W) and Brian Haberlin (A)
Anomaly Publishing, 370pp, £45.00

My best friend called me at 11pm the other night, raving about a giant book he'd just bought called Anomaly.

"It's massive!" he hissed, before confiding that he was on his way to my place. He had a flight the next day, and on the strength of just 17 pages had decided to buy the tablet edition of this book for the trip and lend me the original.

Intrigued, I jumped online to see what the world had to say about it. The reviews on Amazon maintained my friend's fervour, reading like the euphoric whispers of cultists:

"undoubtedly the best graphic novel of 2012"

"a must have for any comic book collector!"

"every moment was joyous"

"The Future of Books NOW!!!!!"

When it arrived, it was exactly as large as everyone had said: a hulking 368-page gravestone of a book, in a case splashed with endorsements from the likes of Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott. These too hyped Anomaly as if it represented not just a really great comic, but a whole new form of artistic expression for mankind.

Willing to believe, I opened and gawped at vista after astonishing vista, from monolithic starships in low orbit to flights of doves in the midground of colossal vertical cities. The sense of wonder persisted for around the first tenth of the book, and even though clichés were clustering at the edge of reason, I kept my disbelief aloft and convinced myself it was all just the sort of high camp that accomplished space opera can get away with.

Fifty pages later however, at around the point my friend texted me to say "I can't believe I bought this", I had to admit to myself I was simply reading a crap book.

The spectacle of it all was the false plywood front of a movie-set edifice, concealing a disappointing mess of tired old junk: evil supercorporations, chosen ones, noble savages, dark lords and armies of orcs (Yes, armies of orcs - very early in the story, the sudden narrative deployment of technology-eating nanobollocks provides an excuse for things to lurch from sci-fi into a sort of bargain-bin Lord of the Rings).

Brian Haberlin and Gierrod Van Dyke's art, comprising digital painting over wireframe models, stopped feeling impressive, and became faintly unnerving, when applied in close-up to human faces rather than massive spacecraft.

Even the "augmented reality" app released with the book couldn't redeem it, allowing only the ability to point my phone at larger images and have ropey 3D models lean out of the page to bark at me.

Anomaly, I decided, was certainly accurately titled: how could so much money be thrown at this (it's frequently called "the most expensive graphic novel ever produced"), only for the end result to be so flaccid?

The answer may lie with Anomaly co-writer and co-creator Skip Brittenham - one of Hollywood's biggest lawyers, and a man who has represented Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis and, oh, Harrison Ford. With that in mind, the grinning endorsements on the back of the case, the movie-style "Biggest Graphic Novel Ever" billing, and the online hype machine, all make a lot more sense.

Sadly, despite reputedly having embarked on the Anomaly project after having been challenged to take on a creative endeavour by his wife, Brittenham has managed to produce something that, despite its sheer physical presence, is resolutely uncreative.

Rather, it's a compilation of the most marketable elements of big-budget SF/fantasy cinema, sewn together into a groaning, digitally painted Frankenstein and shoved out into the comics market. Avatar, Prometheus, 300, Lord of the Rings, Halo, John Carter and pretty much every expensive genre film of the last decade all shine murkily through every page.

Was Brittenham hoping to create a a massive fanbase ex nihilo, by drawing together as many elements as possible from established franchises? While this may be a great strategy for designing summer blockbusters, I doubt its longevity in the comics market.

I see sci-fi comics as a place where people can do things far too left-field and weird for Hollywood; where big ideas aren't tied to big budgets, and so don't need to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to ensure a return on investment.

From the reckless deployment of a bowel disruptor in Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan (yes, it does exactly what you think it does), to the hijacking of a city-sized cyborg space-whale in Alexandro Jodorowsky & Juan Giménez's Metabarons, scifi comics are a place for vast and mad things to happen with no regard to demographic appeal. While Anomaly may be epic in size, epic in its endorsements, epic in its marketing budget and in its app tie-ins, it is absolutely diminuitive in terms of its contribution to genre fiction. But it is, I will stress once more, a very large book.

An image from "Anomaly".

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories