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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle