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 they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism