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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump