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Anomaly

Skip Brittenham (writer), Brian Haberlin (artist)

(Anomaly Productiions; US: Nov 2012)

What a tremendous, tragically lost opportunity this book is. Anomaly is huge in every way: it’s 370 oversized pages amount to seven pounds, ensconsed between hard covers and packed in a corrugated-cardboard box for extra protection against, I dunno, clumsy grandkids and thoughtless postmen. A whole lot of thought went into its design, layout and production, and the quality is there to see as you cradle its considerable weight on your lap, leafing through its ungainly but eye-catching 10” x 15” pages.


That’s 30 inches across—two and a half feet—when you’re holding it open on your lap. It’s a beautiful thing, in other words, as long as you don’t look too hard at the story.


Cuz man, the story is lame.


In a weird way, it’s fun to play “spot the source”. Here, you try it: In a grim dystopian future (Blade Runner, Soylent Green, Brazil) dominated by an evil, soulless corporation (RoboCop, Avatar, Alien), a brash young military recruit is sent on a hopeless mission (Starship Troopers, Aliens, Alien 3, Event Horizon, Avatar again) to a distant planet where he encounters various warring species (John Carter of Mars, Star Wars, fucking Farscape for God’s sake) and makes friends with the nice ones while showing them the way to peace and freedom (John Carter again, a bunch of Star Trek episodes, every movie you’ve ever seen about white people in Africa).


Oh, and the enemies he faces are a fearsome horde decked out in skulls and skins (Army of Darkness, The Road Warrior, Conan the Barbarian, Deathstalker, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy). And along the way, some of his comrades will die (most of the above).


Unlike, say, the deaths in Alien or Lord of the Rings, these deaths leave the reader feeling absolutely nothing. These characters lack any personality at all; they’re merely pieces to be moved around on the page in service to the already-ploddingly-obvious story. They are a vacuous as figures from a video game. In fact, that’s their clear antecedent: not fictional characters from novels, stories, or other comics, but the pixillated ghosts of Halo 3 and Call of Duty.


Look, this book isn’t horrible. I’m making it sound horrible but it’s… Well okay, the story is horrible. It’s a chop-suey of every stock sci-fi idea of the past, oh, 30 years, and I honestly don’t think there’s a single original moment. (Well, there’s a parasite that eats plastics and renders all the technology useless. I don’t recall ever seeing that idea before. Maybe that’s sort of new.)


But all the plot beats and character points are eye-glazingly familiar: The Plucky Robot (Data from Star Trek, Bishop from Aliens); The Parental Revelation (Star Wars); The Sassy Woman Leader of the Expedition who’s at loggerheads with the brash action hero, until she unaccountably decides she adores him for no reason other than the fact that it’s happened a zillion times before (Han Solo and Leia, Starbuck and whatshisname in Battlestar Galactica, Avatar again, John Carter again, hell, The African Queen and Much Ado About Nothing if I want to get snarky. Not that I would ever do that, of course).


So if the story sucks—and yeah, it does—that leaves the art. The art pretty much has to carry the story in a project like this: the mere size of the book makes such demands on the reader that the reader’s expectations are driven to ridiculous heights. And for the most part, the art in this story is, well, pretty good.


Here’s what’s good: landscapes both natural and artificial; space crafts and alien worlds. Artists Brian Haberlin and Geirrod Van Dyke use color brilliantly and have a masterful sense of perspective, color and shading. Layouts are consistently inventive and effective, engaging the reader’s eye in new and surpsing ways on page after page. That’s no easy trick for such a long book, but Habelin and Van Dyke make it look easy.


Pages range from (purposefully) choppy jumbles of seven or eight panels to sweeping, genuinely awe-inspiring spreads of two pages—and in one case, even three pages, courtesy of a foldout. The artists’ skill lies in conveying the big picture, the epic scene, and given that this story aims for epic much of the time, those talents are often utilized and very much in evidence.


That’s the good news. The less-good news is that the figure drawing is sometimes awkward, with pained-looking facial expressions and awkwardly stiff poses. The aliens, interestingly, are better rendered, or perhaps the shortcomings of the art don’t show up as much with figures that are purely imaginative.


Legendary film animator Ray Harryhausen has said that it was often much harder to make model elephants and lions and gorillas look believable, as opposed to dinosaurs and space monsters, because everyone in the audience had an expectation of how the earthly wildlife should look. Maybe something similar is happening here.


Ultimately, the sheer weight of the book—literal and metaphorical—proves to be its biggest downfall. A volume such as this carries a certain degree of expectation: something this massive needs to be commensurately rewarding, challenging, and original. If it’s not, then why bother reading it? To make matters worse, this isn’t even the whole story, only “part one” of something presumably much more, y’know, epic.


Should you buy it, read it, give it as a gift? Hell, I don’t know. Readers who find the art inspiring will likely experience the kind of guilty pleasure akin to watching a beautiful but dumb movie. (Insert title here.) Readers left cold by the art are unlikely to find much else to engage them, so proceed with caution.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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