To many in Hollywood, Skip Brittenham is one of the industry’s most prominent lawyers. But Skip isn’t just a high-powered entertainment lawyer; he’s also the driving narrative force behind Anomaly, a sprawling sci-fi space opera of a comic book which he created with Witchblade co-creator Brian Haberlin. Set in the 28th Century, when most of mankind lives in off-world colonies (read: space slums) and a corporate oligarchy known as The Conglomerate conquers planets to strip mine them for valuable resources, Anomaly centers on a diplomatic mission to a mysterious, uncharted planet where things quickly go awry. What unfolds next is a war for the fate of the planet, aptly named Anomaly, and the beginnings of a much larger anti-Conglomerate resistance. And this isn’t just a flimsy 22-page comic; it’s an oversized behemoth of a book, more akin to a coffee table book than just a comic book, and at 378 pages, it’s the longest original full-color graphic novel ever published. If that wasn’t enough to spool up your FTL excitement engines, then brace yourselves, because there’s an Augmented Reality app that brings hundreds of the book’s images to incredible 3D animated life.
To students of the genre, Anomaly will feel instantly familiar in a good way. Echoes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, Avatar, and Heavy Metal can be found in the galaxy-spanning story, which isn’t a surprise given that Brittenham grew up on a steady diet of pulp adventure stories and comic books. Anomaly is the product of Brittenham’s lifetime of sci-fi and high-flying adventure, refracted through Haberlin’s lush illustrations. The end result is an imposing hardcover tome boasting 21,600 illustrated panels across 378 pages, weighing 6.4 pounds and all available on Amazon. Fortunately, the 3D augmented reality is entirely weightless, or else you would need a forklift for this thing. The infinitely more portable tablet version costs only $10 and features actors like Olivia D’Abo, Vincent Corazza, Nana Visitor, Hudson Leick, and others voicing nearly 90 parts, along with a bonus 120 pages of background material. Plus, no spider in the world could survive a well-timed thwap from this book, so it functions as a self-defense tool too. In the business, that’s called a win-win-win.
But what exactly motivated a high-powered entertainment consigliere like Skip Brittenham to try his hand at writing a graphic novel? To get the skinny, I sat down with Brittenham and Brian Haberlin to talk augmented reality, the future of publishing and the best position in which to read Anomaly.
N: First and foremost, I wanted to say congratulations on the book. It’s a bit daunting due to the size, but I really tore through it.
Skip Brittenham: Oh, thank you!
Brian Haberlin: When you read it, did you use the Augmented Reality app too?
N: I did indeed. It took some getting used to, but it was a nice touch.
BH: I actually have a question for you. When you read it, did you read it on a table or did you have it in your lap?
N: I read it mostly on a table. I tried reading it in bed, but it was a little unwieldy until I jerry-rigged a comfortable position for myself and the book.
N: Both worked well, but lying down less so.
BH: Yeah, yeah, when we were first getting into the size, we thought of it more as the first coffee table graphic novel.
N: Exactly! It does seem like more of a coffee table book than a traditional graphic novel. It reminds me of the outsize collectible quality of things like DC’s Absolute Editions. What motivated the decision for this larger format?
BH: Well, the first time Skip and I met – a lot of times I get a call from people that aren’t in the comic book world, I get a little leery – he took me to his study and I saw his comic book library that was almost as large as mine and I’ve been collecting for 30 years. We both love big, printed, lushly illustrated things. One of the first things we were talking about was 300. I said, “Like this! Let’s do it like this, but bigger.”
SB: I didn’t want to do something that had been done before; I wanted to innovate and do something new in how we approached the business. There is a lot of social commentary in the book on themes like climate change, the disparity between the rich and the poor, religion should cooperate rather than fight… we wanted to do something big and meaty with underlying themes. But there’s also this big adventure story, too, for people who aren’t interested in any sort of underlying themes. [laughs]
N: A nice little bonus for those readers who just don’t care about the world.
BH: I think it’s cool to have that stuff, and it’s important to have it, but as an author, you should never try to drive that stuff down people’s throats.
SB: We did it very subtly. We don’t preach to anyone in the comic.
N: Skip, you’re best known for being a lawyer. When did you decide you’d like to try your hand at writing a giant graphic novel like this?
SB: Well, my wife challenged me to be creative and I thought about it, and the medium that I enjoy the most was comics. I read all these books about how to do this, which were a limited help at best. And I was fortunate enough to do it. I looked at hundreds of artists who I found through various friends of mine in the business. The only person that I wound up calling was Brian, who initially told me he was way too busy to do this. [laughs] Then he came to see me, and he told me that he was initially coming to me to get some work for his out-of-work friends, but then he read it, we spent some time together, he got more interested and took some time to reflect. Then he called me a few weeks later and said, “I’m in.”
You know, I’m in virtually all other areas of the media business, but I had no knowledge of how you do something like this. Learning on the job has been a tremendous amount of fun for me. That’s what led to this project and all of our other projects, as well as forming a company. We have two releases this year and two releases next year. We’re trying to do more of these; we just hope people enjoy them.
SB: It’s all a challenge. [laughs] Knowing nothing, it’s all a challenge. Having such a strong partner was great because he could fill in the areas that I didn’t know about. Brian and I had to figure out how to communicate because I had certain things in my head and I didn’t know how to communicate them because I can’t even draw a stick figure. So, I would take photographs or find pictures and PDFs of other artwork and tell him, “I’d like it like this, but slightly different,” and we’d go back and forth for a bit until we found a common ground. Later, we’d be so in sync, that it’d always be almost exactly right.
BH: One of the challenges for me was trying to avoid things that had been done before; we wanted to approach it in a fresh way. For example, we saw a very early rough cut of Avatar and, on the drive over, I remember Skip saying, “You know, when they get on the Anomaly planet, what if when they get in the forest the moss lights up as they step on it?” And neither of us had seen Avatar at this point. We saw the rough cut in the screening room and there’s that scene when they’re in the jungle and the exact same thing happens, so we both looked at each other like “we can’t do that.” [laughs] It’s a project that’s 3 years in the works, so sometimes we would have a segment completed, but then it would be done by another project that came out in the interim, so we’d have to edit it out of the book.
N: It must be simultaneously validating and frustrating when something like that happens.
BH: That’s the tough part too. There are very few people actually get to do original graphic novels for a living. Most do these 22-page pamphlets. And the cool thing about the 22-page pamphlets is that you do it in a month, then solicit it and then it’s in stores 3 months later. But this thing… it’s been 3 years.
SB: It kind of got bigger as we went along because he would add things or I would add things. It was kind of evolving as we went, plus we were evolving the technology and methodology to do what we ended up doing in terms of the quality of the art, the AR, the app. What we’re doing is pretty new; I don’t think anyone else has attempted it in terms of bringing together the art and technology like this. We basically have one rule at the company, which is “the best idea always wins – it doesn’t matter who it comes from.”
N: Speaking of good ideas, tell us a bit about the AR aspect. When did augmented reality become a part of the plan?
BH: Last year we looked at it and you needed to have all these QR codes and markers and things on the page for it to work. If it was going to ruin the form, I wasn’t interested. But then around January, our in-house programmer/designer changed the SDK so it could actually recognize an image, which enabled us to use any part of a page we wanted to. The book isn’t changed by it at all; it only adds to it. What I think is really really cool is being able to target any part of a page that we’ve already done and add new interactivity to the book after the fact. So, next year, we’ll update it with new points of interaction. We can say, “Let’s do page 153, page 38, etc.” It’s the only graphic novel that, after publication, can continue to grow.
SB: Well, the other thing is that when I started this project iPads didn’t exist. Had we not approached the project the way we did initially, we would not have been able to do these things. We would have had to go back and recreate all these characters and the 3D modeling. For us, it’s still a task to do it, but it’s a relatively easy task as opposed to anyone else who would have to go back and start from scratch.
SB: Yeah, I do. All of our future comics will have it. I think the whole publishing business is changing and the publishing industry has to embrace ways of making things more interesting, fun and unique for the consumer. I watch my 12-year-old daughter and how quickly she flits in and out of things, how quickly she adopts new technology, so what we wanted to do was rethink how we approach these things and see what happens. What we’ve found is that people within the publishing industry, especially within the comic book industry – and consumers too – were familiar with augmented reality. They don’t realize the capacity that exists today and how much fun it is for the younger generation. I watch friends of my daughter play with the augmented reality points an it just amazes me. They’ll take a handful of points and play with them for 20 minutes, half an hour! We wanted to think of how we could try to make this medium more entertaining and reach a broader audience than the typical comic book. We may succeed, we may not, but we’re going to try.
BH: At the end of the day, it’s all about story. It’s all in service of the story, creating the world. But, it’s a way that you can constantly interact with the customer, literally forever. It’s something that isn’t being done by others in the industry. It’s a way of taking a static medium and making it come alive for the consumer, which we think is a good thing. What was your reaction when you played with it?
N: It was pretty cool. It was a little clunky at first because it’s not part of my natural rhythm as a reader, but once I got used to it, it was a nice additional layer to add to the story. The prospect of ongoing support, though, is what’s most exciting to me as a reader.
SB: I watch my daughter and how she watches television, and she never watches television without her iPad as well. It drives me crazy! I don’t know how she does it. I’ll give her a pop quiz, “You missed that scene!” Then she tells me exactly what happened. It’s just a product of her generation; they process data and technology differently. For her, it was very natural. We’re living with a new generation of consumers and to get them more deeply embedded in our industry, we have to give them more. By the way, if you look at this application and think about the things you could do in the educational media space, it’s incredible. You could have a picture of a fossil, then see a 3D representation of it.
N: If you were to add this to a history or science textbook, I guarantee more people would be paying attention in class.
SB: Oh yeah! If they could scope up on the battlefield, see where the soldiers are and how they moved around like they did in real life, it makes a big difference. It’s a more tactile experience.
N: So, getting to the meat of this book. The end of Anomaly sets it up for future stories. Do you have any plans for future releases as well?
SB: I already wrote the sequel to this one and Brian’s already working on it. This is just the set-up for the future activity which, believe it or not, has way more characters, different alien races – all kinds of stuff going on. As complex as some people think this book is, it’s relatively simple by comparison. [laughs]
BH: It answers a lot of questions and we go off Anomaly to other worlds.
SB: It gets into why Anomaly is Anomaly and our little group of misfits is going to go to war with the Conglomerate.
N: So when can we expect the second volume to drop?
BH: 2014 for that one. It’s another 300-page book. Next year we have Shifter, which is a contemporary action-adventure/sci-fi graphic novel. Then, at the end of the year, we have Between Worlds, which is a lushly illustrated prose novel.
N: As I understand it, you folks are developing Anomaly for film at the same time…
SB: Well, we’re not really thinking about it like that. I gave it to Joe Roth at an early stage just as a gut-check to see if I’d lost my mind. And he loved it and wanted to make a movie out of it. I don’t want to do anything with that just yet; I want to wait until it’s out and we can see what its reaction is. I know probably as well as anybody the degree of difficulty in getting a particular property made into a feature film, much less one that would be as expensive as this one. It’s certainly part of our business plan for our books to become movies, but we’ll have to wait and see.
BH: The main goal is to put out books that are the best possible books they can be.
SB: Joe’s a really good guy and he’ll do right by the property. I’ve had folks come to buy it, but I’m just not interested in selling it.
N: There’s definitely a cinematic quality to the book, so I could see it adapting well to the big screen
SB: One of the central conceits is that when they’re on the Anomaly planet, there are all these giant humanoid creatures. The backstory is that they were all once human. You have to find out why and how, which will be revealed in the next chapter. There are hints in this volume, but from a cinematic point of view, it’s unique. Plus, you get giant robots and spaceships too.
N: One of the things that hooked me in was the diversity of the races. They all brought something cool and engaging to the table, which was really brought to life by the artwork.
SB: There are certain things that we’re letting people discover as they read it. For instance, all the names are based on ancient names which have real meanings. Erebos [the main villain] means “Lord of the Dark and Chaos” in ancient Greek. Calderon means “warlord” or “great warrior” in Celtic. That’s the beauty of the Net. I can find these words from ancient languages, find out what they meant and attach the appropriate names to the appropriate characters. You realize there’s an origin story here somewhere, but unraveling the mystery is part of the fun. The underlying premise is why did this giant Anomaly exist; How did these different humanoid races develop side-by-side? We think it’s cool that they were all once humans. It’s not how they look; it’s who they are.
N: One more question for you – what other comics are you reading and enjoying right now?
BH: For me, it’s Walking Dead. I love Charlie Adlard’s work.
SB: I like Walking Dead, too. In all honesty, I haven’t had much time to read. [laughs] Between this, taking care of my daughter and my day job, I’ve been pretty busy. I’m still buying things; I just haven’t had a chance to consume them.
N: I can relate – there’s never enough time to read all the comics you want to. Any last words?
BH: If people want creators to step outside the box and take chances, then supporting projects like this is important. I have so many talented friends at Marvel and DC who want to work on their own creations and want to put out their own creator-owned titles, so part of this is a bit of a rallying cry for independent creators. If we do good with this, you’re going to see so many more creations from different guys.
SB: This is an exciting time for us, and hopefully this will allow us to create more opportunities for other creators down the road.
Anomaly is available now in hefty hardcover form and digitally (with awesome voice actors). Make sure to snag the free app that goes along with it so you can read in 3D. What do you think of Anomaly? Quemment below and let us know!