In the office of entertainment attorney Skip Brittenham, there are two sculptures that seem out of place among the professional decor and family photos: a pair of multi-mouthed humanoid monsters clad in leather and wielding weapons. These are not props from one of the many successful science fiction films Brittenham's Hollywood clients have worked on. Rather, they're something brand new -- characters from his upcoming 370-page science fiction graphic novel, "Anomaly."
"It started as 150 pages. It was originally going to be [cut back to] 120, but it kept on evolving," Brittenham said with a laugh as he and co-writer and artist Brian Haberlin sat down with CBR to discuss all aspects of the ambitious project published through Anomaly Productions.
"It kind of got away from us a little bit," Haberlin added, looking at the media spread out across the tables and couch; the epic graphic novel, a hardcover appendix and an iPad displaying the book's AR components.
"Anomaly" not only claims to be one of the longest full-color graphic novels ever published, but also one of the most ambitiously interactive graphic novel reading experiences since the advent of augmented reality technology.
"We are a little nuts!" Brittenham joked about the book's scope as Haberlin laughed in agreement.
For many comic book fans, Haberlin is a familiar name. Beginning his career in the '90s, Haberlin was a co-creator of "Witchblade," a penciler and inker on "Spawn" and a commercial illustrator and digital colorist for Marvel and DC Comics, among others. Most recently outside of "Anomaly," his comic "M-Rex" served as the basis for Cartoon Network's "Generator Rex."
Brittenham, however, is someone most fans will have never encountered unless they happen to work in entertainment law, and then his name is best known to those ensconced in the highest echelons of Hollywood. An entertainment attorney with decades of experience, Brittenham is one of the industry's biggest players, representing top studio executives, corporate clients and A-list stars (at various times his clients have included Tom Hanks, the Weinsteins and Pixar Animation).
Surprisingly approachable for a man who has built his professional career on the buying and selling of entertainment empires, Brittenham laughed when asked why he's jumping into the graphic novel game.
"I've been a huge comic book and science fiction fan my whole life!" Brittenham enthusiastically told CBR, tracing his love of genre literature back to his early days in the Air Force.
"When I was a lieutenant, I was stationed in Washington D.C. In the officer's quarters where I was staying -- there was this big snowstorm, my first introduction to the city -- and there was the first of the 'Lord Of The Rings' trilogy. So I started reading it and became so into that book, I went out in the snowstorm and walked for miles to find a bookstore to get the other ones!"
The attorney grinned and confessed "Anomaly" began as a creative bet with his spouse. "I got into a debate with my wife about creativity. She's a writer, published a book and screenplays and is also an actress. She said to me that in a certain context, what I did wasn't creative. I said, 'Gee, I don't know -- I talk to Ridley Scott about movies!'" Brittenham laughed. "She challenged me to create something, so I got all fired up to prove I was creative."
Reading and re-reading everything he could get his hands on, "from 'The Spirit' and 'Watchmen' to 'Comics For Dummies,'" Brittenham joked, the attorney created an outline and began looking for an artist who could bring his sprawling science fiction vision to life. That artist turned out to be Haberlin.
"I found Brian based on his art," Brittenham said, "I looked at hundreds of artists --"
"And he looked at my stuff that was three years old!" Haberlin interrupted.
"And I still thought he was the best artist!" Brittenham laughed. "He was my number one. He was the only one I talked to."
"He got lucky, too, in that I'm one of the few guys who can execute a comic all by himself," the artist added with a smile.
Haberlin said he was attracted to the idea and had already wanted to focus on more creator-owned work. He and Brittenham also saw "Anomaly" almost as a reaction to the status quo of the comic book industry, deciding to use the project to push the boundaries of what was possible with graphic novels.
"Anomaly" is intended to be an alternative to the product put out by Marvel and DC Comics
"I've always had a belief that people who love words and pictures, their first things are Marvel and DC, and then it comes around to where Captain America has died for the third time, and they go, 'What's next?'" Haberlin said.
"I'm fans of DC and Marvel, and I'm fans of their characters but they're basically -- imagine if TV is 'My Mother The Car' and 'Gunsmoke' and it's been that way for the past seventy years," Brittenham said. "What we're trying to do is build a brand with this, and other novels, where people can expect quality, something fresh, something unique, with some values and something to learn."
Those last two qualities, as well as the inclusion of strong female characters, are of the utmost importance to Brittenham, both from the perspective of a comics fan and the father of three daughters.
"I have twenty years of 'Heavy Metal' magazine, and what I noticed is the decline in the quality of the art and the change in storytelling; it's much more violent, almost pornographic," Brittenham said. "Something that used to do really innovative cool stuff with great ideas was suddenly completely different, kind of devolving. What I want to do was take things the other way."
In crafting "Anomaly," the creative duo took a much more inclusive approach to world-building, intending the resulting graphic novel to be a stimulating read for all ages.
"My youngest is twelve, and she actually really liked this, which was good. I was scared!" Brittenham said.
"And she would tell him if she didn't!" Haberlin laughed.
"We're trying to do something that's about something," Brittenham continued. "This was an attempt to do something out of the ordinary, not the way DC does it or Marvel or anyone else. It's taking a different approach to the medium."
The world of "Anomaly" is a space-faring dystopia where capitalism reigns supreme and a gargantuan corporation, the Conglomerate, controls all human life. One's status in society depends on how many shares they own in the Conglomerate; high-up Shareholders live luxuriously while Menials, "Anomaly's" impoverished class, have fewer rights than even robots.
"In formal situations, you say your name followed by a number, and the number is how many shares you have with the corporation," Haberlin explained.
"Anomaly's" 370 page story is supplemented by a number of AR enhancements
The story follows Jon, a down-on-his-luck human who used to be an Enforcer (think intergalactic soldier) before being busted down to Menial after a disastrous alien encounter. Jon's has been given a chance to redeem himself by going on a first contact mission to a primitive planet, accompanied by Samantha, daughter of a Conglomerate executive, whose ideas of cross-species tolerance are at odds with the corporation. The protagonists soon realize there are dark undercurrents to their work as they struggle to survive both the natives and the Conglomerate's sinister motives for sending them in the first place.
"At its heart, 'Anomaly' is about second chances," Haberlin said. It's about people who are a little bit broken, lost, are different."
"In the course of this, [Jon] realizes there's a different way and he's against the Conglomerate and the Enforcers," Brittenham added.
Already seventy pages into the sequel, Brittenham and Haberlin are tentatively aiming for a trilogy, wrapping up the story of the protagonists' struggle to survive and challenge the Conglomerate and the hostile alien forces arrayed against them.
More than just a graphic novel, "Anomaly" is a fully interactive experience for readers with iPads, Kindles and Nooks. For buyers of the hardcover graphic novel, as long as your iOS or Android device has a camera, you can access the book's incredibly expansive AR. This includes 2D pop-up art, 3D interactive characters (such as alien warriors who swipe at you when you poke them, or a robot that smashes into the screen when you tap it) as well as touch points that bring up in-depth background information on the aliens and the history and political structures of the world. The two also have plans to continually upgrade the AR experience. About two months after the release, for example, readers will get a digital update notice with new story elements, including sequences that were cut from the book.
"We're trying to turn the print medium into an interactive medium," Brittenham said.
The AR is just as involved for the digital version of "Anomaly," which features a customizable bar that allows readers to toggle on and off music, sound and text. The digital "Anomaly" is practically a motion comic, featuring narration by sixteen different science fiction and video game voice actors.
"So far, everybody's telling us no one's even thinking of doing this," Brittenham said of the AR. "We basically invented the interface -- that's our interface.
Haberlin flattens out his 3D models for painter Geirrod Van Nyke to color and ad final tweaks
"I didn't want to do [AR originally], because at that time they needed markers on every page. In January, things changed and I said, 'Ok, let's go!'" Haberlin added.
This fast turnaround was largely made possible by Haberlin's 3D art style, a process he developed during his comic book career. Beginning with physical sketches, Haberlin compared his digital 3D artwork to being a movie director.
"It's almost more of a TV or feature film process that's in the preproduction phase, "Haberlin explained. "I'm setting up my characters, costumes, environment. I'm thinking of 3D as my rough pencils. I'll strip out all the color, I'll keep some of the shading information, I'll really do super high contrast, almost making them inks, then I'll draw over them. The problem people have with straight 3D in print is, it's hard to make it look alive. 3D is great when it moves, but when it's a still, you have to step on it with the human hand as much as possible."
Sending the art off to his painter, Geirrod Van Dyke, for coloring and final tweaks, Haberlin said the method roughly breaks down to a page a day, allowing them to move faster than most traditional artists.
While developing their epic graphic novel, Brittenham and Haberlin engaged in an exhaustive story research process, looking into everything from biological engineering to ancient Mongol war strategies in order to make their world as vibrant as possible.
"There are four major themes that aren't shoved in your face but are there if you want to think about it. One is, in our world, climate change has destroyed Earth, Earth's uninhabitable," Brittenham said. "One of the themes is, don't judge people by how they look. Another is the disparity between rich and poor. In our world, we actually have in the appendix where you [can] see where you fit into the system."
Brittenham also wrote in a thematic component based on a 200 AD debate between a Neo-Platonist philosopher and a Christian over whose thought system was better.
"In our guy's [in-world 'Anomaly'] philosophy, there is no bad way to a higher, more spiritualized life," Brittenham said. "You don't proselytize somebody, you help them find their own way. Nothing's bad, everything's good if you're trying to live a better, more moral life and trying to help others. What's bad is killing people because they disagree with you!"
Though "Anomaly" won't be released until October, it already boasts glowing quotes from some of Hollywood and the comic industry's biggest names, including Ridley Scott, Harrison Ford and Bill Sienkiewicz. "Alice In Wonderland" director Joe Roth is already in talks to direct a movie adaptation.
"Joe wants to do it, he's begging me," Brittenham laughed. However, neither he nor Haberlin are in any rush to get "Anomaly" on the big screen.
"For [Joe], he just got introduced to this about three or four months ago -- for me, it's been years," Brittenham said. "I've waited this long, I want to get it out there, see what the reaction is in the marketplace, see what comes out of the woodworks; you never really know in our industry. I didn't do this thinking this would be a movie; I did this because I loved it and I thought it would be cool and fun."
"No matter what happens with this, we're going to be proud of this for the rest of our lives," Haberlin added.
Of course, the focus on "Anomaly" hasn't stopped the creators from working on other AR-heavy graphic novels. Currently planned for release in March of next year is "Shifter," a story set in a different world from "Anomaly," and "Between Worlds," a young adult fantasy book in the visual illustrative tradition of "Dinotopia."
"We're trying to let the story dictate the form," Brittenham said, adding that the other two books will be both as all-ages friendly and AR interactive as "Anomaly."
"I saw an eight-year-old kid spend half an hour -- I didn't know that was possible -- with these AR things!" Brittenham said with a laugh.
With the unprecedented level of AR integration in "Anomaly," the two realize they're breaking new ground and are thus unsure how their book will ultimately be received. But even with that in mind, Brittenham and Haberlin said there was a very simple way they personally plan to measure the success of "Anomaly."
"I hope people like it!" Haberlin said.
"That is the measure of success, that some people at least like it and get really into it!" Brittenham laughed. "The best outcome, I think, is other people in the industry say, 'Gee, we should do this, we should try to do higher end stuff, to innovate and reach a broader audience.'"
"If we are successful, there's a lot of comic book creators watching this project," Haberlin added. "If there's the potential to make a living doing this kind of thing, you bet they'll go for it."