Monday, 5 November 2012

Graphic novels get heavy - Anomaly review

Anomaly in its rather smart cardboard case
When I was a kid, you read comics until you were around 11, then you moved on to real books. I know things have been rather different in the US, where comics always had an older audience - and of course the term 'comic' has to be quite broad when it takes in both The Beano and Batman - but the thing that really changed attitudes of (at least some) readers in the UK was the graphic novel. This was the comic form taken to novel length and treated as serious material for grown ups.

Personally I have never quite got into graphic novels. In part it is a slight embarrassment - I wouldn't read one in public because it gives the impression, like it or not, that you struggle with reading. The other problem I have is that I'm more a word person than a visual person - so when I do read one I have to force myself to slow down and look at the pictures, or I just hurtle through the relatively limited text. However, I'm always interested in a new reading challenge, so when the publisher offered to send me a copy of the indubitably remarkable graphic novel Anomaly I jumped at the chance.

What we have here is an epic story in graphic novel form. It's huge, literally a heavy piece of work and has an impressive dramatic span. Set in the 28th century we have a fairly conventional post industrial wreck of an Earth, run by a corporate conspiracy theorist's delight called the Conglomerate. Traditionally their attitude to other planets is to conquer them, wiping out life if necessary. Some ethical types propose instead taking a more friendly approach. They are sent to a planet, not realizing that this is actually a plan to get rid of them and take over their shares in the Conglomerate, as no one has ever returned alive from this planet.

On their arrival all their technology is destroyed. They find a wide range of humanoid life forms, mostly as separate tribes, but with a major organized force of bad guys. There's the usual swordplay with a touch of magic stuff, a uniting of the various tribes to take on the baddies - you know the kind of thing.

Open in all its glory - drink can for scale

In one sense this is a very impressive work. You've got hundreds of pages of well-drawn artwork. It is like working your way through a very detailed storyboard of a visually impressive movie. There are one or two nice twists, like the technology destroying goo, but if I'm honest the story isn't very original. The uniting of the tribes to take on the baddies is hugely reminiscent of the defence of Minas Tirith segment of The Lord of the Rings (the baddies even resemble the orcs in the movie version of LoTR).

Tell me that doesn't remind you of Lord of the Rings
For the rest, there's a lot that seems derivative of Rider Haggard Martian adventures with a modern gloss. It's entertaining, I did want to read on and finish it, but I'm not sure the originality of the storyline lives up to the presentation. There are some interesting loose ends, both in terms of what happens to the Conglomerate when our heroes return and why the names, as someone in the novel points out, are all Celtic or Greek. But it's a shame the story wasn't as original as the presentation.

It's also worth mentioning the app-based extension. With a free app for tablets and smartphones, some pages open up with extra detail, including 3D images and extra information. This augmented reality stuff is fun, but it's a bit like the extras on a DVD. Many people will ignore it altogether, and it really doesn't make a huge difference to the product.

I have two other problems with Anomaly. One is the sheer weight of the thing. You can get an idea of this in that it cost £9 for the publisher to post it to me. I usually get a feel for the weight of heavy books by putting them on the kitchen scales, but Anomaly left them reeling, and they give up at 2.3 kilograms. To illustrate why this is a bad thing, I need to take you back to my university days.

I used to sing in a Cambridge college chapel choir, and at one choir practice the junior organ scholar turned up and told us that the senior organ scholar would not be joining us. Apparently he had sprained his wrist in bed, so couldn't play. It was at least five minutes before the choir could be pulled together sufficiently to continue. (This did happen.) You really don't want to read this book in bed, in case of suffering a similar fate. And I found it was getting uncomfortable holding it to read wherever I sat with it, resulting in various mechanisms being adopted to prop it up.

Funky! Let's warp...
The other issue is the price. This is a very big book, with over 300 glossy full colour pages. That's not cheap to make and it is reflected in a massive cover price of £45 ($75). Okay, you can probably get a 40 to 50 per cent discount if you buy it in the right place, but it's not cheap. I compared the experience of reading the book to that of watching a movie, and I'd be happy to pay as much as I would for a DVD, but that feels about the limit for me. The augmented reality app is a bit of fun, but more gimmick than anything.

I can't help feel the pricing will limit the audience. But if this is your kind of thing it's likely to be well worth the pennies. Take a look at and

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