Is AR the future of digital comics? We look at Anomaly, the world’s biggest augmented reality graphic novel

According to Wikipedia, Augmented Reality (AR) is a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics. Although AR is not new in the world of apps (we’ve seen it on everything from arcade games to star chart apps) it is definitely at the cutting of edge of what can we be done in terms of digital comics. Marvel Comics have cut their teeth in the medium earlier this year, but with Anomaly we have one of the most ambitious projects  seen in recent months. This augmented reality graphic novel from writer Skip Brittenham and Brian Haberlin is epic in every sense of the word, and  literally sees the characters come to life from the page.Anomaly exists in two formats, the first is a large scale, hard cover graphic novel, available from Amazon for £45 RRP which works in conjunction with a free app, downloaded from the iTunes or Google Store and works on iPad, iPhone and Google Android devices. Once loaded, the app makes characters take on 3 dimensional form on your tablet’s screen on certain marked pages. You can then move your tablet around and see the characters in all their 3D rendered glory and the detail on offer is simply phenomenal, while the proximity that you can achieve with each characters is really stunning. Tap the screen and the characters will enact a behaviour which can vary from a quick running motion, to more advanced sequences such as drawing and firing a bow and arrow. You can also access more information about the particular characters or their scenarios. Although these graphics don’t actively develop the story, and you don’t need to have your tablet running to fully enjoy the book, they are a neat addition and set an interesting precedent for what they could do. Certainly the addition of more animation and sound could definitely make them feel even more like part of the story, as would the ability to see more characters and vehicles from the Anomaly world.

Although the AR is a nice gimmick, the good news about Anomaly is that the book itself is actually a rip-roaring and exciting read and can exist as a quality product without ever firing up your iPad or iPhone. The story focusses on a group of scientists, campaigners and soldiers who are sent on a mission to a possibly populated planet in a distant solar system to initiate first contact. Inevitably things don’t work out as planned and as a result of a series of double-crosses and run-ins with the locals it sees lead character Jon assumes the role as leader of the now united tribes of the planet and take on the evil mutie leader Erebos and his giant army. In terms of content it’s all very familliar, mixing the basic ideas of films like Alien, Avatar, John Carter and Lord of the Rings into a stylistic melting pot, but it ends up working rather well as a whole and not ending up as a derivative mess. This is in part because the world which Brittenham and Haberlin have crafted is incredibly well realized with an excellent cast of characters, creatures and evil conglomerates. There is a glossary of terms and a breakdown of the different characters at the back of the book to help you get more from this wonderful world and as is often the case with books like this, the internal logic and characterization is as important as the story you are being told.

Another reason that makes the book actually work  is the simply stunning painted artwork of Brian Haberlin. It may be cliche to say this, but every page truly is a work of art. Making the most of the book’s epic landscape pages, his artwork is given a real widescren canvas, and by using a limited number of panels and clever use of double page (and more) spreads, it gives the book a truly cinematic quality. This feels like a movie adaptation and you could easily see the characters working on the big screen. Whether it’s lingering wide shots across densely populated battlefields that are eerily reminscent of Mordor or exploring the beautifully realized Bladerunner-esque cityscapes of both Earth and Anomaly, each page is overflowing with action, intensity and exquisite details and deserves a careful study before moving on as they are something very special.

Although not cheap at £45 RRP, Anomaly is a definite luxury product, but is packed full of so much content it is worth the money. Unlike many other AR projects it is not simply a gimmick product built around a clever piece of technology. It is an epic widescreen experience that gives you a gateway into a brilliantly realized world with a strongly told story and beautiful art. With an intriguing cliffhanger at the end, this might not even be the last time we enter this world and that is no bad thing.