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An entertainment attorney's sci-fi heart

His wife's challenge to stretch his creative side led Skip Brittenham to step away from his A-list client roster to write a futuristic graphic novel, 'Anomaly,' with big-screen cred.

November 29, 2012|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • Brian Haberlin, left, and Skip Brittenham are next to statues of characters from the graphic novel "Anomaly" that they co-wrote.
Brian Haberlin, left, and Skip Brittenham are next to statues of characters… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Air Force Capt. Harry "Skip" Brittenham was stranded in officers' quarters in Washington, D.C., during a snowstorm in 1964 when he found a copy of "The Fellowship of the Ring," the first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings."

He couldn't put it down. The next day, he trudged through the snow until he found an open bookstore with a copy of the sequel.

Today, Brittenham is arguably Hollywood's most powerful deal-maker, an attorney whose A-list clients have included Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Bob and Harvey Weinstein.

Movie moguls know and fear him as the hard-charging negotiator who helped sell Pixar Animation Studios to Walt Disney Co. for $7.4 billion and arranged DreamWorks Animation's $3-billion IPO.

During a career spanning four decades, the 71-year-old Brittenham has almost never spoken publicly, always keeping the spotlight on his clients. But the genial, confident attorney opened his corner office, decorated with art from the American West, at the Century City headquarters of law firm Ziffren Brittenham, to talk about writing the sci-fi graphic novel "Anomaly."

"I've been into this stuff since I was a kid reading DC and Marvel comic books," he said. "That was my personal life, not something I talked about much professionally."

The lawyer's first foray as a fiction writer is a hardcover tome featuring 21,600 illustrated panels, splashed across 378 pages, weighing 6.4 pounds and selling for $75. It comes with an "augmented reality" app that makes 3-D images pop out of its pages. The tablet version costs only $10 but features 16 actors voicing 90 parts, along with an extra 120 pages of background material.

And it's the first of five graphic novels that Brittenham's Anomaly Productions will release in the next two years, all but one co-written by the attorney.

"I don't like to just try things out," he explained. "I like to jump all the way in and figure out how to do something unique and different."

Brittenham started writing four years ago after he was challenged by his wife to exercise his creative side. He spent six months on an outline before using his voluminous Rolodex to search for a partner.

He ended up with Brian Haberlin, an artist who co-created the comic book superheroine "Witchblade" and ran "Spawn" creator Todd McFarlane's company for two years.

"When he first emailed me, I was skeptical about another Hollywood person who wanted to dabble in comic books," Haberlin said. "But once we sat down, I realized he was very serious."

Brittenham decided to form his own venture after meeting with publishers in New York and concluding that their proposals weren't adequate for his ambitions.

It's unlikely, of course, that any mainstream publisher would be willing to print 20,000 copies of an original graphic novel by an unknown writer. But Brittenham claims to have a simpler motivation for putting out "Anomaly" himself: "I like controlling things."

He self-funded the effort using what he calls "house money" – profits from venture-capital investments in technology firms — but admits publishing original graphic novels is not the savviest financial bet. "I would never advise one of my clients to do this," he said.

But for Brittenham, who takes fishing expeditions to exotic locations like Patagonia and has no plans to retire from lawyering, "Anomaly" is not a way to make more money. It's a way to show the world that he's not just a negotiator.

"These are not just superheroes defeating bad guys," he explains. "I want the books to be about something."

In "Anomaly," Earth in 2717 has been devastated by pollution. Most people live on artificial planets where the poor are housed underground. Only 1% can afford to see the sky. When an embittered soldier named Jon is picked to lead a mission to an alien planet, he becomes caught in a conflict between native species.

The story hits notes familiar to anyone who has followed science fiction from Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter" through James Cameron's "Avatar." Brittenham claims to have no specific inspiration, but says he grew up reading pulp fiction by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and has a collection of more than 20 years of the science-fiction and fantasy magazine "Heavy Metal."

Despite a client roster that includes creative talent like "Prometheus" director Ridley Scott and "Alice in Wonderland" producer Joe Roth, Brittenham didn't rely on help or even feedback from his Hollywood friends. Befitting a man known for getting his way in negotiations, virtually every detail of the graphic novel reflects his vision. Unhappy with word balloons in most comic books, he charged Haberlin with finding a way to make dialogue appear more naturally in a frame. He also insisted on making the pages nearly twice as wide as those typically found in comic books.

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