Pixeling in the Retrosphere

Creating a Comic Book on 1980s Hardware

Pixel Art Comic Project by Marin Balabanov

I. Beginnings and Endings

The Purpose and Objective of this Project

There is a notion that new technology is always better than old technology.

The longer the time period, the better. But is this really always true? Over long time periods, we seem to believe that it is irrevocably true. I doubt that anyone will contradict me when I state that thirty-year-old computer hardware is worse than modern day hardware. The processing performance is far worse, the memory is significantly smaller, its storage media of diskettes, spinning hard disks are archaic by comparison, and the input methods are clunky and inelegant.

But old computers were not useless at the time. They enabled users of the day to produce text documents, spreadsheets, graphics and, yes, even artwork.

And they still do.

Retro Computing for Academia

This project is part of the Media Arts Histories program of the Danube University Krems. The objective is to refurbish a thirty-year-old Atari computer, upgrade it and then - well within the technical constraints of the day - to use it to create a five-page comic.

In this project, I want to prove that thirty-year-old hardware might well be far less capable than modern day hardware, but that it is not totally useless. I used an Atari Mega STE with a few expansions to enable the data exchange with modern computers, to be able to use a modern-day monitor and to record the actual process using a video capture device. And then I proceeded to paint a comic story on it in the pixel art style.

All five comic pages of this project

The project took roughly six weeks, occasionally with project days of up to 12 hours. I purchased the old hardware and refurbished it. I upgraded it with the necessary modern-day components. I researched and downloaded the necessary software, then I started creating the comic by sketching out the story, drawing the characters using pencil, pen, and paper. After scanning the designs, I laid out the individual elements across panels and pages, after which I pixelpainted the images in color, using established work methods like shading, dithering, and anti-aliasing.

Finally, I lettered the dialog and captions into the panels and combined them into full pages. The final pixel art comic, which is the result of this project, can be seen in chapter VII. The Future was 16-Bit.

Is it an Art Project?

I am not an artist. At most I can admit to being a designer, and a mediocre one at that. The purpose of this project is not to discuss whether comics are a form of art, or whether the aesthetics of pixel art constitute a valuable addition to media arts history.

Both comics and pixel art have good and bad works. Discussing whether each medium can be considered art, is like discussing whether any written word can be considered literature.

For the purposes of this document, I will refer to the graphics produced as "artwork." I hope that this wording is neutral enough.

Why Pixel Art?

The mid-1980s were a time of transition for home computer graphics. On the 16-bit machines of the time, including the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga, and the Apple Macintosh, the graphics capabilities were too limited to allow for much more than pixel art. They essentially used paint programs to directly draw the pixels on the screen. The software did offer fill tools and pattern tools, but the graphics did not allow for more than a pixel to be drawn at precision. Now, decades later, an image file in a graphics application can hold much more information than can be displayed on the screen. Not only are the pixels of modern day displays nearly imperceptibly small, the image might be shown at a magnification where not even all of the available information is displayed.

Yet even in the early days of home computer graphics, the potential was becoming apparent. The reason why the 16-bit machines were at a transitional stage was because the computational power and memory to do more with the images than simply have a pixel on screen represent a pixel in memory. Particularly on the Apple Macintosh, the first applications enabled users to draw in vector graphics. These were composed of coordinates and color fill information, so they could be zoomed and displayed at any size without losing their crispness like pixel graphics.

Yet, due to the limitations of the day, pixel graphics were the predominant method to create and share graphics. Back then, this was out of necessity. This led to the familiar “video game” aesthetic. Today, with the vastly more powerful graphics hardware that allows for photo quality images, this aesthetic is by choice and no longer by necessity. Artists choose to produce pixel art on modern hardware.

Pixel art is interesting because it was limited back in the day, and it can also be limited by choice today. Some of the most creative work can be done with clear and well-defined limitations. Given only 16 colors and an overall palette of 512 possible shades, you can only try to go as far as these limitations will take you in your effort to accomplish what you want.

As Mark Ferrari from Terrible Toybox describes it in his talk at the Games Developers Conference (GDC) in 2016: this creates an environment that is small enough to be creative in, where artists can maintain full control over all aspects. They do not have a giant ineffable cloud of possibilities that can pull them in any and every direction. Low resolution pixel art with a limited color palette is a mentally and creatively manageable space to work in (find his video at youtu.be/aMcJ1Jvtef0 )

It may seem counter-intuitive, but constraints can have a liberating effect on creativity. Once you have the ground rules out of the way, everything else is up to the creative artist. Just like writers choose to write poems or short stories within strict formal limitations or length constraints to focus on a specific message, emotional response or aesthetic, visual artists can choose to limit the resolution of their images and the available colors to deliberately produce a desired aesthetic.

The goal of this project it to make the distinct aesthetic choice to create a full comic story as pixel art. Furthermore, the project's objective is to do this using the actual hardware of the day.

The Purpose of this Document

This document chronicles the process of creating the comic. I have recorded everything from the very first scribble right and hardware upgrade, all the way to the character and background designs and the final pixeling of the finished panels.

This document not only describes the process, but also provides the finished comic pages. It is a companion piece to the video documentation in three Youtube videos.

Join me on my journey across time and pixels to produce a pixel art comic on a magnificently underpowered device from more than thirty years ago.