Dots by Any Other Name
The Story of Shatter, the first Digitally Produced Comic Book
The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.
- Pablo Picasso
Nowadays, computers are prolific. Pretty much everyone has one in their pockets in the shape of a smartphone. Some people even wear computers. Digital technology is everywhere.
If we turn the dial back to 1984, we see that computers were still thought of as a science-fiction device. While kids loved their video games, adults regarded computers with awe. At the time, few understood what they were capable of then or how transformative they would be in all areas of life going forward. Only two years prior, William Gibson had coined the term "cyberspace." The writer had published his debut novel Neuromancer, a book that led a wave of excitement about the possibilities of computers. In 1984 Apple founder Steve Jobs introduced the first Macintosh computer.
Colliding at the Cross-Section of Art and Technology
It seemed that the Apple Macintosh was destined for graphics work, for art. At its launch, Apple made programs available such as MacPaint and MacDraw. This opened up a world of possibilities for artists and for computer-assisted art and design.
Throughout the history of comics, writers and artists have experimented with the medium in a multitude of ways. They have developed artistic techniques to change existing conventions into something new. Through changes in the culture around them, they have seen new perspectives and depicted the cognitive shift in their work. In the early 1980s, comics grew stale and timid. The mainstream titles such as The Uncanny X-Men and The New Teen Titans had turned from the daring upstarts to the status quo. Not only audiences but also the artists producing comic books had a constant hunger for something fresh and exciting.
Figure 8: Still from Bladerunner, directed by Ridley Scott in 1982.
As William Gibson once said: "The street finds its own uses for things." The advent of the first affordable graphics computer, the zeitgeist of cyberpunk, and the hunger for new visuals and storytelling collided at the cross section of technology and art. In 1985 they converged to create Shatter, the first digitally produced comic book.
Figure 9: Splash page from Shatter #1 (art by Michael Saenz).
What Is Shatter About?
First Comics Publishing's Shatter was created by artist Mike Saenz and writer Peter B. Gillis. It is a self-described tech-noir thriller, the story of the private eye Sadr al-Din Morales, commonly referred to as Shatter. The story is very much of its time. Much of it stands on the shoulders of works such as Ridley Scott's 1982 film Bladerunner and Gibson's novel Neuromancer. In its own campy way, Shatter discusses concepts that are nowadays common and perhaps even quaint, such as the dangers of technology in a dystopian future and the distrust of corporations. In its own way, the book eschews the main subject matter of mainstream comic books by aspiring to be cyberpunk without explicitly claiming to be it. Cyberpunk, we remember, is the grim and gritty science fiction sub-genre. This "combination of lowlife and high tech" (as described by Bruce Sterling in his preface to William Gibson's Burning Chrome) features advanced technology, such as global networks, brain-computer interfaces, and artificial intelligence, all coexisting and competing with the radical breakdown of social order, as only the early 1980s could imagine.
Figure 10: Splash page from Shatter #2, (art by Mike Saenz).
The protagonist, Shatter, takes on the job of tracking down a serial killer who killed the board members of a large corporation. When he finds her, she reveals to him that the corporation uses human RNA to transfer the skill sets of people to others. Our hero finds himself involved with the underground movement dedicated to stopping this practice. In a surprising turn of events, Shatter finds out that he has "golden brain" that keeps any RNA-induced talents indefinitely without losing them, as everyone else does eventually.
Shatter occasionally veers toward the prophetic when it depicts our protagonist bidding on a "gig" to take a case, hinting at today's emerging "gig economy," as found on fiverr.com and upwork.com. Other concepts sound unrealistic but not completely out of the question, such as splicing talents into a person's RNA to give them the special abilities of a gifted artist, athlete, or businessman.
But the story is not what makes Shatter special. It is the process of its creation.
Finding a true "first" is never cut and dry, so calling Shatter the first digitally produced comic might not be completely true. If we dig deeply into the Bulletin Board System (BBS) culture of the late 70s to early 80s, the precursor to the web and the internet as we know it today, we will find users who had distributed digitally produced comics as ASCII art, semigraphics, or even as digitized captures of analog art. That being said, Shatter deserves one commendation for being "first": It definitely was the first commercially available digitally produced comic book.
Figure 11: Apple Macintosh Plus(Image Source: shrineofapple.com)
In 1985 Shatter showed that the potential for computer-assisted comic-book art was a reality. The art for publication was drawn by hand on the computer as opposed to later methods of scanning in inked pages for digital coloring. Publisher First Comics Publishing had a potential hit on their hands—a hit through the novelty of new technology.
Artist Mike Saenz started with a series of rough pencil sketches for each page. These were reviewed by the editors of the comic. When approved, Saenz drew the comic pages on a Macintosh Plus with 1MB RAM using MacPaint and MacDraw. The pages were saved on a disk drive with floppies holding a paltry 800 KB. The greatest challenge was drawing on the nine-inch monochrome screen with a resolution of 512 x 342 pixels. The screen was so small that the artist could only see and work on a section of the current page (by some accounts, two-thirds of the page). Saenz drew the pages using the standard Mac mouse; there were no scanners available to capture analog art, and the artists of Shatter only procured digitizer tablets at a later time.
For the first issues, the artist printed the pages on an Apple dot-matrix ImageWriter. In late 1985, when the regular series launched, Apple donated a LaserWriter.
Quoting series editor Mike Gold in the editorial of Shatter #1:
Better still, Apple came out with their LaserWriter, an unbelievable printer that produces crisp, sharp printouts of Mike's work. For graphics art reproduction, the difference between the LaserWriter and traditional dot-matrix printers is like the difference between glossy coffee-table art books and paintings on cave walls. And better still, the folks up at Apple gave us a LaserWriter. That sucker isn't exactly cheap; it's nice to know you're appreciated. Thanks, Apple!
The LaserWriter enabled Adobe PostScript font styles for typesetting text and made illustration graphics smoother and less pixelated because of the device's powerful interpolation.
Figure 12: The first ever publication of Shatter in the pages of Big K.
First Comics Publishing and the History of Shatter
The three people most closely identified with Shatter are artist Mike Saenz, writer Peter B. Gillis (both of whom created the series), and artist Charlie Athanas, who joined the publication in issue #8.
Chicago-born artist Mike Saenz started work on Shatter at the age of 26. The book was among his first professional work and served as his breakthrough. After working on Shatter, Saenz went on to produce digital comics for Marvel and to work in software development.
Figure 13: Mike Saenz in 1985 (source: http://marvel.wikia.com/wiki/Mike_Saenz)
Peter B. Gillis was an established comics writer when he started work on Shatter at the age of 32. He had freelanced for Marvel Comics with his first published story in Captain America. After numerous credits in Marvel's second-tier comic books, Gillis went on to work as an editor for the Florida-based publisher New Media Publishing until 1981. His first work for First Comics Publishing was the science-fiction series Warp until 1985. Then he joined the team of Shatter.
Figure 14: Peter B. Gillis in the 2010s (source: http://comicbookdb.com/creator.php?ID=960)
In the early 1980s, publisher First Comics Publishing was one of the few alternatives to the "big two": Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, X-Men, Avengers) and DC Comics (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman).
Shatter saw its first printing in the British computer games magazine Big K, issue #12, its last issue before it ceased publication. It was a four-page story printed in black and white. The series was touted as "the first computerized comic." According to one report, Saenz and Gillis had offered the series to Marvel Comics, who declined; only then was it picked up by First Comics Publishing.
After its debut, Shatter went on to be published by First Comics Publishing (Chicago) as a back-up feature to the ongoing comic series Jon Sable. These eight-page installments ran from issues #25 to #30 of the Jon Sable series. The feature proved to be so popular that publisher First Comics decided to release a Shatter special issue with 28 original story pages by Mike Saenz and Peter B. Gillis.
Figure 15: Shatter Special #1 cover (left) and interior art (right), 1985.
It sold 100,000 copies in three days, breaking the existing sales records for independent comic books. In 1985 a high-selling issue of Marvel Comics's The Uncanny X-Men sold 300,000 copies. By comparison, sales of Shatter were very impressive for an independent comics publisher.
First Comics commissioned an ongoing series. At this point, writer Peter B. Gillis had moved on, so the artist Mike Saenz started to not only draw the book but also provide the plot and script.
The first issue of the ongoing Shatter series sold 60,000 copies. After releasing issue #2, Mike Saenz left his creation to work on other projects. In 1988 he would go on to produce the full-color digital graphic novel Iron Man: Crash for Marvel Comics and work on the comic creation app ComicWorks before being bought out by software maker Macromedia.
This paper was written in 2018. Now, more than 30 years later, it is difficult to assess what the original audience reaction was at the time of publication. The few remaining reviews show very positive feedback lauding the use of the Macintosh. In hindsight, much of the praise is directed towards the promised potential of digital art and not always the results on display at the time.
In the series' letters pages, readers criticized the story for being a derivative of Blade Runner. In issue #2, one reader writes:
"The only thing bad about it is the story. It does not make much sense and the whole thing is terrible."
While the digital art did find a lot of praise ("The graphics inside are excellent" from the letters column in issue #2), it was not universally praised, as can be seen in this letter from the same issue:
"The graphics in Shatter are likely to be more of a turn off to potential computer comic connoisseurs due to their primitive quality and unimaginative execution."
The oddest reactions still available in their original form are from the letters pages of the series. First Comics Publishing advertised the digital nature of the series and went to great lengths to explain the process in its editorial pages. Nevertheless, in issue #3, a reader writes that they doubt that the art was, in fact, produced on a computer:
I'm not accusing you of doing anything yet, but a lot of Shatter #1 looked like it wasn't quite done by computer ... The curves in the walls are just too perfect, even for a computer ... I figure if you're going to do a comic on a computer, you ought to make it look like a computer drawing, not like a drawing done by hand.
The editor responded that for a small fee they would be happy to send a disk to the reader with the original artwork in its digital form as proof.
Figure 16: Readers' baffling reactions in the letters page.
After moving on to DC Comics, Mike Gold, the original editor of Shatter, reminisced about the series in the introduction of DC's own digital comic effort Batman: Digital Justice in 1990 (emphasis provided by the writer of this paper):
At that time, I was the editor of a midwest comic book company when a couple of old friends, Peter Gillis and Mike Saenz, showed me rough printouts of a story that was produced on a 128 K Apple Macintosh computer, using but one disk drive. The artwork was chunky and brittle: it looked like some amphetamine addict had been given a box of a zip-a-tone that suffered from a glandular disease. But the look was totally unique to comics. Within several months, we refined the look and the resulting effort Shatter was one of the best-selling comics of the year. It completely astonished the folks over at Apple Computer, Inc., who never perceived such a use for their hardware.
Ultimately, Shatter would run for 14 issues from 1985 to 1988, but in 1986, after Mike Saenz left, First Comics Publishing did not want its successful series to suffer delay. Not to leave the series without a writer and an artist, Steven Grant jumped in to fill the writer's role for issues #3 and #4 while Steve Erwin and Bob Dienenthal took over the art chores for issues #3 to #7.
Figure 17: Interior story page from Shatter #2 (art by Mike Saenz).
The art in these issues was workable but no longer special because the artists penciled and inked traditionally and had their pages scanned into the Macintosh to be lettered in MacPaint. This deprived Shatter of its special look. The art degraded to standard comic book art, albeit strongly pixelated to suggest that computers remained a vital part of the production process.
At least in issue #5, original writer Peter B. Gillis returned to the fold to give the story focus and the dialog edge. But Shatter would still need another couple of issues before it could hit its stride with a new artist coming on board.
Charlie Athanas to the Rescue
The departure of Mike Saenz left Shatter without its main selling point: art drawn directly on a computer. The book needed to return to its unique art style. It needed a new artist who was capable of producing the artwork on a Macintosh. Enter Charlie Athanas. This young artist from Illinois joined the team just in time to continue the storyline Peter B. Gillis started.
On his website, Athanas describes the process:
Artwork created from layout to the black and white 'camera ready' art before color was added in the traditional method. I produced this art on a MacPlus with 1 MB of RAM and an 800 K floppy drive. Only about two-thirds of a full page was visible to work on unless you switched to thumbnail mode to see the entire page on a drastically reduced scale. About half the issues were drawn with the standard Mac mouse until a small drawing tablet became commercially available.
Figure 18: Athanas's rough thumbnail sketch of a page (left) and the final monochrome artwork (right).
Athanas re-established drawing directly on the Macintosh Plus with the computer mouse. To speed up publication efficiency, Athanas drafted rough pencil sketches in order to sketch out layout design, speed up the writing of the script, and go through editorial review.
Figure 19: Charlie Athanas in the 2010s (source: https://www.linkedin.com/in/charlieathanas/)
Without scanners at his disposal, Athanas manually redrew the rough sketches directly on this Mac. Now that the series was back to computer-drawn artwork, the pages had a much cleaner art style. Athanas not only used MacPaint but also FullPaint by Ann Arbor Softworks.
Figure 20: Interior story pages from Shatter #9 (art by Charlie Athanas).
Shatter was saved for the time being. Sales stabilized with the new creative team. But alas, technology progressed at a breakneck pace in the mid to late 80s. The home-computer revolution had started to sweep computers into every American household. A comic series about a dystopian future no longer captured its readers' imaginations. With issue #12, Peter B. Gillis left as a writer to be succeeded by Jay Case. First Comics Publishing met with financial difficulties, and the series' novelty of new technology wore off. Sales started to slip, and by 1988 they had dropped sufficiently to make the publication no longer viable. First Comics Publishing allowed the creators to complete their story but no longer start a new one. Shatter was cancelled with issue #14.
Thus ended the first sustained experiment in commercial digital-art production after three tumultuous years. By then, editor Mike Gold had left for DC Comics, leaving editor Rick Oliver to write the last words for the series in the letters page of Shatter #14 (cover date April 1988):
When Shatter first appeared, it was produced solely with the software that came packaged with the Macintosh; Apple's own MacPaint. More recently, we have also incorporated MacDraw, Word, Switcher, MacBillboard, and FullPaint. This letters column and the First Notes page were produced with Word and XPress, an electronic page make-up program.
There are more new graphics programs available every day, each more sophisticated than the last, and there's no telling where it will all lead.
But for now, Shatter has served its purpose, and it's time to move on. Thanks to all our loyal readers who stuck it out through both the great and the not-so-great issues. Thanks to Peter Gillis and Mike Saenz for starting the ball rolling, Steve Erwin and Bob Dienethal for keeping it going and finally, let's give a big hand for Charlie Athanas for revitalizing the book for a classy finish.
The technology might not yet have been advanced enough, but Shatter proved one thing to the comic book industry: comics could be produced digitally, and dots by any other name could still be art.
 Gibson, W. (1982). "Burning Chrome." Collected in
Burning Chrome. (1986). New York: Arbor House.
» Back 
 The statement is put in relative terms because
there is no quote about this from the original artist Mike
Saenz, only from artist Charlie Athanas who succeeded Saenz a
year after the latter's departure. The quote from Charlie
Athanas: "... the hard part was the fact that you could only see
about two-thirds of a full page at any one time, unless you
shrunk it to a postage stamp size thumbnail. Covers and splash
pages, especially double-page splash pages, were a layout
 Official Website of Mike Saenz (archived):
» Back 
 Creator page on
 The same pages were later used as part of the
Shatter back-up feature in Jon Sable #25. It is important to
note that the back-up feature in Jon Sable was published after
the Shatter Special #1 which itself precedes the stories
published in Jon Sable in chronology.
» Back 
 "No Mere Novelty, the Mac Takes Drudge Work Out
of Comic Book Illustration," by Christine McGeever, InfoWorld,
1986 (see appendix for full article).
» Back