Dots by Any Other Name

The Story of Shatter, the first Digitally Produced Comic Book

Marin Balabanov

V. Conclusion: Subversive History, Bright Future

"Someone asked me the other day what it feels like to see all my 'old stuff' reappearing, at long last, in digital. And I had to smile because to me it doesn't feel like 'old stuff.'"
- Barbara Hambly

The Importance of Shatter as Media Art

Shatter is very much of its time. The computer-generated art from the mid-80s is stiff and un-lifelike. At the same time, it shows a mad energy that comes from artists discovering what a piece of equipment can do beyond what anyone thought before them. This energy might be fueled by the intention to subvert the traditional comics production process.

The art style is primitive by nowadays standards, but it is most definitely the star of the series compared to the run-of-the-mill story content. It is still visually interesting to look at each page and wonder at the intricacies that Mike Saenz and Charlie Athanas were able to eke out of their Macintosh.

While only modestly entertaining as a piece of commercial entertainment, Shatter is a cultural artifact and a relic of a long-bygone era, with a good helping of quirkiness and originality in execution. It shows the evolutionary step taken to where technology has brought us today. To stay in evolutionary terms, this comic book is the fish whose fins more resemble legs, even though it has not yet fully left the sea. In essence, the idea of Shatter is fascinating. The idea that one day, comics might be produced digitally, but in 1985 Mike Saenz and Peter B. Gillis (and later Charlie Athanas) were impatient and did not want to wait for technology to catch up with their aspirations.

Archiving Shatter for Media Arts Histories

Even though Shatter was produced digitally, it was always targeted at being printed. Its creators and the publishing company sought to print it and distribute it as a physical product. Preservation of individual printed copies is subject to the same principles as preserving other kinds of print media and periodicals: temperature- and moisture-regulated archives and a complete absence of light during storage.

Aside from the physical medium, Shatter is one of the earliest artifacts with the raw content available as digital files. Unfortunately, the demise of First Comics Publishing has made it unlikely for us to use this venue to obtain the original digital files in the MacPaint format. It is certainly possible to seek out the files from the original artists. The physical media the files are stored on (disks or hard disks) might already be corrupted after three decades of storage. If the files can be found, then they can be archived in distributed storage systems such as a cloud or a raid setup. In one of the letters columns, the editor notes that for a small handling fee, the publishing company would be prepared to send a disk with digital artwork to interested parties. If any readers made use of this, then digital copies might be stored away on disks somewhere in the United States.

Apart from the files generated during production, there might even be an animated digital trailer. According to one source, the original artist even put together something of the kind that was distributed on a disk[15]. These might also still be available.

It exceeds the mandate of this paper to locate them.

Learning from Shatter

One might argue that it is not a matter of whether Shatter is a good piece of entertainment, an accomplished piece of art, or the culmination of a cultural discipline. Even at the time of its creation, it never pretended or aspired to be any of this. To many, Shatter exudes the strange fascination that Eadweard Muybridge's sequential photography of galloping horses and walking men and women in Victorian times manifests, even though we have contemporary 4K footage of the same motifs in much higher quality.

It can even be argued that Shatter is not an artifact from the past that has had a great influence on how we create and even read comics today. Its reach was not great enough to have done so. But the technology it employed at the time certainly had taken its first steps towards the total digitization of the visual arts. Today we have become used to seeing computer-generated graphics in film, in commercial art, and in comics. The creators of Shatter were the first to see these possibilities in the available hardware before it was capable enough.

When we run original Macintosh software in emulation, software such as MacPaint, MacDraw, and FullPaint, it is easy to lose sight of the context it was used in at the time. Perhaps, Shatter can open our eyes to this context. We shouldn't frown upon software's limitations but recognize how artists in the past used it for actual honest-to-God production work. They did not see the restrictions, rather they saw the potential for experimentation. And all of this with the pressure of publication deadlines looming.

Exploring Shatter not only shows us the achievements of the creators but also their omissions, failings, and blind spots: They did not make any use of the nascent 3D graphics already taking shape on the 16-Bit machines of the time. In the year of Shatter's cancellation, comics artist Michael Goetze, from Germany, had already been making use of 3D graphics in his electronic comic Das Robot Imperium (Carlsen Comics, 1988) on the Atari ST, a 16-Bit computer of a similar generation as the Apple Macintosh.

It is easy to take Shatter at face value and only see its clunkiness, its deficiencies, and the ineptitude in its execution. As an audience and perhaps even as fellow artists, we can all instead look at Shatter and ask ourselves how much time and effort Mike Saenz and Charlie Athanas have put into the work. At any point in their creative process, they had the opportunity to give up and abandon this tedious and thankless exercise. Perhaps, at some point, each one of them stepped back from the nine-inch screen, with its monochrome line art, and shook their heads, thinking how much effort they had put into this work that to some audiences might look bad or even, as Mike Gold put it, like "some amphetamine addict had been given a box of a zip-a-tone." Maybe they thought how much easier it might have been to take pencil and pen to paper instead.

And perhaps they knew how "cool" they were, and perhaps they felt how subversive their art was because they were at the technological razor's edge in a world not yet ready for it.


[15] As per the admittedly late review from 2015 found here:
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