Dots by Any Other Name

The Story of Shatter, the first Digitally Produced Comic Book

Marin Balabanov

Abstract: Days of Futures Past

1984 wasn't like 1984

In the early 1980s, artist Mike Saenz and writer Peter B. Gillis created the comic book Shatter> using the Apple Macintosh, only just introduced in 1984. This was the very first comic book drawn on a computer using the mouse, at the time a new kind of input device.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Shatter, the first comic book created on a computer in 1984

The production process established in Shatter was a harbinger of things to come and simultaneously showed which components of the process would prove to be a dead end. Unusual for the time, Peter B. Gillis wrote the scripts using a computer and sent them to artist Mike Saenz. Saenz painstakingly drew the comic panels on the Apple Macintosh and placed lettering and sound effects directly in the paint software. The finished pages were printed and then colored traditionally.

The Roots of the Art Form

In 2018 commercial comic books are drawn using a wide variety of techniques. Most commercial comics are still hand drawn using the traditional process of penciling and inking, but they are then scanned for digital coloring and the digital placement of lettering and sound effects.

In this paper, we delve into the history of Shatter, the subjects it covers, and the tools used to create its unique art style. We contrast how commercial comic books were created in 1985 with the way Shatter was created. Finally, we plot the path from the process used to create Shatter to the process used to create modern-day commercial comics.

I. The Subversive Core of Comics

"Any startling piece of work has a subversive element in it, a delicious element often. Subversion is only disagreeable when it manifests in political or social activity."
- Leonard Cohen

In the 1960s American comics changed. They were always regarded as shrill, cheap, and trashy, with dropping sales in the past decade. Yet at their core, they became subversive, in tune with the rising counterculture of the 1960s. This decade brought a cultural explosion: questioning traditional modes of authority, protests against the war in Vietnam, a vocal youth culture, new music, widespread social tensions, liberated sexuality, women's rights, experimentation with psychoactive drugs[1].

In his seminal work Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art[2] , Scott McCloud describes comics as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer."

As an art form, they were much more than that; they were an echo of the world around them. And in the 1960s they transformed along two different lines: commercial comics and the "comix underground."

How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way

By the 1960s "mainstream" comics were firmly set in the superhero genre. DC Comics, the industry's top dog, with its stable of superheroes such as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman was being challenged by upstart Marvel comics. The work of writer Stan Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko subverted the comics mainstream that was traditionally oriented towards children. They introduced superheroes who appealed to older readers, breaking convention with other archetypes of the time by showing characters with personal flaws, who quarreled with their peers, and who lived in the eventful world of the 1960s.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Black Bolt of the Inhumans in a panel from Fantastic Four #59 by Jack Kirby (pencils) and Joe Sinnott (inks).

In American Experiences: Readings in American History: Since 1865, Randy Roberts and James S. Olson wrote that "Marvel Comics employed a realism in both characterization and setting in its superhero titles that was unequaled in the comic book industry."[3]

Figure 3

Figure 3: Psychedelic panel from Silver Surfer #1 by John Buscema (pencils) and Joe Sinnott (inks).

In comics series such as Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, and Silver Surfer, Kirby, Ditko, and Lee plotted grand "cosmic" ideas about extraterrestrial civilizations, different dimensions, personified embodiments of abstract notions, whole human cultures hidden from the world, and alien gods. Many of these concepts were exaggerated ideas previously encountered in science fiction, but the way the Marvel artists depicted it, much of the imagery was psychedelic and on a cosmic scale.

The comics published at Marvel managed the then unique bridge between the absurdly grand and the humbly human. Simply put, Marvel comics were a breath of fresh air.

Drawing from the Underground

The second component of the one-two punch of the comics renaissance of the 1960s was underground comix (yes, spelled with an "x"). These small-press or self-published comic books often covered socially relevant issues in a satirical manner. Their art style flew in the face of the established superhero comics, ranging from deliberately dilettante to classically rendered or even caricature. Underground comix were not bound by the restrictions of other printed media, often openly depicting sexuality, explicit drug use, and violence.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Piece drawn in ink by artist Robert Crumb from The Complete Crumb Comics Vol. 4: "Mr. Sixties!"

The main progenitors on the comix underground were Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Trina Robbins, Gary Panter, Barbara "Willy" Mendes, and many other artists who spread their work in the counterculture scene.

The genre featured strips such as Frank Stack's The Adventures of Jesus in 1962 and Gilbert Shelton's Wonder Wart-Hog, as found in college-humor magazine Bacchanal #1-2 in the same year. Robert Crumb self-published Zap Comix in San Francisco in 1968. Many titles covered subjects as widely varied as politics and pornography.[4]

Figure 5

Figure 5: Gilbert Shelton's Freak Brothers.

Underground comix subverted the limitations of the comics medium and brought a new energy and inspiration to the cultural mainstream.

Technology and Art

To a certain extent, it is fair to say that drawing and distributing comics is not merely a function of art but very much of technology. It only became feasible to easily produce and distribute comic books once the process of printing became widely enough available and cheap enough to warrant it.

One of the reasons for the widespread adoption of comic books as a creative outlet was that creating a comic book took far fewer resources than other mediums. Making a movie back in the 1960s was an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, and getting a film distributed was often an insurmountable hurdle for fledgling filmmakers.

To create a comic book, all you needed were pencil and paper, pen and ink . . . and something to say, a story to tell. Of course, if you wanted to touch the souls of your readers, you also needed talent. Even in the 1960s, finding and paying for a printer for the low print runs in black and white on cheap paper was feasible, if not always easy. To get something printed in color was far more expensive, and you would usually have to go to an established publisher.

Underground artists could distribute their finished product themselves by using the many record stores or comics specialty shops in large metropolitan areas. Established publishers could default to newsstand distribution or mainstream retail outlets.

Figure 6

Figure 6: A pencilled comic panel before it was inked and lettered (Jack Kirby, 1978).

No Creative Limits

While printing technology and publishing have evolved over time, the core process of creating comics has not changed a lot. You tell a story in panels, usually rectangular sections that progress across the page with glimpses of what is happening with characters, objects, and locations drawn in them. Exposition and dialogue are lettered into boxes and speech bubbles. You even have a mechanism to show the thoughts of characters as clouds hovering close to their heads.

Potentially, it only takes a single writer-artist to create a comic story. The creator thinks of a story plot and sketches it out roughly, either as thumbnail images or directly on the page where they will draw the artwork. Usually, the original artwork is in a format much larger than the printed result; the process of reducing it in print brings out the details.

While a single individual could do everything themselves, and many have in the past, the process is most likely split up among more creators. A writer would write the plot and the dialog. A penciler sketches out the character, settings, and locations in the panels on a page, focusing on getting proportions and perspective right and telling the story the writer describes in their script. The inker takes the penciled pages and gives the pale lines weight, the depicted objects and characters texture, and even corrects the occasional lapse in the pencil. A letterer puts in the speech bubbles, captions, and thought balloons and adds sound effects where necessary. And finally, a color product requires a colorist. Creating comics can be a very collaborative process.

Underground and independent comics did not always follow this approach. They might produce comics alone or as a duo of creators to come up with story and art collaboratively.

Figure 7

Figure 7: The cover of Tomb of Dracula #1 during the production process.

Most importantly, what was depicted on the page was not limited by budget or available locations and actors, as is the case in filmmaking. Given sufficient time and talent, anything could be drawn on the page, be it a vast space fleet, a rock concert with thousands of people in the audience, a robot army, an alien world, or a caricatured celebrity. Comics could be "artsy" or actually artistic. They could depict high adventure or devious drama; they could be juvenile or raunchy. And, of course, they could show the high jinks and tribulations of superheroes.

Any story or genre could find its place on a comic's page, only limited by the creators' imaginations. Given the right technological advancements, comics not only were capable of subverting genres but potentially, they might even subvert art itself.


[1] Jackson, R. (2010). The 1960s: A Bibliography. Iowa State University Library.
» Back [1]

[2] McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics, the Invisible Art. Northampton, Massachusetts: Kitchen Sink Press.
» Back [2]

[3] Roberts, R., & Olson, J. S. (1998). American Experiences: Readings in American History: Since 1865. Boston: Addison-Wesley.
» Back [3]

[4] Two subjects that some people do not regard as particularly contradictory.
» Back [4]

II. Shatter

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

Figure 8: Still from Bladerunner, directed by Ridley Scott in 1982.

As William Gibson once said: "The street finds its own uses for things."[5] 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

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

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 and 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.

Digital Storytelling

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

Figure 11: Apple Macintosh Plus(Image Source:

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[6]). 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

Figure 12: The first ever publication of Shatter in the pages of Big K[7].

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.[8]

Figure 13

Figure 13: Mike Saenz in 1985 (source:

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[9].

Figure 14

Figure 14: Peter B. Gillis in the 2010s (source:

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.[10] 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.[11]

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

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.

Audience Reactions

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

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.

Tumultuous Changes

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

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[12]. 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

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

Figure 19: Charlie Athanas in the 2010s (source:

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

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.


[5] Gibson, W. (1982). "Burning Chrome." Collected in Burning Chrome. (1986). New York: Arbor House.
» Back [5]

[6] 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 nightmare."
» Back [6]

[7] Archived digitally in the ever-useful
» [7]

[8] Official Website of Mike Saenz (archived):
» Back [8]

[9] Creator page on
» [9]

[10] 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 [10]

[11] "No Mere Novelty, the Mac Takes Drudge Work Out of Comic Book Illustration," by Christine McGeever, InfoWorld, 1986 (see appendix for full article).
» Back [11]

[12] The artist's website at
» Back [12]

III. The Production Process

To destroy is always the first step in any creation.
- E. E. Cummings

For the purposes of this paper, it is of great interest to compare the process used to create Shatter with the process used most commonly in American comics of the 1980s and then juxtapose that with the process used nowadays (2018). This will show how much Shatter deviated from its contemporaries and allow us to investigate how much of its production process can be found in today's comic books.

The Typical Process in the 1980s

The writer of the comic typed the story and the script on his typewriter and sent it to the editor for review.

Once approved, this physical script went to the penciller, who sketched the rough layout scribbles of the 22 individual pages. These were much smaller than the original artwork or the printed page and served for design purposes. Then the penciller drew the actual pages (usually at double the size of the printed page) with the figures, the props, and the background scenery or locations.

In some cases, the penciled pages were returned to the writer who then provided the script for the captions, dialog, and thought balloons. In other cases, the script already had all the captions and dialog when the penciller received it.

In the next stage, the letterer drew the caption boxes, speech bubbles, and thought balloons to then place the letters in them.

As soon as the penciled and lettered pages were completed, they were sent to the inker. They redrew the penciller's art by tracing the lines—providing them with weight, cleaning them up, and giving the solids some texture. The inker made sure that objects in the distance were drawn with a faint line and closer objects or characters were drawn with the full weight they needed to tell the story.

Finally, the colorist applied colors and tones to the artwork by hand.

The pages of the comic book are then photographed for print and reduced to the desired size[13].

Figure 21

Figure 21: MacPaint on a monochrome Macintosh (ca. 1984).

The Process used for Shatter

The digital workflow of Shatter also starts with the script. But as described by Mike Gold, the series' editor, in the editorial of Shatter Special #1, "... Peter would dialogue Mike's art on an Apple III, but it would be lettered on the Mac."

In Shatter #3, Editor Mike Gold continued to describe the process: "Virtually everything in Shatter, prior to the coloring phase, is generated as Apple Macintosh MacPaint computer files and then printed on an Apple Laserwriter."

And further in the editorial of Shatter Special #1:

Together with First Comics' production manager Alex Said and editorial coordinator Rick Oliver, we agreed that every aspect of Shatter would be performed on the Mac - the art, the lettering, the logo, the advertising, even this editorial. Everything but the color. We could create the color on the Mac (and we could come up with some interesting effects by creating a wider range of tones) but it would take far too much time.

Figure 22

Figure 22: Interior story art from Shatter Special #1, colored (left) and before coloring (right).

So, the process used for Shatter saved on transcribing the script and on producing the pencils to be inked because the artwork was drafted directly on the computer. The coloring as the last step still maintained the established traditional workflow and did not save any time in this respect.

Figure 23

Figure 23: MacDraw on a monochrome Macintosh (ca. 1985).

The Typical Process in 2018

Today, we need to distinguish between comic books produced by the "big two" commercial comic book publishers, Marvel and DC Comics (and to a lesser extent, the next large publishers Image and Dark Horse), and those comics produced by independent artists or groups of artists.

Commercial Comics

Even at the time of writing this paper, the steps in creating a physically printed commercial comic book have not changed drastically compared to 1985, but the process is greatly expedited. A writer writes the plot and the script and sends it as an email to the editor who then provides all the changes and forwards it to the artist.

This where the process becomes very disparate. Different artists work differently. Some will still draw the artwork on paper board using a pencil and then either ink it themselves or pass it on to an inker to be embellished. Even if this analog path is chosen, some artists will still use digital references or even trace from printouts of digital sources. They might model difficult background shots using 3D software and then draw from this reference. In any case, the artwork is scanned into the computer and sent as a digital file to the publisher for further processing.

Two steps in the process have switched nearly exclusively to digital: lettering and sound effects and the coloring of the book.

Figure 24

Figure 24: An artist using a Wacom Cintiq 24"

While a large part of the drawings for commercial comic books is still produced using analog means, the tendency to produce purely digitally is slowly prevailing in independent comics. Artists either draft their artwork directly on a screen using a Wacom tablet, Microsoft Surface, or iPad Pro or they sketch on paper and refine their work digitally. Some artists use 3D software to meticulously render their characters, props, and backgrounds. Then they combine the components using paint or layout software.

That being said, commercial superstar artists like DC Vice President and one of the current Superman artists Jim Lee and Green Lantern artist Ethan Van Sciver still pencil and ink their work[14].

Even though exceptions do exist, to this day, the mainstream process is still not fully digital with analog steps remaining for drafting and inking. The process of coloring and lettering are fully digital. One of the reasons for the pedantically segmented process in commercial comics is strict editorial control over every step. This not only allows the editor to play gatekeeper, catching any potential quality issues or any part of the commissioned work that might be inadequate or inappropriate, it also allows the editor to keep an eye on the progress of the comic book from the first word laid down to the finished piece being delivered to the printer.

Strangely, this only partially digital production process needs to end in a digital file for printers to handle. Even though the sales of physical comic books are dwindling in 2018, digital distribution of comic books through vendors like cannot yet compensate for the drop in sales.

Independent Artists

Again, it is hard to generalize; there will always be artists who prefer traditional analog means. In some cases, they might not even use pencil and ink on paper but could use a completely different analog media, such as oil on canvas or collage or any of the multitude of different techniques established over the centuries.

Independent comics artists often work alone or, at most, in a small team. They mostly do not have a support infrastructure, so they do more on their own. This is one of the reasons why digital production is more common in the field of independent artists.

Due to the lack of editorial control, the process does not even always need to start with a ready plot and script but can start with sketches that evolve into a complete story. But for the sake of comparability, let us start the digital process an independent artist uses with the story creation (plot and potentially script). They then might produce thumbnail layouts of the pages to get an idea of the story flow and the necessary number of panels. This might be done on paper or, already at this stage, on the computer.

Then the digital artist completes the final stages with digital tools. Outline art might be drawn similarly to previous techniques with a sketch, a finer rendering of the sketch in more detail, and then the final cleanup. But because they are working digitally, they are not bound to the processes of physical media.

After rendering the outlines, the color art can be produced without delay or the need to change medium in the next step. Lettering and sound effects are added. And the page is done.

Purely digital pieces can be distributed over the web; those produced for print can be emailed to the printers for direct printing.

Figure 25

Figure 25: The Smith Micro application Poser allows artists to pose 3D charactersand render them out as ink drawings for use in their comics.

Comparing the Processes

In contrast, Shatter was limited by the available means of communication, with disks with the digital materials being mailed conventionally. But save for this, the whole process was digital. The limitations of the printing presses made it necessary to produce a hardcopy of the line art so that it could be photographed for the plate-based offset printing of the day. Coloring solely on a computer was not yet feasible on the machines available in 1985, remaining a task to be done by hand the traditional way.


[13] Lee, S., & Buscema, J. (1978). How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.
» Back [13]

[14] Ethan Van Sciver's YouTube channel: and
» Back [14]

IV. The Other First Computer Comic

"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

While Mike Saenz was the first to produce and publish a complete comic book on a computer, other artists quickly followed. In 1988, German comic book artist Michael Götze created the Das Robot Imperium comic album. This was the first European comic created on a computer. He did not use an Apple Macintosh to create this black-and-white comic, but instead the Atari 520ST, an affordable competitor of the Mac that also came with a mouse by default.

Figure 26

Figure 26 Michael Götze's traditionally painted covers for Das Robot Imperium volumes 1 to 3 (Source: Das Robot Imperium by Michael Götze, Carlsen Comics Verlag, 1988, 1990, 1992)

Pixel Imperium

The comic's story chronicled the fight of a small group of humans against the robots who ruled over them. Even in the 1980s, this was not the most original plot. Like Shatter, this comic's main selling point was that the artist created it on a computer.

Even though the first volume of Das Robot Imperium "Jäger ohne Gewissen" ('Hunter without a conscience") eschews the use of color, it is a far more lavish and elaborate work compared to Shatter. The scenes depicted in the panels have depth and dimensionality. The figures are not flat like in Shatter, Goetze renders the characters' faces with much greater expressiveness. He took much more time to produce each page than the fast release schedule of Shatter would allow.

Figure 27

Figure 27: Left: interior BW page from volume one Das Robot Imperium: Jäger ohne Gewissen. Right: interior pages from volume two Das Robot Imperium: Volthead

The Creation Process

On the Atari ST, Götze programmed his own 3D wireframe application and special printing software using GFA-Basic. In the application he called Pixelart, Götze created 3D models of the human body and put them in different poses. Then he combined the figures with flat backgrounds. He also modeled props and mechanical backgrounds like a command center in 3D. Once the 3D models were created, he could place them in the scene and create complicated perspectives with the wireframe models. Eventually, Goetze had a library of objects that he could reuse.

He would laboriously touch up the images in the Atari ST paint application D.E.G.A.S. Elite using the mouse to give them the final polish.

Work on Robot Imperium started in 1986 on the first of three volumes in the European album format. Götze drew the first volume in black-and-white. The gradients were dot patterns printed with a typical dot-matrix printer used in offices at the time: the Epson FX-80.

The back of the first two volumes shows a photo of the artist Götze toiling away on his Atari ST. And the last few pages of the first volume describe Götze's process for drawing the panels on the Atari ST: "This Is How a Comic Is Made on a Computer" ("So entsteht ein Comic am Computer"). From today's perspective, it might appear comedic that the process description includes a short explanation of how a computer mouse works. There even is mention of Shatter by Mike Saenz and Peter B. Gillis (inexplicably, Gillis is referred to as Bernd Gillis in the text). The piece's writer does not show high regard for Saenz' computer art, calling it "unsatisfactory" and "experimental."

The most interesting parts of this description were the screenshots of the individual steps in Götze's creation process. They show how he places the rudimentary 3D model of a spaceship over a rough sketch of the background foliage in a forest scene. The wireframes of the spaceship show all sides, even the parts that should be obscured from the viewer. Götze manually cleans up the image, meticulously removing the lines that should not be visible. Then he embellishes the manually-drawn backgrounds, thus integrating them with the 3D model. Then he spots the black areas and emphasizes individual lines to give them more weight. Finally, he shades the image in dotted patterns for different levels of light and dark.

Artistically, this painstaking process proved to be very successful. The drawings are very much in the style of the French bandes desinée of the 1980s. This speaks to the artist's craftsmanship. Götze followed the first volume with the second one titled "Volthead" in 1990, this time in full color. It was printed on a dot-matrix printer in multiple passes with different colored ribbons.

Figure 28

Figure 28: A description of the process of creating a computer comic in Das Robot Imperium: Jäger ohne Gewissen

The Ghost of A Different Future

In 1992, Götze released the third volume "Ein erster Sieg?" ("A First Victory?") with an even greater level of detail in his drawings and an even greater level of artistic accomplishment. Its slickness moved it so close to the traditionally drawn and colored analog comics to make it indistinguishable at first glance. This also meant that despite all the effort put into it, the comic lost one of its most distinguishing features. It lost the "look" of a computer comic.

Commercially, Das Robot Imperium ended up not being very successful. It remains a testimony to artistic dedication, adventurous graphical experimentation, and the stubbornness to make the best use of the capabilities of a barely suitable computer to achieve professional results.

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:
» Back [15]



  • Big K Magazine (12). (1985, March). London: IPC Magazines. Retrieved on March 24, 2018, from at
  • Gibson, W. (1982). Burning Chrome. Collected in Burning Chrome. (1986). New York: Arbor House.
  • Götze, M. (1988, 1990, 1992). Das Robot Imperium. Hamburg, Carlsen Comics.
  • Jackson, R. (2010). The 1960s: A Bibliography. Iowa State University Library.
  • Lee, S., & Buscema, J. (1978). How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.
  • McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics, the Invisible Art. Northampton, Massachusetts: Kitchen Sink Press.
  • McGeever, C. (1986) No Mere Novelty, the Mac Takes Drudge Work Out of Comic Book Illustration. InfoWorld.
  • Roberts, R. & Olson, J. S. (1998). American Experiences: Readings in American History: Since 1865. Boston: Addison-Wesley.
  • Saenz, M., Gillis, P. B., & Athanas, C. (1985-1988). Shatter(1-14). Chicago: First Comics Publishing.
  • Saenz, M., Gillis, P. B. (1985). Shatter back-up feature in Jon Sable Freelance(25-30). Chicago: First Comics Publishing.

Supplemental Material

1986 Review of Shatter in InfoWorld Magazine

Appendix Figure 1


The First Four Pages from Shatter Special #1

Page 1 of Shatter Special #1
Page 1 of Shatter Special #1


Page 2 of Shatter Special #1
Page 2 of Shatter Special #1


Page 3 of Shatter Special #1
Page 3 of Shatter Special #1


Page 4 of Shatter Special #1
Page 4 of Shatter Special #1


Original Issues of Shatter

(As purchased on in December 2017)

All issues of Shatter

The purchase of Shatter on eBay