Un-holy Alliance: Shatter and the aesthetics of cyberpunk

Posted by Ernesto Priego on 22 Aug, 2011
 Pencil on paper by Charlie Athanas for Shatter (1986) Pencil on paper by Charlie Athanas for Shatter (1986)   Page from Shatter by Charlie Athanas, redrawn "from scratch (no scanners) on the MacPlus" (1986) Page from Shatter by Charlie Athanas, redrawn "from scratch (no scanners) on the MacPlus" (1986)

It is thought the first printed comic book to make complete use of digital illustration was Shatter, originally by Peter Gillis (writer) and Mike Saenz (illustrator). Edited by Mike Gold and art directed by Alex Wald, Shatter appeared in March 1985 as a double-page spread in the British computer magazine Big K, becoming a 14-issue comic book series published by First Comics Publishing (Chicago) from 1985 to 1987 (original writer Peter Gillis left after the second issue; digital artist Charlie Athanas took over the title from issue 9) [1. Mike Saenz created Iron Man: Crash, for Marvel comics in 1988. It has been credited as the first "digital graphic novel" (McCloud 2000; Szadkowski 2000).].

The comic was completely drawn on a first-generation Apple Macintosh computer, using a mouse and printed on a dot-matrix printer [2. Athanas worked with a Macintosh Plus, which was introduced on 16 January 1986. It was the third model in the Apple Macintosh line. Unlike its predecessor, de 512K, the MacPlus came with 1 MB of RAM expandable to 4 MB and an external SCSI peripheral bus.]. The printouts were photographed in the same way a black and white original would, and the colour separations were applied later in the traditional way (McCloud 2000: 140; 165; Szadkowski 2000). On his blog, Athanas recalled how:

The artwork was created from the ground up on a MacPlus with 1MB of RAM and a couple of 3.4 floppy drives [...] the pages were created in black and white, printed and then colored in the traditional manner. It was not until the last couple of issues that I was able to get a stylus and tablet. Prior to that, it was 28 pages of artwork, every two months, using a mouse to draw with [3. Athanas's blog is now at <http://burningcityinc.blogspot.com/> but unfortunately the original post has been removed and is no longer available. Szadkowski (2000) cites the same passage. See Athanas 2004.].

Athanas would also "breakdown the layout in pencil to get approval from the editors and so the writer could move on with the script." After the panel layout drawn on paper was approved, he "would then redraw these images from scratch (no scanners) on the MacPlus and put in the dialog when it arrived" (Athanas 2004).

The MacPlus (1986), Athanas's main drawing tool The MacPlus (1986), Athanas's main drawing tool

Athanas also describes the problems he faced negotiating the parameters of print with the capabilities of his MacPlus and the software he used (FullPaint):

The hardest part was not drawing with the big clunky mouse that came with the MacPlus. Nor was it the complete lack of memory, which meant that you had the drawing program (Fullpaint) on a floppy in the main drive slot, your 800K work disk floppy in the external drive, and you had to swap out disks to use any stock art that you had created. No, 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 (Athanas 2004).

FullPaint was a software for the creation of computer graphics developed by Ann Arbor Softworks. As an alternative to MacPaint, it allowed to resize the windows and to scroll within the document instead of dragging with the "Hand Tool." FullPaint did not allow true grey scale; a similar effect was achieved through "dithering", which along the dot matrix printing gave Shatter its particular "cyberpunk" feel.

Athanas is clear that the struggle was not a technical or computational one. The problem was to use the technology of the time to the standards of printed comic books.  In the introduction to Pepe Moreno's Batman: Digital Justice (1990), Athanas's former editor Mike Gold remembers:

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 128K 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 (1990:2).

By 1988-1990 these technologies were quite advanced, and Athanas, Gillis and Saenz were working at the edge of what was technologically possible and finding new uses for tools that were not originally intended for that purpose. In terms of theme and aesthetics, Shatter was groundbreaking but in retrospect the artwork is unavoidably a sign of its times. Like many other comics being published at the time in America, the UK and Europe, it shared and continued the influence of cyberpunk aesthetics, as made famous by William Gibson's Neuromancer, published in 1984.

As seen on the second image above, the dot-matrix style of Shatter made no attempt to hide the technical limitations of the computer; on the contrary, what Saenz and the artists that followed him wanted to do was to emphasize as much as possible the computerised nature of the creative process. The style echoed Gibson's definition of "cyberspace" in Neuromancer:

A graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding... (Gibson 2004:69).

Bruce Sterling would coin the term "cyberpunk" in 1986 in his preface to the short story anthology Mirrorshades (1986), and what he wrote about that generation of science fiction writers could equally be applied to comic book artists, writers, editors and publishers such as the contributors of adult fantasy and sci-fi comics magazines Heavy Metal and Métal Hurlant, particularly Richard Corben, and the Shatter team:

Like punk music, cyberpunk is in some sense a return to roots. The cyberpunks are perhaps the first SF generation to grow up not only within the literary tradition of science fiction but in a truly science-fictional world. For them, the techniques of classical "hard SF" extrapolation, technological literacy - are not just literary tools but an aid to daily life [...] And suddenly a new alliance is becoming evident: an integration of technology and the Eighties counterculture. An un-holy alliance of the technical world and the world of organized dissent –the underground world of pop culture, visionary fluidity, and street-level anarchy (Sterling 1986).

This "un-holy alliance" was obvious in the realm of comic book textuality: having inherited the tradition of underground dissent of the late 1960s and 1970s work by Crumb, Shelton, Kurtzman etc., the sci-fi and superhero comics became a fertile breeding ground for a literary and aesthetic trend that had technology and counterculture at its core.  
Athanas, C. (2004). ‘Burning City Inc. Featuring Charlie Athanas. Comic Books.’<http://burningcity.com/bci_html/athanas_comics.html>. Accessed 01 August 2011. Lawley, G. (1999). ‘‘I like Hate and I hate everything else’: The Influence of punk on comics,’ in Sabin, R., (ed.) Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk (London and New York: Routledge) Levy, S. (1995). The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything (London: Penguin) McCloud, S.  (2000). Reinventing Comics. How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form (New York: HarperCollins) Moreno, P., and Gold, M. (1990). ‘Introduction.’ Batman: Digital Justice (New York: DC Comics) Sterling, B. (1986). Preface to Mirrorshades. Project Cyberpunk: <http://project.cyberpunk.ru/idb/mirrorshades_preface.html>. Accessed 05 August 2011. Szadkowski, J.  (2000). ‘Digital Production Comes of Age in the Comic World’, Animation World Magazine. 01 July. <http://www.awn.com/articles/profiles/digital-production-comes-age-comic-world>. Accessed 01 August 2011. --- NB: Scott Bukatman has written on comics and cyberpunk; his Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century (Duke University Press, 2003) is an important resource. Thanks very much indeed to Tony Venezia for reminding me and for noticing a lapsus brutus in the body of the text that I have now corrected.