My beautiful encounters.

*I went to a fair today. I knew it’d be a great time as soon as I saw the sign for a stand called The Unicorn’s Strawberry Shortcake Sundae, though I actually only copped a free sample of pulled pork, paid for a slice of frozen cheesecake dipped in chocolate, and had someone pour me carnival wine into a plastic cup. That’s living!

And then I saw Spidey.

I turned around at one point totally at random, and literally right there in my face was a man in a full-body Spider-Man costume. “Aaargh!” he yelled at me, and hustled away. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and there was nothing to do but stare as the webslinger leapt into his trailer with the agility of an arachnid, though that might have just been the wine and the brainfreeze from the cheesecake having a Marvel Team-Up in my skull.

The rest of the evening I kept wondering: was Spidey part of the demolition derby, or the chainsaw log-sculpturing contest? I hope it was the latter - smashing cars is fine, but there’s nothing more intimidating than a man in spandex brandishing a live chainsaw.


A nice package from AiT/Planet Lar, $14.95 for 160 b&w pages, reprinting some interesting comics from the mid-‘80s.

To be honest, a lot of the immediate interest comes from the means by which the work was created, more-or-less entirely on an early Macintosh, specks of graphic laid down via MacPaint 1.0 and spit out on a dot matrix printer, the images then colored with traditional comics separations before heading off for publication. There’s stories in the bonus material collected in this book of noted comics pros reacting with surprise to the work, even concern, though hardly anything in comics anymore is not touched by a computer – we’ve come a long way, yet the meticulous process endured to create as early a work as Shatter remains fascinating as an image of how those near the front of the technological line sought to make everything work, the smoothness and ease of tomorrow still a little bit ahead of the future’s own tools.

But beyond all that, there’s a secondary interest: as a total work, Shatter fits in with the rest of the AiT/Planet Lar line remarkably well, its high-action pop futurism more fascinated in flavoring its core mystery and spurts of violence with forward-looking idea accoutrements than delving too heavily into speculation. The exploding bugs and power suits and the obligatory femme fatale come first here; you can pick up those precognitive messages from the past at your leisure. Luckily, this is breezy, witty stuff, light enough and deftly handled in a way that the reader can feel free to sift through the shards of meaning and fixate on them in a manner that would be impossible with too much smog and slog on the page.

And they are beautiful pages, to drag things (inevitably?) back toward the visual side – Mike Saenz is responsible for all the art in here (and some of the writing), and those million blips of darkness that make up Shatter’s world still hold up as marvelously convincing today. I particularly liked the more abstract backgrounds, bustling cityscapes conveyed through nests of cubes and icon patterns and jagged lines, letters typed directly atop it all to crudely and beautifully approximate intrusive business signs. Not that such gritty shorthand is limited to inhuman things – there’s a wonderful moment early in the book where a villain gets mad, and we see a big close-up of his face, and the very skin and shadow covering him are composed of angry visual noise, as if the Mac can barely hold his rage. There’s a real sense of freewheeling experimentation to the story’s look; you’ll notice Saenz moving from technique to technique as the story continues, a middle portion of the book suddenly lunging into fuzzy photorealism, then backing away into a suddenly clean style, an approach eventually retained mainly for the female lead’s face. And Saenz wrings a lot of expression out of faces; this might be early representational ‘computer art,’ but there’s none of the stereotypical absence of character that thoughts of such things conjure. “…control is what this is all about” writer Peter Gillis reports of telling a skeptical pro at the dawn of the work, suggesting that computers are simply another tool for lively creation. I’d have thought one would need only glance at Saenz’s art to see that

Gillis is one of several folks who contribute historical comments on the work; he offers both a new reminisce and an essay from 1988 on the genesis of the material, though he did not appear to be present for several portions of the later material. Shatter was not an easy sell to the comics-buying public, as publisher First Comics debuted it in a 1985 one-shot special, and then ran it as a back-up feature in the popular series Jon Sable, Freelance for six issues, only after which it became an ongoing series. Gillis wrote the Special and the back-up, though issue #1 of the ongoing is credited primarily to Saenz, with one Mark Pierce listed under “Assist. Art/Story,” issue #2 bearing a “Script” credit for a Kenn L.D. Frandsen, backing Saenz’s “Art and Plot” (neither Pierce nor Frandsen is credited anywhere but in the individual titles of the stories themselves – the book as a whole is credited to only Gillis and Saenz). Shatter actually ran for 14 ongoing issues total, though this collection understandably stops when Saenz leaves following issue #2.

Thus, the most glaring absence from the copious retrospective features is Saenz himself, the artist not in attendance for what often seems like a party thrown in his honor. Marc Bernardin of Entertainment Weekly provides an Introduction, television producer Rick Austin chats about the progress of technology, and series editor Mike Gold fills us in on some private details (apparently Apple was eager to distance themselves from the whole affair, mortified that their business-targeted machine might become associated with something as foolish as comic books). Saenz’s pictures speak for him with the most authority.

But as I mentioned before, the plot is pretty fun. Sadr al-din Morales is a temp in a future megalopolis, filling in a privatized police position via subcontract. He calls himself Shatter, but on duty he’s Jack Scratch, the name of the man whose job he’s doing. Names don’t matter much in the future, since public identities are merely shoes to fill in the marketplace, cherry mission contracts snapped up via computerized auction and products from the past always available to eat up all that income. It’s a hankering for the long-gone Coca-Cola Classic (which wasn’t its name at that time, but bear with me) that pushes Morales/Shatter/Scratch out on the trail of a mystery woman, though eventually he’ll get tied up in a war between rebel artists and an evil corporation (of course!) that’s puzzled out a way to literally extract talent from people and make the whole concept just one more Big Mac for anyone to scarf up. But isn’t this a perfect means of redistributing power to the less privileged? Isn’t there a certain self-preserving desperation to those bold rebels?

The book toys around with these concepts, gleefully positing that pretty much nobody would behave all that well given the situation, but that’s kept at a low simmer while there’s cackling yuppie villains to defeat and double-crosses to pull off, and future plots to set up that’ll go nowhere in this book since it’s only collecting part of an ongoing series. Hey – exploding bugs! Girls in bikinis! And bunny suits! Lovely, pixilated exit wounds popping open atop people’s skulls! Shatter has things on its mind, yes, but it knows it has to entertain like hell to survive as such an odd duck, both at its genesis in the ‘80s and within its return today. Nothing wrong with that, though it’s worthwhile to emphasize that the futurism mentioned regarding the book’s plot is largely decoration, even the core theme of ‘dehumanization through instant gratification’ never quite developing beyond what’s necessary to drive the action to another set piece, and finally to a semi-stop. It’s an ongoing action comic first and everything else second, if you’re going on elements other than history and pure visuals.

But it’s a good, often funny action comic, and let’s not underestimate that art. The back of the book even includes a 12-page test-run story, bits and pieces of which got recycled into the story proper, and it’s amazing how much of Saenz’s style was already formed ahead of time. Sure, the exploding bugs would come later, replacing the test-run’s goofy attack rats, but you can’t get everything right the first time. The action fought its way up to meet and supplement the weirdness of the art, finally resulting in the sleek, light, necessary blend we can enjoy again today.