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Graphic Novel Review: Shatter

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Most scientists agree that there are four universal forces. These are the most powerful forces in the universe, starting with strong nuclear force which is the most powerful but affects things over the smallest distance. The middle two are weak nuclear force and electromagnetic force, and these are followed by gravitational force, which is the weakest of the four, but affects things over the longest distance.

Coming in just under gravitational force, however, is an unspoken fifth universal force that is the true glue that binds the universe together. Gravity be damned, that force is nostalgia. Anyone who doubts this can go find out about Michael Bay's newest project, then get back to me.

Writers as varied as Garrison Keillor and Michael Chabon have built their careers on nostalgia. Artists like Alex Ross and Steve Rude have careers steeped in it, and let's not even get into the careers of Norman Rockwell, Stan Lynde, or Charles M. Russell.

Nostalgia is everywhere. Sometimes it's a force for good, like Palisades Toys re-introducing Micronauts, and sometimes it's pure evil, like the aforementioned Michael Bay project. In comics, that unrelenting need to recapture a bit of history is obvious in works like The Watchmen, The Dark Knight, Maus, The Sandman, Acme Novelty Library… I could do this forever.

Back in the '80s there were several comics that I followed with the fervor of a hyper-motivated religious zealot. I tried never to miss an issue. For the record they were American Flagg, Badger, Nexus, Grimjack, Mage, Cerebus, Starslayer, Miracle Man, and of course The Legion of Super Heroes. I'm sure there were others — The Rocketeer when it came out, Mars was periodically entertaining, occasionally Dynamo Joe and The Elementals. I'm getting misty-eyed just thinking about them.

Then there was Shatter. My best friend Will followed this thing devotedly. He bought every issue, and even followed Mike Saenz on to Donna Matrix. It took nearly a year of his browbeating me with this series before I finally gave it a chance. It was good. It didn't exactly blow my socks off or anything, but I liked it well enough. Peter Gillis' plot was a bit pedestrian, a futuristic crime noir complete with the cliched hardboiled hero and the femme fatale. It was obvious that Gillis was a Blade Runner fan, and that was just fine by me.

From a story standpoint, Shatter didn't exactly set my world on fire, but the artwork was a different story. Working with an Apple MacIntosh and a dot matrix printer, Mike Saenz made magic. He pulled light, depth, and shadow from a device that only a few years before could barely repeat the word "run" on an endless loop until you hit the escape button. This was something new, exciting, and endlessly interesting. It was the first time a comic had ever been produced using a tool that 22 years later is an integral part of the art form.

I liked Shatter. It was unique for its time. Over the years I've gone back and re-read those issues several times. It has always held up as a nostalgic reminder of one of my favorite eras in the history of comics.

And that's why I was happy to see AiT/Planet Lar publish Shatter as a graphic novel. It had been several years since I'd read the comic, and seeing it on the shelf at my local Borders was like welcoming back an old friend. Larry Young and Mimi Rosenheim understand all to well that fifth universal force, and they definitely know quality work when they see it.

The new Shatter package is excellent. It's faithfully reproduced from the original black and white art, and the modern color process on the covers takes the artwork to whole new levels of excellence. It's got essays by the writer Peter Gillis, and by Mike Gold (the genius responsible for most of what was good from First Comics, Shatter's original publishing house.) There's a couple of other essays by luminaries who are fans of Shatter, and only Mike Saenz is conspicuous by his absence. It's a nice package, and a fine addition to the AiT/Planet Lar cannon.

Looking back at 1984, the year Shatter was published, it was a watershed year for science fiction. Blade Runner was only two years old, and everyone was still on the fence about its importance to the genre. Howard Chaykin was working on his science fiction magnum opus, American Flagg. Later that same year, a little book called Neuromancer would plow into the metaphorical forearm of the genre like a cybernetic heroin overdose, leaving us with permanent track mark scars of chrome and neon.

Taken in that context, Shatter becomes all the more important for what Peter Gillis accomplished with his story. To swipe a turn of phrase from Larry Young, like fine sippin' whiskey, Shatter just gets better with age. The artwork suffers a bit with the passing of time, especially considering what we're used to in these latter days of 2006, but it still rocks. Hopefully one of these days Mike Saenz will revisit this project and apply some of our modern coloring techniques. Shatter's artwork almost begs for it, and the addition of color would definitely alleviate some of the "dated" feel it has for today's comics readers, spoiled on a diet of digital processing.

For now though, Shatter works just fine the way it's presented. It's a nostalgic trip back to a fun time in comics. It was a time when a comics company that was neither Marvel or DC would take a chance on something that had never been done before. It was an era where that same upstart publisher took on the big two with a murder's row of indy titles, and actually managed to shake the pillars of heaven, for a time.

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  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!