Mix a Man, Apple, Mouse, and Zap! A New Comic Book

Times Staff Writer

"Thunk . . . blang . . . borp . . . whumf!"

What else could it be but interpretations by a comic book?

Now in its second half-century of existence, following the commercial debut of Famous Funnies in May of 1934, the revered art form still tells a story in colorful drawings within panels, still has its characters making statements inside balloons issuing from their mouths.

But nothing is permanent except change, even in an industry that sells an estimated 250 million comic books each year throughout the world.

It had to happen. Earlier this month, many of the Southland's comic book specialty stores and computer outlets began receiving copies of what is said to be the first professional comic book produced on a personal computer.

Something has been changed, but basically things remain Shazam.

"About a year ago, an artist and a writer came to us with something they felt was revolutionary," Rick Obadiah said by phone from Evanston, Ill.

Obadiah is publisher of First Comics Inc. The artist, Michael Saenz, and the writer, Peter Gillis, had worked up some drawings by using a computer in the artist's Chicago home.

"I'll be honest. At first I wasn't impressed," the publisher said. "But Mike Gold, who is both my partner and the managing editor, recognized the potential."

The potential, Obadiah said, was not only for a different and dramatic style of art but one that could be more cost-efficient.

Having sold the idea, the artist and the writer began work on what would be a comic book about a 21st-Century contract policeman named Shatter. He learns by video of a rare canister of Coca-Cola syrup available for $75,000 and, seeking to raise the money for it, successfully bids on a job to catch a mass murderer.

So much for the heavy plot.

Apple-and-Mouse Game

"It took the better part of the next year to get competent on the Apple Macintosh, and another three weeks to do the actual work," Saenz said.

To accomplish the drawing, he held in his hand something known as a mouse, which is about the size of a pack of cigarettes and is rolled ona desk to control the movement of a cursor on a screen.

Up until then, as is the routine with most such artists, it would have been a pencil outline, followed by a permanent India ink covering painstakingly done with a dip pen or brush.

This time the artist beat the rat race with a mouse. "A button on it allowed me to select patterns, all of which were composed of dots," Saenz explained. "I used a keyboard to make letters and words."

The only aspect done by hand was the coloring. "We could have used the Mac--and come up with some interesting effects--but we felt we weren't ready for that yet," the book publisher said.

"One reason the computer allowed me to be faster is that it has storage capability," the artist said. "You can store an image, such as the face of the main character, from different angles."

As Saenz progressed on his image-processing adventure, he printed it out a page at a time. At the conclusion he carried both the 28 pages and the microdiscs to his editor's office, where editing was done on the computer there.

Obadiah said the only thing time-consuming for an artist is learning the transition from the drawing table to electronics. "Once the new method has been learned, an artist can double or triple his speed."

And lo, in selected retail outlets, printed on high-quality paper and selling for $1.75, there was brought forth on this continent a new publication, dedicated to the proposition that not all comic books are created equal.

For years Kevin Homel had been trying to find his way. His grandfather was one of the founders of the Jim Beam distillery, and so for a time the descendant was a liquor salesman.

He got a degree in psychology at Cal State Long Beach. He tried making a living with a guitar, playing the hotel lounges before audiences that weren't terribly interested.

"Being a musician, I had a lot of free time during the day," he recalled. "One day I wandered into a comic book store and started thumbing through old issues I had read as a child."

The musician purchased a few, and before long found himself attending conventions, and buying from one store and selling to another. His personal collection grew to more than 10,000 issues, taking up an entire bedroom.

"I looked into the room and thought: 'Why don't I open my own store and see what happens?"'

Typical Enterprise

That was three years ago. And now Galaxy Comics at 1503 1/2 Aviation Blvd. in Redondo Beach is perhaps typical of all such enterprises in these parts, its walls lined with the exploits of everyone from Wonder Woman to Spider-Man.

"More than 200 titles come out monthly, and to be on the safe side, we order some of each," the 29-year-old Homel said. "That is one reason I have about 120,000 copies on the premises."

When he heard that assertedly the first computer-generated comic book was soon to be distributed, he ordered 120 copies of Shatter.

"A $1.75 issue that is any good will sell maybe 30 copies in my place. With Shatter, we are approaching 100 in less than a month."

Back in Evanston, Obadiah confirmed the success nationwide. "We printed about 20% more than we had orders for, and sold out in four days. We have published 160 other issues. This is the fastest that we have ever sold out.

"It is our highest-grossing issue to date. We have gone into a second printing, which is unusual in our industry."

Needless to say, a follow-up computer-generated version is in the works, due out in a few months.

At the Galaxy Comics store, as at most others, roughly half the customers are adults. Homel said the reaction of the younger set is, to use their terminology, that the new publication is "rad." He said the older patrons have the same enthusiasm, although not with the same eloquence.

In the back room of his establishment are countless boxes filled with forgotten books. But there apparently will be no need for any Shatter boxing.

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