I’m in the mood for another trip down to the ‘Taint The Meat vault of comic book oddities. This week it’s the turn of Iron Man: Crash, billed as ‘the first computer generated graphic novel’.
The 1980’s was a rich environment for experimentation in comic books. Thanks to the mainstream success of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, comic books were enjoying a surge in popularity. In response the industry attempted to grow up a little and consolidate its appeal to this wider audience. Graphic Novels, prestige limited series, painted covers, improvements in overall print quality and a general sense of maturity all contributed to push the medium beyond the popular misconception of cheaply produced ‘funny books’. Self contained ‘Graphic Novels’ in particular had become popular so publishing one that that could boast cutting-edge computer technology must have seemed like a no-brainer.
Written and illustrated by Mike Saenz, and aided by computer programmer William Bates Iron Man: Crash was published in 1988 and was the 33rd graphic novel by Marvel Comics’ creator owned imprint Epic Comics. The 64 page story was set around 30 years in the future and dealt with a reclusive and jaded Tony Stark, forced out of retirement to confront a group of unscrupulous Japanese businessmen intent on stealing his Iron Man technology. Saenz borrowed heavily from some of the story-telling elements popularised by Miller in his Dark Knight miniseries, and the tale featured a grittier, more violent golden Avenger. An OAP Nick Fury also appeared in a story that sees Iron Man (wielding a large railgun for some reason) facing off against assassins and giant robots before concluding with a treatise on the nature of Artificial Intelligence. Or something. To be honest the story is pretty dull and not told particularly well. Saenz slips into technobabble far too often and the story drags. But who cares, it was ‘the first ever computer generated graphic novel’, that’s pretty cool… right?
Well, no. Not really. What must have sounded like a good idea on paper (or should that be print-out?) didn’t translate very well when put into practice. Saentz and Bates utilised various computer programmes and techniques to draw, colour, letter and compile the story, all on Apple’s shiny new Mac II PC. As a result the novel featured a mish-mash of styles — 3D, bezier and bitmap graphics — none of which gelled together very well (see the example to the right). The bitmap elements (which feature in over 90% of the book) also had a crude, stippled effect, rather like Richard Corben on an off day (a very off day), and it didn’t help that the colours were dull and murky.
But the book isn’t without its charm. What it lacks in production values it almost makes up for in hutzpah, and Saenz’ enthusiasm for the project is infectious. He clearly believed the availability of affordable computers, and the emergence of Desktop Publishing (DTP), to be the future of comic books. And in a way he was right. Computers do dominate comic book publishing (as they do all areas of the medium), but they are used to compliment the creative process, not replace it. Artists may well draw with tablets (or utilise scanners to digitise their drawings), and then use PCs to compile the images before lettering and colouring them, but the artist’s inherent style is still clearly visible. Computers steam-line the process, they shouldn’t dominate it as they do with Iron Man: Crash. Here the computer smothers the story instead of letting it breathe. It also doesn’t help that there’s no real reason for the book to be computer generated — it has nothing to do with the story and comes over as a classic example of form over function.
Now is probably as good a time as any to talk a little about Saenz himself. Many older comic books fans may remember him as the artist on the short-lived title Shatter from the mid-Eighties, another comic whose artwork was created solely on computer (only the base artwork was digital however, the comic was coloured and lettered traditionally). But Apple Macintosh fans may remember Saenz for a slightly different — and more infamous — reason. In 1985 Saenz released MacPlaymate, which could boast to be one of the first computer generated pornographic video games. I won’t get too bogged down in the details of the game (after all, ‘Taint The Meat isn’t that type of site) but suffice to say it was pretty crude (in both subject matter and execution) and left very little to the imagination.
In conclusion Iron Man: Crash isn’t awful, but it isn’t particularly good either. It tries to bite off more than it can chew and ultimately fails to appeal to either comic books nerds or computer geeks. Not so much a crash, more of a flop. However, the failure of Iron Man: Crash didn’t deter other publishers from trying to give the computer generated graphic novel a whirl. Batman: Digital Justice was released by DC Comics in 1990, and I’ll be taking a closer look at that in the next week or so.