Nicholas Diak / March 6, 2019
In the almost-two decades between Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999), a particular form of cyberpunk existed across various medias. It was an era in which William Gibson and Bruce Sterling novels reigned supreme, Max Headroom was on the air in America, while the Bubble Gum Crisis anime was being produced in Japan. Concurrently, this period saw the rise of industrial music out of the post-punk era of the late ‘70s. Thirty years before synthwave declared itself a bedfellow of cyberpunk, industrial acts such as Front 242, Front Line Assembly, Skinny Puppy, and others were donning goggles and leather jackets, and sampling cyberpunk films from Videodrome (1983) to Robocop (1987). In the introduction to Gibson’s short story collection Burning Chrome (1986), Sterling stated that in Gibson’s work (and by extension, the cyberpunk genre itself) “we find ourselves in the streets and alleys, in the realm of sweaty, white-knuckled survival, where high tech is a constant subliminal hum.” Industrial act Die Krupps responded to this sentiment in kind with the opening track on their 1992 album I titled “High Tech/Low Life.” Industrial music and cyberpunk were made for each other, and nowhere else is this more evident than in the comic series Shatter.
Shatter was published by First Comic (which also published Howard Chaykin’s boundary pushing American Flagg!) from 1985 to 1988. The comic was conceived by writer Peter B. Gillis (Strikeforce: Morituri) and artist Mike Saenz and holds the honor of being the first digitally created comic book series. It was drawn on the (then new and state of the art) Macintosh home computer using a mouse, and stored on floppy disks. The visuals of Shatter are therefore blocky and at times pixelated, with shading achieved through halftone technique, an aesthetic often used in the sequential medium of comics. The series began in the pages of Jon Sable: Freelance in 1985 (issues 25-30) before receiving its own special issue and finally its own series. The trade paperback, which collects the first eleven “Downloads” (issues), was published in 1988.
The plot of Shatter’s trade paperback is highly derivative of Blade Runner, both in style and in neo-noir elements. The protagonist, who goes by the alias Shatter, is a temp, bidding for a variety of jobs (anticipating the present-day shift to a gig economy); he is currently contracting a police officer position using the name Jack Scratch. He bids on a contract to apprehend a murderer of fifteen executives at Simon Shuster Jovanovich (a play on the real-life publishing giant) for a large bounty so he can treat himself to a can of Coke. After some not-quite-by-the-book detective work, Shatter eventually tracks down his target, Cyan, who reveals she was carrying out revenge against the board members for killing her lover, because they took his brain for RNA transfer: a method of taking the talent of one individual and transferring it to someone else (it’s not quite the same as implanting memories as shown in Blade Runner, but it flirts close to the concept). However, the transfer is not permanent and the talent gained will eventually be lost.
Shatter is eventually injected with RNA and it is discovered that the transfer becomes permanent. Shatter becomes target number one, with various factions from Cyan and her SSJ security forces to the Alien Nation vying for him. A large gunfight breaks out, but is suppressed after Avon-Purina (another megacorporation), which has now bought SSJ, fires the security forces, and exposes that the RNA process is a falsified scheme that causes addictions. Cyan makes one last attempt on Shatter before being put down by the leader of Alien Nation. Shatter hops into his flying car and rides off into the sunset, still longing for that can of Coke.
Aside from being the first digital comic, what makes Shatter unique is its overt ties to industrial and industrial-adjacent music (i.e. gothic rock and synthpop). Shatter accomplishes this by unabashedly lifting the names of industrial bands that are used as background advertisements (similar to Scott’s depiction of Coke and Atari ads in Blade Runner) throughout the trade paperback. In this regard, Shatter becomes the literary equivalent of a mixtape. What follows below is a guide to all of these references, both the bands referenced and their location within the trade paperback.
Front 242 is a Belgian electronic act, considered one of the progenitors of electronic body music (EBM). They released many of their albums on the legendary Wax Trax! label, including Front by Front in 1988, which contained one of the most important and influential industrial/EBM songs: “Headhunter.” Front 242 is the most represented industrial act in Shatter, appearing as advertisement signage on the cover of the trade paperback and in Download 0009; as a poster in Shatter’s apartment in Download 0001 and in Download 0009; and as the name of a security camera in Download 0004. The title of Download 0001 is called “Headhunters,” an obvious allusion to the band’s iconic song.
What Front 242 was to EBM music is what Bauhaus would be to gothic rock. The English band and their 1979 song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” set the template that subsequent Gothic acts, from Sisters of Mercy to Fields of the Nephilim, would follow. Bauhaus appears as an advertisement in the skyline in Download 0009.
Cabaret Voltaire is an early English industrial band who, along with Throbbing Gristle, pioneered the genre with an emphasis on performance art and sampling. The band appears as an advertisement in the skyline in Download 0002 and as the name of a storefront on the final page of Download 0004.
D.A.F. (short for Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft) could be considered the German equivalent to Front 242 in regards to pioneering the EBM genre. Born from the Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW) scene (which also spawned acts such as Falco and Joachim Witt), D.A.F. would create many early EBM hits, such as “Der Mussolini” and “Alle gene Alle,” both from their Alles Ist Gut album in 1981. D.A.F. appears as skyline advertisement in Download 0009.
Xmal Deutschland is another band hailing from Germany’s NDW scene that contributed to the growing European gothic scene, beginning with their 12” single Incubus Succubus. They appear as an advertisement on the side of a skyscraper on the cover of the trade paperback.
Of all the music acts mentioned thus far, none are as important or influential to the industrial/gothic/darkwave/underground scenes as Joy Division. From England, the band released two essential albums, Unknown Pleasures in 1979 and Closer in 1980, before their lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide. Though the act was short-lived, its legacy was cemented with the song “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Joy Division appears as an advertisement on the cover of the trade paperback.
The remaining members of Joy Division would reform under the name New Order, which embraced the burgeoning synthpop scene of the early ‘80s. Their hit “Blue Monday” is the bestselling 12” single of all time. New Order appears as a poster in Download 0003.
English act Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (better known as OMD) is one of the pioneers of the synthpop genre, starting with debut album Organisation in 1980. The OMD initialism appears as a skyline advertisement in Download 0009.
Australia’s SPK was an industrial band in a similar vein to Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. The band relocated to London and helped launch the careers of dark ambient musician Lustmord and industrial percussionist John Murphy. SPK, too, appears as an advertisement in the skyline in Download 0009.
Finally, Portion Control, another industrial band from the UK, was one of the successors of the Throbbing Gristle/Cabaret Voltaire sound. They appear as an advertisement on the cover of the trade paperback.
In addition, there are three other bands who may be coincidentally referenced to in the pages of Shatter. With all the prior references to industrial/industrial-adjacent bands, it is important to note them as well.
Simple Minds may be best known for their hit “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” used in the movie The Breakfast Club in 1985, but in the early ‘80s the band was a mainstay in the new wave and post-punk scenes. Shatter (perhaps coincidentally) takes a jab at the band, which is mentioned on a building’s advertisement in Download 0002: “Simple Pleasures for Simple Minds.”
Chemlab is an American industrial rock group formed in 1989, well after Shatter completed its run. Though the creators of Shatter could not anticipate Chemlab, the reference can certainly be retconned in with all the other industrial references in the comic. In Download 0005, one of the members of the Artist’s Underground states “We may want to record this. Chemlab will want it for study.”
A possible reference to Laibach is somewhat of a mystery. Nowhere in the pages of the comic is the infamous Slovene martial-industrial group mentioned. However, Shatter’s police uniform, which he wears in many of the Downloads, has a cross where the badge would be. The short or Greek cross is one of Laibach’s most recognizable iconographies, appearing on armbands, album artwork, posters, music videos, and so on. Since Laibach was on the Wax Trax! Roster, there is no doubt that Saenz and Gillis would be familiar with the group. Just as Laibach themselves are enigmatic, Shatter’s cross-badge is just as much so: it could be a Laibach reference, or it could simply be the design of a police badge in the future.
The roster of ‘80s industrial bands appearing in Shatter is missing a few key acts, such as Skinny Puppy, Throbbing Gristle, Test Dept, and Ministry, but the selection is a broad enough stroke to encompass many of the genre’s variants. The bands that do appear in the comic should come as no surprise. In the introduction to the trade paperback, writer Peter Gillis mentions living in Chicago in the mid ‘80s along with artist Michael Saenz. Chicago at that time was ground zero for the industrial genre. Jim Nash’s legendary Wax Trax! Records was based in Chicago, and many of the big names in the industrial scene were on the company’s roster: Front 242, Ministry, Laibach, Revolting Cocks (aka RevCo), Front Line Assembly, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, KMFDM, PIG, ClockDVA, and many more. A city bursting with industrial talent provided just the right backdrop for a cyberpunk story, a literary genre already aligned for the post-punk ethos of the “industrial revolution.”
This alignment is further strengthened in that cyberpunk elements are found in a variety of industrial acts. Dialogue and sound effects from Blade Runner have been sampled by many industrial bands, such as The Electric Hellfire Club on their Electronomicon (2002) album, Hate Dept’s Meat.Your.Maker (1994), Gary Numan’s Outland (1991), and Xorcist’s Phantoms (1994) and Damned Souls (1991). Both Robocop and Robocop 2 (1990) have been sampled by acts including ClockDVA on their Buried Dreams (1989) album, Front 242’s Tyranny For You (1991), and Front Line Assembly’s Total Terror II (1993) and Tactical Neural Implant (1992). The cover of New Mind’s Zero to the Bone (1995) is a frame from the Japanese cyberpunk/mecha film Gunhed (1989), while in the music video for Front Line Assembly’s song “Mindphaser,” the band is injected into footage from Gunhed. The cover art of Front Line Assembly’s Tactical Neural Implant and Front 242’s Front by Front echo old-school computer generated cyberpunk aesthetics, which Shatter inherently mimics as well.
A final point needs to be made in regards to cyberpunk and industrial music within Shatter, and that is its use of advertisements. Ever since the ginormous Coke ad in Blade Runner, cyberpunk, capitalism (particularly anarcho-capitalism in the Snow Crash [Neal Stephenson, 1992] vein), and commercialism have gone hand in hand. Shatter fully embraces the dominance of capitalism with its many panels depicting advertisements appearing on the sides of skyscrapers, along with many occupations being relegated to temp-work. The protagonist, Shatter, has to bid himself out to different jobs, the inference being that one day he is a police officer, the next a different occupation all together. In essence, there is no employment security or social safety net in this bleak world.
As shown previously, nearly all the references to industrial bands in Shatter appear as advertisements, be it posters on a wall or more prominent signage on the city’s buildings. These Easter eggs work on two levels: for readers familiar with the industrial genre, they have the satisfaction of seeing their favorite bands referenced in the comic. For those unfamiliar with the genre, the names of the bands simply become exotic and unique names of businesses and products on sale in the Shatter universe. The other alternative is that these industrial references are not Easter eggs per se, but that in the future as depicted in Shatter, these industrial acts reached a Lady Gaga-level of infamy. After all, in what other world can one see a Front 242 reference next to a Coke ad? This tactic of using industrial bands as both homage and/or commercial products is also used in another cyberpunk comic, 01 Publishing’s Utopiates graphic novel, published in 2012. In this comic, Front 242 makes an appearance on a band shirt while Bio-Tek, one of the many projects from British industrial musician Jonathan Sharp (along with the aforementioned New Mind), appears on a billboard.
There is some irony to depicting industrial acts in this manner, because commercial success usually eludes the genre, especially in America. With Nine Inch Nails and especially their 1994 album The Downward Spiral being one of the few notable exceptions, most industrial bands are still relegated to the underground scene. While certainly acts like Front 242, Joy Division, and Laibach are given credit for their influence, mainstream success remains elusive (though European acts may achieve success in their home countries). Typically, industrial elements are incorporated into commercially successful acts, such as in the nu-metal genre of the late ’90s, while industrial bands themselves merely flirt with the mainstream, as in the case of KMFDM, who were at the threshold of such success in the mid ‘90s when their song “Juke Joint Jezebel” conquered the club scene and appeared in numerous films.
In a way, Shatter, too, shares this fate with industrial music. While acknowledged as the progenitor of digital comics, it has certainly been overshadowed by successor comics, relegated to a curio within comics history. The story within its pages is certainly convoluted and told better elsewhere, and its primitive art may be off-putting to modern readers—and yet the series has its charms as well. While its contributions to the comics medium is certainly observed, the comic’s additional championing of the industrial music genre while tying it to the cyberpunk genre needs to be recognized as well. Both cyberpunk and the industrial genre display overt skepticism to commercialism and embrace the high tech/low life philosophy: these shared characteristics are fully juxtaposed and on display in Shatter.
Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of Italian genre films, H. P. Lovecraft studies, and retro-modernism. He is the editor of The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s and the co-founder of the Ann Radcliffe Academic Conference. He can be found at nickdiak.com and @vnvdiak.
5 thoughts on “Assimilate and Manipulate: Industrial Music and Cyberpunk in the Comic Series ‘Shatter’”
Awesome, awesome. I have loved graphic novels ever since V For Vendetta, but don’t buy them very often because they seldom compete strongly with literary novels. However I did also very much enjoy Superman Red Sun ~ a Soviet twist on his origin story and a brilliant all rounder, right to the end. Cheers!
Fantastic! I bought the Shatter comics when they were first released after reading a blurb about them in a computer magazine, but haven’t looked at them in years. Didn’t the plot element of Shatter trying to earn money to buy a Coke have to do with it being the super-rare “original formula” and not the controversial (and then topical) “New Coke” formula from 1985?
Yeah, pretty much that’s what we were listening to. We were both living in the same neighborhood in Chicago, and a short walk to Wax Trax Records, which was the epicenter for a lot of industrial stuff. (I can’t speak for Mike, but I was aware of Laibach. (it’s hard to call oneself a fan of theirs, but I was fascinated by them.) The one CD cover I ever did myself was for Martin Atkins’s band Pigface: Welcome to Mexico…Asshole. (Trent Reznor’s on it.)
Mike was a lotcloser to being hip than I was, but we both knew good stuff when we heard it.
(Oh, and the Coke thing? I wrote that before New Coke was announced. Freaked my editors out.)
Oddly enough I kept up the tradition of name checking Wax Trax! bands in the artwork when I took over Shatter art duties. Living directly across the street from Wax Trax! on Lincoln certainly helped.
Pingback: Biweekly News Roundup 2023-01-15 – Nicholas Diak's Homepage