Monday, August 29, 2011
Obscurity of the Day: Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet
The online version of the strip had a lot of tech-savvy jokes for the Jolt Cola crowd, but when Tribune Media Services picked up the strip for daily and Sunday newspaper syndication in 2000, creator Peter Zale had to dilute the formula. His tech gags were dumbed down to be more accessible to a general audience, and there was more Dilbert-y office humor added. None of the changes did anything to benefit the strip. Online devotees were put off, of course, and newspaper readers, I think, could sense that Zale was lobbing softballs and looking all over for direction.
To help make Helen stand out as a computer age comic, tone gradients and other Photoshop tricks were used to make the strip look techie. No amount of Photoshopping, though, could hide the fact that Zale was not an especially gifted cartoonist. His characters, including Helen herself, all looked suspiciously like doodles drawn on a memo pad during a long meeting. This is not an unforgivable sin in itself (again, see Dilbert), but you couldn't always tell what Zale was trying to communicate in some of his drawings.
If Tribune was thinking that they wanted to be on the cutting edge by syndicating a web comic, they picked about the worst possible candidate. Helen's main strength was its geek appeal -- newspaper syndication stripped that asset, leaving it like Henny Youngman without the one-liners or George Carlin without the expletives. So the first web comic to make the big leap to the daily paper didn't make much of a splash at all. Zale says that at its peak Helen appeared in 60 papers, a number that seems almost respectable. But my guess is that as soon as newspaper editors realized that running Helen didn't make their newspaper a must-read for twenty-somethings, they dropped it like an Apple Lisa.
The newspaper run of Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet was from June 5 2000 to December 25 2005. The online version began in 1996. Much, maybe all of the run, is still available on Peter Zale's website.
I think the current inheritor of its crown is Reply All, which for some reason began running in the Sunday Boston Globe recently: http://www.replyallcomic.com/replyallstrips.html