Obstacle Courses: A Webmaster's Thoughts About Medium and Message

By Ben Henick

When I got involved with peterzale.com in June 1998, I was meandering. Stuck in the suburban dreariness of Southern California without a car, and puttering away at Web sites that had more code than catch, I had some ideas... but I knew that they weren't mature.

I was starting to work on some of these ideas, having been spurred on by the examples shown me by zannah and a few others. Through that trail of links I found Peter, the strip, and the Web site.

He says that he approached me, but for all of that I see myself as supplicant to this day. Helen was incredible as far as I was concerned, like nothing else I'd ever seen.

Since newspapers and printing have been the family trade for well-upwards of a century, I don't say that idly.

I wanted my hands on the Web site the way a thirsty man desires water. Or as I've put it to a few standards Nazis, "The strip isn't vanilla and the Web site shouldn't be, either."

As Peter has already noted, he saw the Web site as more of a chore than anything else. He wanted to focus on Helen and his other illustration work. So I offered to take the nuts-and-bolts Web stuff off of his hands, and give him a redesign in the bargain. At the time, I certainly needed the portfolio entry... and in my opinion the site certainly needed sprucing-up.

I firmly believe that for the past year at least, the arrangement has been enormously successful... but at a price.

While we were starting work on the redesign Peter was turned down by United Features, and there have been numerous setbacks and crises since, certainly as often as there've been successes. Through all of it, it's been necessary to be loyal to the strip's audience: the admins and engineers who can relate to the travails and triumphs that are presented in the strip.

That's why the design of the site has for the past year been script-heavy (by appearance), yet visually "average." I knew that if I made the strips easier to navigate, that would score more points with the audience. If I'd instead radically changed a bunch of colors and layouts, that would've removed the readers' familiarity with the image of Helen... and that outcome was unacceptable in my eyes.

Another challenge, too, has been posed by the strengths that Peter and I, respectively, have. I stand in awe of Peter's combination of talent and experience, and by his own telling he is similarly impressed by my ability to "think out of the box" and treat the Web like an entity unto itself. Despite that...

...Peter is the site owner and I am only the maintainer. He can give me as much rein as he wants, but it doesn't change the fact that his cartooning and art are at the center of attention on this site. Factor in the need to keep the audience at the forefront, and what you wind up with is a Web-spinner who finds himself on a tightrope (even though it's his own damned fault).

Now, with syndication the playing field changes. Over the next several months Peter and I are going to be divesting the contents of peterzale.com across several domains, likely using peterzale.com as a gateway for all of them while at the same time giving each block of "content" its own identity.

In the meantime, the learning doesn't stop. Peter and I improve our quasi-professional relationship, he becomes an even better (and more-visible) cartoonist, and I become a better Webnik. The audience gets to reap the results of that growth... or at least, that's a goal that Peter and I both share.

--Tuesday, 6 June 2000

Ben Henick is a freelance site builder - a self-styled "Web Author At Large" - currently based in Portland, Oregon. He's single, has no children, haunts a few high-traffic Web lists, and doesn't care much for the Los Angeles Lakers. He can be reached at persist1@io.com regarding www.peterzale.com or any other subject.

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