All rights reserved, Peter Zale. [Credits]

Cartooning into the Abyss

© 1999, 2000 by Peter Zale

Nietzsche of course did not presuppose the internet. He did however have a good deal of experience staring into the abyss, which, if I remember right, finally won in his case.

My cartoon, "Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet" has been my communication to what people call the abyss of the internet, and it has been, though not intentionally, a very personal letter. Thousands of people have seen me in this internet world and told me what they thought of what they saw. It has brought me a certain amount of noteriety - an infinitessimal amount in real terms - but an amount that has affected me.

When I began the strip two years ago my mission was the same as it is now: to get "Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet" into newspaper syndication. In fact, I came up with the concept before I even decided to throw it up on the web. I had just come to know the internet and thought it was a good "trend" to take advantage of, such trends being a staple for comic strip ideas. I only did the site at all because it occured to me that a cartoon with such a title might be less of a package without a web site.

When people on the Internet began to like the strip though, I began to feel like a bit of a star, not like the developing cartoonist I was and still am. I didn't make any money on the strip, but the attention itself felt a commodity. When the syndicates rejected the strip, I kept on, to develop the strip I told myself, but I sense really to keep my audience.

In the time since then, I've gotten a first hand glimpse of my own psyche under pressure. Not the pressure of deadlines, but the pressure of peoples' opinions. I've listend to what readers have said, I've cared about what readers have said, and finally I've tried really hard NOT to care about what readers have said. Never could I imagine how hard it can be to have someone who doesn't know you actually know and care about something you do.

At first, all I got was praise, which was easy to respond to. Then I began to get the occasional letter asking for more techie material and less "soap opera style romance." Some readers hated the relationship between Helen and Doug. Some thought she should dump Spencer. I found out the alt.sysadmin.recovery newsgroup talked about the strip, and I noticed many e-mails came from Systems Administrators and other technical people. This persuaded me that I should do even more sophisticated technical material.

But the pressure of having to write such material worked on me, as did the pressure of trying to interest the syndicates. In fact, as time went on my own vision of where to take the strip began to be shaped as much by peoples' responses to it as anything else. I began to feel I was no longer master of my fate.

Truly of course that was nonsense. No one ever made me do anything with this strip that I didn't want to. But my own need to please led me to a state of confusion which I recently have only been able to come out of by realizing the following:

The Internet's not the abyss. I am.

Our need to please, our need to have people like us and what we do is as much a lack of a strong center to our collective personality as anything else. Don't get me wrong, I'm a good person, but, like the vast majority of people in the world, my core has spent a great deal of time drifting through life, trying to understand things that were impossible to understand and holding on to things ephemeral by nature, like other peoples' opinions.

Whatever else this project has been, it has allowed me to see something of myself, and for that the time has been worth it. I may or may not achieve financial success with "Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet," but I have achieved something of far more, if not far more difficult, importance.


Outside in, inside out (19 May 2000)

Since I began all this stuff, I've written to many people that I've never met and never will meet, and in a fashion that's been wonderful. The concept of anonymous intimacy is not lost on me at all. I've had lots of friends over the past four years leading up to this point.

Well, here I am... Syndicated.

I started doing this back in 1979. To sort of blow the image I've tried to cast, I'm actually 41 years old. Helen may be 24, but I'm not. I did however start trying to syndicate a cartoon when I was 21. It took me 20 years. As seems to hold true again and again for me, I symbolize persistence and endurance. The donkey values as I call them. Not the ones I wanted to exhibit, but the ones I got.

When I started this I was really wanting to be a comic book artist. I stil want to be. Artist and writer that is. I have several ideas for graphic novels that I plan to put into the works. In fact, when I began the strip cartoon thing it was with the specific intent of using it as a money-maker to facilitate doing graphic novels. The logic now seems akin to that used by my old buddy Phil Demeo when he quit trying to be a professional baseball player to pursue the more practical goal of drumming in a rock and roll band.

Along the way of course life happened. Thank God, because the comic strip didn't. What a lesson, if you can really call it that. Failure, trying and failing and trying are just so endemic after awhile. How much character do you really want to build? But life happened. I did things. Got a career of sorts. Got married and had a family which was just the amazingly right thing to do. And I survived with my energy pretty much intact. The hard part (or easy part) was that I knew all along I would get here. I knew I had to. I just knew that I could not stop before life stopped me if it did. Suffice it to say that since the syndication contract got signed I've had many odd days of lethargy and sleepy trancing, wandering around wondering when it stopped being 1979.

I did it. I keep telling myself that, and to enjoy the moment because it won't be repeated. And whether I succeed or not from here on in, the moment is still the moment. There are a couple of things I promised myself I'd do. One was to drive to Centerville, Ohio, where I was living when I decided to do this thing back in 1979, and go to a particular spot off Hackamore Trail and smoke a cigarette. I smoked a bit in those days, and there was a spot near my parents' condo where I lived at the time where I would sit and secretly puff. I promised myself then I would go back there after achieving success.

That time there was excedingly dark for me, so the prospect of going there is a little odd and may never happen, but I bring it up simply to let you know my state and where I've been and what I've been, since many of us have had communications that I treasure. I've loved providing you with some entertainment. I really really have. To think you enjoy what I do makes me so happy. I guess part of it comes from feeling many somber things growing up. Humor to me is like air.

Did I ever tell you where the name "Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet" came from? The Byrd's record "The Sweetheart of the Rodeo."

"Pack up your money and pick up your tent, 'cause you ain't goin' nowhere..."


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