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The Face that Launched a Thousand Strips: Al Schroeder Talks with Peter Zale

Once upon a time, there was a webcomic called Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet and a funny thing happened: it was picked up for syndication and has been delighting readers in print for years now. Helen's creator, Peter Zale, talks about Helen and the strip's conversion from web to syndication, in the following interview.

So...tell us a little about yourself. I know you have your own design illustration company. I know you attended college both in Chicago and art school in Boston. Other than that? We know very little.

My dad taught English Lit and my mom was a painter. My brother is very smart and works in databases. I grew up in Ann Arbor in the middle of the 60s and 70s and was exposed to a variety of color in a world I haven't seen since. I also was heavily into theater from junior high school on as part of the Ann Arbor Junior Light Opera, which was a musical organization run by kids mostly. I never have experienced since the level of professionalism and commitment I did in those days from those people.

Artistically, I was a comic fan. I started reading comics in the 60s, stopped, started again in England, stopped and then started again in high school. Between times though I bought a copy of "Still a Few Bugs in the System" the very first "Doonesbury" collection in 1973 while visiting a friend in Iowa City. Also, from about 1966 on, I'd bought every "Peanuts" book that came into The Blue Front, the great magazine and newspaper store of the day in Ann Arbor. True story: The only time I ever stole money from my parents was a dollar I took from my mom's purse to go buy a copy of "Go Fly a Kite, Charlie Brown". The Ann Arbor News did not carry "Peanuts" but instead ran strips like "Trudy" and "Wee Pals". I actually liked "Trudy". I think I gravitated to female characters. Later, when I was in college, I was captivated by Henry James' "Portrait of a Lady". Isabel Archer is something of an inspiration for Helen.

Like a lot of cartoonists, I did a strip for my college paper. That eventually became "Spencer Green" which was syndicated by the college press.

How did you come up with the idea for Helen? (I know you did Spencer Green before that)

Well, I'd done a strip called "Robin" about a single mother and her baby. I took the physical look of Robin and re-christened her as Helen. What I was looking for at the time was something trendy and the Internet was that in 1996. The attitude I took really from myself and the role I was in doing tech support for my company. Spencer was brought in since he was my favorite character from the old material, the college strip "Spencer Green". He changed of course and became much more of a lay-about and less the super brain. The other part of this was that I had recently married an absolutely gorgeous and smart American-Cypriot woman named Penelope (who worked for IBM). As any fan of the classics like myself knows, the only other Greek name you could use besides Penelope is Helen.

For years you did this on the web only. Were you actively pitching it at the syndicates at the same time, or did the offer come out of the blue? How'd you feel when you finally were accepted? ---and how did you celebrate?

Well, I started "Helen" as a strip for syndication and only put her on a website because I figured I had to do that as a marketing touch for the syndicates. How could you submit "Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet" and not have her ON the Internet? Well, it didn't work. No one bit, so I was ready to basically put the strip away when Charley Parker, he of "Argon Zark" fame, suggested he put a link to "Helen" on his very popular site. The traffic I got was very positive, both in numbers and in reactions. Suddenly I had an audience and that was something I hadn't really known before. I think I was actually starting around the same time as "User Friendly" and "Sluggy" and Chris Baldwin's "Bruno". There were other strips already on the web such as "Kevin and Kell" and "Madame and Eve". Bill Bickel of "Comics I Don't Understand" had a site that showed me all the strips out there. The world was beginning I guess.

To answer your question, I wasn't really pursuing syndication as much as thinking about it. I think I did put together another package and got turned down again. Then, let's see, I got this gig at www.techrepublic.com to do a weekly tech editorial cartoon. I think Amy Lago, then at United got me that gig. That's right. She liked "Helen" but couldn't sell her syndicate on it, so she put me on to this. That was very sweet of her. Anyway, then things began to happen sort of on their own. I got a write up in an Australian magazine. Then I had the brilliant idea of doing a crossover with Chris Baldwin and "Bruno" and the two of us got a write up in "Newsbytes". I'm pretty sure we were the first of the web comic crossovers (which isn't all that big news... I was just borrowing an idea from comic books). Then I got the "New York Times" mention. That was cool. I was working at an ad agency and I had an in house publicist named Sandra Mansell who pitched me around. She was amazing. The big break though was "HOW Magazine". That's a REALLY high brow graphics monthly and I got a two-page spread. An editor at McGraw-Hill saw that and I was suddenly talking book. Then, out of the blue, but really I think due to some prompting to my readers to write a few e-mails, I got a call from Tribune Media. I also got a call from Universal, but they had a different time table then TMS, so the latter made more sense.

The acceptance part was a bit long. I was trying to support each argument (for book and syndication) with the other offer. Eventually it all worked out, but I was pretty nervous. Fortunately I was working with two very talented people: Stu Rees and David Hendin. They not only got me great contracts, but they taught me a helluva lot about what I was doing.

Who are your artistic influences?

I hate to say this, but with "Helen" I hardly have any. Well, obviously Trudeau, but let's be honest, the art is an afterthought. Sometimes I do some neat stuff with line and abstraction. I mean, I AM an artist, but it just doesn't matter so much. It's a writers medium.

I don't really see any artistic influences coming from comic strips. Or at least I don't see I've honored any to any degree. I just butcher along as best I can. Now if you ask me about comic BOOKS, I'll talk your ear off, but we're not talking those influences or that style of art (Berni Wrightson, Ralph Reese, Barry Smith, Jim Starlin, Howard Chaykin, Crag Russell, Gil Kane, and Paul Neary oddly enough--loved the zip-a-tone on "Hunter" in the Warren magazines.)

I suppose I will say I LOVED "Cheech Wizard". But who doesn't? Or didn't.

Who are your storytelling/writing influences?

Well, for humor my first model was Tom Lehrer. Sweet and sadistic. I loved Schulz, but I don't write like him at all. I guess Trudeau is it, at least for "Helen".

How has your experience with syndication been? Any horror stories?

No. TMS has been very nice.

I know in addition to your syndication, you have books coming out from Plan Nine Publishing...at least one out already. How does it feel to see your creation in book form? Is it difficult to format your strip for book form, or to deal with publishers?

Nah, this is easy. They were nice enough to put out the old "Helen" on line stuff from 1996-1998. I actually had done a self-published book back then so all I had to do was slightly modify the files I already had to make this new book. I did add a great new cover by painter Jay Fife. I'm a very experience graphic designer so I can do my own books. Heck, I did the "Helen" promotion package for TMS pretty much on my own. They did the production, but I ideated and illustrated the whole thing (with the help of the brilliant illustrator Aaron McClellan, with whom I grew up in Ann Arbor).

Other than Helen, who's your favorite character? Spencer? Gwen? Doug?

Spencer I'd say, though Doug has his moments for me. Spencer is probably the strongest of all the other characters since, most obviously, he had a life before "Helen".

Any advice for webcomics creators who are wanting to break into print?

Blah blah blah blah-blah-blah blah blah. And I mean that. The only thing I can say is that I never styled myself as a web cartoonist. I always wanted to go to print, and since I've gotten syndicated I've been a very BAD web cartoonist. I haven't updated my site in five years. Literally. The only advice I have is to look for trends and work off them (remember "Marvin"and the baby boom of the 80s? Scary, huh?). And do lots of cats. And while you're at all this have at least one character you can see inside and love.

What are your future plans---Helen and/or non-Helen? (I've enjoyed what there is to read of PEMBROOKE.)

"Pembrooke" is going to be a great graphic novel and a movie. You heard it here first. I'm going to have to go to LA though to talk "Helen" into TV. I'll let you know how that does or doesn't go. Meantime thanks for all the great questions. You are very kind to give a forum to an obvious has-been, who simply hit a nerve at the right time. Only in America! :-J