Help Desk Turns 20

Alex actually moves his arm

In 1993 I’d just graduated college and I decided I wanted to do two things: play punk rock music and publish a radical political newspaper or magazine. To do the first I needed a band; to do the second, I needed a printing press.

I had no idea how to actually put a band together. Putting a band together required people skills—while I’m not exactly a recluse, I’m not good at forging alliances. I’d done some solo recording in the past and hoped that would entice like-minded musicians to sort of drift my way, and then Step Three, and then Profit.

That never happened.

I had a clearer idea with the printing press, though. I didn’t need an actual printing press, I decided, I just needed to figure out how to deliver what I wanted to a printer in a format they’d accept and then pay them to make the copies I needed. What I needed was a computer that could handle the kinds of publishing I wanted to do. What I had was a computer that ran DOS. There was a delta between what I had and what I needed, and I didn’t have the money to bridge that gap, so I figured I’d have to buy the computer I needed piece by piece and put it together myself. So I started teaching myself computers, mostly by buying books about it and narrowly avoiding burning my house down when I put electronic things together.

In 1995 I discovered OS/2. I bought it because it was on sale for $30, and it was the first time that I ever truly loved using an operating system. I became an enthusiast. And then I discovered the Internet and my initial dream of publishing a political newspaper or magazine went up in a blaze of what the hell is this thing this is freaking awesome.

There wasn’t really any point in trying to publish something on paper. It can all be done electronically! I looked at the misshapen lump of metal I’d cobbled together with the parts I’d managed to buy piecemeal and I realized that I might not actually need anything else to do this publishing thing.

Then I discovered the web, and shortly after that I found OS/2 eZine (then OS/2 e-Zine!) OS/2 eZine was the first example I’d found of people actively trying to publish something on the web as professionally as they could manage without it being an established professional organization in the “real” world first. It was, essentially, the first clear example of self-published content on the web that I’d found. It was founded by Trevor Smith, and they put out three or four issues before I volunteered to review software for them. A few issues after that I noticed that one of the editors—a chap named Chris Wenham—specialized in editorials. Funny, pointed editorials.

I was jealous. That’s what I wanted to do!

I couldn’t, though. The job was taken, and was being done well, and there was no point copying him. If I wanted to provide commentary, I needed to find a different way to do it, so I looked over the digital pages of OS/2 eZine and tried to find something it lacked. And that’s when I realized it didn’t have a comic strip.

I could editorialize with a comic strip.

Of course I could do that. My favorite comic strip had been Bloom County, which had pretty much spent all its time commenting on whatever struck Berke Breathed’s fancy. A new comic strip called Dilbert was wildly popular among techies, and would get you in trouble with managers if you posted it in your cube (which I discovered back when I was a young tech writer for Philip-Morris). There were a few comic strips posted in online bulletin boards like CompuServe (that’s where Kevin & Kell came from). A web magazine ought to have one too! After a few conversations with my father, where we traded horror stories of trying to get tech support to actually address the problems we were having, I made an off-the-cuff comment that it seemed like Help Desks were actually trained to convince the customer that the problem is their own fault instead of a product defect, and suddenly I realized I had a Theme.

I created a few comics and sent them to Trevor Smith. He generally liked the idea, though he was wary about posting images that were as large as 13k (in 1996, 13k was a huge freaking file). But on March 31, 1996, the very first Help Desk was posted on line, in the archives section of OS/2 eZine. When the April edition came out, it actually appeared as a link on the front page.

Take a look at Help Desk, in its original form:

Help Desk started out specifically as an OS/2 comic, much the same way User Friendly was thought of as a Linux comic. I eventually came to see it as a political cartoon that focused on the computer industry as a whole, since it seemed clear to me that the rat bastards who ran the industry were doing everything they could to make computers significantly less fun than they could have been. Along the way I struck out on my own, then joined Keenspot, then struck out on my own again, and 20 years later here I am, kind of stunned by the fact that it’s 20 years later.

I have never been much of an artist, but I never really felt I needed to be to get the job done. I’ve never been a particularly consistent cartoonist when it comes to updates, but I have managed to update each year, even in the dreaded year of 1998 when I only managed to publish THREE comics. Some years have been harder than others—2015 was particularly difficult—but check the archives, each year is represented. I’m pretty proud of that, and I’m pretty proud of some of my satire. I’m a bit less pleased that some of my satire seems to be coming true.

But coming back to those opening paragraphs: I got into computers because I wanted to figure out how to set up a self-sufficient printing press, and in my quest to do that I sort of lost my way and got sucked into computers… and in the process of doing THAT I wound up doing what I wanted to do in the first place, which was publish snarky opinions.

That said, Help Desk is definitely winding down. I’m not ending it tomorrow or anything, but there’s not much chance it going 40 years. The computer industry isn’t nearly as much fun to make fun of as it used to be, because most of the relevant jokes involve courtrooms and lawyers and while the jokes aren’t bad the reality is depressing. The industry is still mostly run by greedy asshats who want to take your money while doing as little as possible, and lawsuits are the easiest way to do that. I’m glad Linux is still around. I’m just not enthusiastic about pointing this out any more—I’m running out of new ways to do it, and anyway I’ve developed other interests: I’m much better writer than I ever was as a cartoonist, and this whole storytelling thing is awfully compelling, so I’m pretty sure as time goes on there will be more and more of that and less and less of clipart comics about Evil Computer Demons.

Still. 20 years. That’s a kick.

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