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With this week, we segue into a new storyline, "Dr. Narbon," although there's still some gerbil stuff to deal with.
Looking at these early drawings, I can see why my friend Karoline referred to Dr. Narbon as "Helen's dyke mom." I still really like her design, though. A while after this, I got myself a pair of thick black-framed hipster glasses so I could be more like my own cartoon characters. I looked awesome. (My current glasses are similar, but tortoiseshell.)

My mother had a bad hip for years. She needed surgery. Apparently, I thought this was a LAUGH RIOT. I'm a terrible, terrible daughter.

Song list:

31. "Imitosis," by Andrew Bird

Poor Professor Pynchon had only good intentions
When he put his Bunsen burners all away
And turning to a playground in a Petri dish
Where single cells would swing their fists
At anything that looks like easy prey
In this nature show that rages every day
It was then he heard his intuition say...


Andrew Bird does the best creepy mad-sciencey songs! There are days when I just listen to this one over and over. It's probably not healthy.

Man, I have such a clear memory of drawing this one. I was at the front desk of the Cartoon Art Museum, at the old location, on a Saturday afternoon. I remember explaining to Andrew that I inked the strip backwards, starting with the last panel, because I'm left-handed and it helps stop me from dragging my hand over the ink and smearing it. I still ink that way.

Silhouettes are kind of a cheat, because they're so easy to do, but they always look good, so what the hell. My horrible cramped lettering aside, this strip looks decent. Helen's panicky poses and expressions came out well. Helen isn't usually the one panicking in any given crisis, so these were fun to draw.

Song list:

32. "Darkmatter," by Andrew Bird

When I was just a little boy
I threw away all of my action toys
While I became obsessed with Operation

With hearts and minds and certain glands
You gotta learn to keep a steady hand
And thus began my morbid fascination

Tore the spines from out of all of these self-help books
Made myself a gun that not only shoots but looks
So real
It shoots through steel
With rays of dark matter

Guess who I'm totally into right now? I'll give you a hint: he writes songs about biochemistry and death rays and he plays twenty million different instruments and he got Chris Ware to do the art for one of his albums and he looks super hot playing the violin and he totally wants to be my new boyfriend.

My husband doesn't read these notes, does he?

Bird's song "Simple X" also seems kind of appropriate, if only for the first verse:

Some people wake up on Monday mornings
Barring maelstroms and red flare warnings
With no explosions and no surprises
Perform a series of exercises

...which, for some reason, makes me think of this strip.

More random color. And a cliffhanger with no punchline. I'm still ironing out all the kinks of this comic-strip thing. I also started scanning the strips a little smaller. Bad idea, considering how cramped my artwork and lettering already were.

I do like Helen's indignant insistence that she has two whole henchmen and they are so alive. And Mell clutching the grenade is pretty good.

Song list:

33. "Evil Woman," by the Electric Light Orchestra

There's a hole in my head where the rain comes in
You took my body and played to win
Ha ha woman it's a crying shame
But you ain't got no one else to blame


Perhaps the quintessential contemporary evil-woman song. I would say that ELO is one of my guilty pleasures, but if you look back at this list you can probably work out that most of the music I listen to falls into the "guilty pleasure" category. Still, I really like ELO a whole lot more than I ought to. It's a nerd thing.

Mell's line in the last panel refers to the urban legend that the terrible 1980s sitcom "Small Wonder" ended with an episode in which little robot girl VICKI is permanently shut off and dismantled. During an audition for Laughingstock, a comedy troupe at Vassar, member Rob Sosin came out of the audition room, sat down with us pathetic hopefuls, and launched into a lengthy description of the episode, ending with, "...and nobody missed her, because SHE HAD NO SOUL!"

In reality, as I'm sure we all know, "Small Wonder" ended with the family moving to Hollywood and the reintroduction of Vicki's evil twin Vanessa.

I think Rob works for Comedy Central or Nickelodeon now. Also, he's responsible for these shorts. And this is all Google has been able to tell me.

Song list:

34. "Genius," by Inara George

Everybody wants to be a genius
You’re not the only one
With all things that you might do
Which one of them will you get to?
Tomorrow when you wake up
Then you’ll show them

Another Narbonicon song. What would I do without them?

How did two gerbils drag all that gear out of the lab? Who the hell knows?

I originally planned for all the gerbils except Artie to perish in this storyline, but I decided that came off as a little bleak, and anyway it's not the gerbils' fault they're mad geniuses; why should they suffer? So I wrote in this doofy little twist. Killing everyone always seems like a good idea until you actually get around to doing it.

Song list:

35. "Artificial Man," by the Kinks

We're going to build an artificial man
With the physique of a Tarzan
And the profile of a Cary Grant
A superior being
Totally made by hand
Throw out imperfection
Mould you section by section
Gonna make you the ultimate creation

From the Kinks' odd rock opera Preservation. It's not regarded as one of the group's better efforts, but it's got a lot of tracks I like, and not one, but two great songs about being evil: "He's Evil" and "Scum of the Earth." Even when the Kinks aren't at their best, they can still do a lot to entertain nerds like me.

The owl panel is just all kinds of messed up. At one time the speed lines were all wrong so it appeared to be flying backward. I fixed that, but the gerbil's tail ought to be flying behind it. And it would've been better to have had the owl flying to the right, to match the direction of the reader's eye. Damn owl.

Dana is now the last insane superintelligent gerbil left standing, not to mention the first recurring character I didn't plan on including from the start. If the Dana/Zeta/hamster storylines feel separate from the main plot of Narbonic, it's because they are; I had to spin these unplanned characters off into what almost amounts to a spinoff strip. But I found a use for them in the end, so I guess it worked out okay. More about those storylines when I get to them.

Song list:

36. "The End of Love," by Jill Sobule

From the first blush of spring
The phosphorous night
The chemicals swirling spin webs of delight
A trick from the gods
A Darwinian twist
And who wants to ask what it is?

Suggested by Corey Klemow in these very comments! Thank you!

39 comments:
Vlad Taltos (flyingfish) says: Well, given how Helen came about, HAS Dr. Narbon's sexuality ever been properly established?
Rachel S. (masamage) says: Dr. Narbon seems...pretty unconcerned with that sort of thing. She talks about Dave being hot, but she strikes me as someone who would have tried everything once and then, curiousity satisfied, come away autosexual.
Andy Holloway (garran) says: Rachel -- You've forgotten about her later attraction to Artie.

I suspect that she's flexible about gender or species, but favours certain power dynamics. (For instance, people who are terrified of her.)
Rachel S. (masamage) says:

Oh, of course. She strips him and leaves him in her bed for later.

That certainly supports your theory. X) 

Leon Arnott (l) says: Monday's Comic: And thus ends "Smart Gerbils": not with a bang, but with a rapid segue into a storyline that hasn't yet stagnated into pointless violence and random bursts of ethics.
(I kid, I kid. ...Or do I?)

I'm amazed at the first panel - Helen's appearance seems almost to have regressed by three years upon contact with the original Narbon.

But wait... isn't this supposed to be set outside? Where's the surrounding outdoors? Don't tell me that the Campos Fog has followed them from the lab up the elevator shaft!

Finally: at last we see the triumphant return of "Helen's lips", which had seemingly vanished from the comic forever in this distant episode. And panel 3 seems to reveal that the laws of cartoon face expansion affect not only the size but the hue of the lips. The Narboniverse is quite a magical place.
Leon Arnott (l) says:
"A request- Shaenon- PLEASE don't let Mom be as annoying as Mrs. Forrester... I realize with Trace and Frank both leaving, Best Brains didn't have much choice, but while Mary Jo Pehl was enjoyable as an occasional guest, having her be the whole mad science dept was really yuk.

Oh, and how's the clicker... nevermind. It's just a comic strip, I really must relax.
"
--Stephen Boyd, 4 March 2001
Sean Duggan (duggansc) says: Somehow, autosexuality gets a bit creepy when you start adding clones, even before we get to Helen being styled after Sharon and Dr. Narbon after her mother...
Dave Van Domelen (dvandom) says: Hm...how does this fit with the bonus story in collection 1 where news of mom's survival helps Helen re-lose her mind? Or did going mad again suppress that information?
Andrew Farago (andrew) says: You know full well that I read these notes. This Bird guy's going on my Enemies List. Right before Larry Bird.
ribbles (ribbles) says: Sounds like Helen's mom died a couple times, Domelen.
It made me think of that strip, too.
Michael Brazier (michaelbrazier) says:

DVD: In the first bonus story, sane Helen forgot everything that had happened while she was mad ... so, the last thing she remembered was the dinner with Octavius Winter, who showed her the videos of her mom being burned at the stake.  That's the death she's talking about in Tuesday's comic; there wasn't any other that we know of.  Dave drives Helen mad again by telling her about Dr. Narbon's visit to the lab, which we're seeing right now. 

Leon Arnott (l) says: Bonus stories? Aah! Curse you all for reminding me about the existence of extra continuity of slightly more limited availability!

Tuesday's Comic: A very good episode, if I do say so myself. Let's look closely:
* Silhouettes. These are not just "kind of a cheat", as our humble host has put it. Black silhouettes are typically used to portray, in black and white, a symbolic or literal sunset, and establishes a wistful, contemplative tone to the scene, as if the characters are pondering Life's Unanswerable Questions. This jars excellently with the subject matter at hand. Your mother has somehow survived being poisoned, stabbed, shot, hung, stretched, disemboweled, drawn and quartered? That's just the way it goes, Charlie Brown.
* "Dr. Narbon Dead At Last" - The idea that the entire world had cause to celebrate Dr. Narbon's unthinkable demise quickly summons a lot of pre-established notions about how evil this woman is. (And also about the legacy that Helen has to live up to, perhaps?)
* "...and hop all over them!" Another good comedic clash of tone that I feel deserves mention.

It is very important, it seems, that Dr. Narbon's means of outlasting the destruction of her own body, several times, is never revealed. Apparantly, all we can do is shrug and admit that she's just that good. I have, in a moment of caprice, already touched on the shortcomings of this brand of humour, so for now I shall decline to pursue this aspect further.

P.S: Two guys named Andrew? What're the odds?
Leon Arnott (l) says:
"wow... that's pretty cool. helen's mom must be a REALLY good mad scientist to be able to defy (or reverse) death. we know helen herself wasn't able to successfully reanimate mit student dave barker's corpse... it just kinda floated up, as i recall. i suppose that if dr. narbon's brain and at least one hand were able to somehow hook up after the whole death thing, she could always build herself a new body... *pop* ok there goes another brain vessel, gonna stop thinking about the logistics of this one. anyway, i can understand helen feeling insecure and inadequate around her mom... i would, too, if my lab full of accidentally-made superintelligent ur-gerbils were rebelling and trashing my lab, and then doctorate-holdin' mom came along, defying death and all... i think seeing helen in therapy would be very amusing. evil therapy, of course. on a comfy chair. with soft cushions."
--xineymarie, 7 March 2001
Dave III (dave_iii) says: "There's always an out." Classic. ^_^
Mattias Oyen (moyen) says: Thinking about it, I wonder how the space laser can work underground. Either there are quite a few holes in the roof or there is some serious mad science around...
nathaniel miller (skavensrule) says:

By now, I would say both.

Out of curiousity, what is the targeting icon made with?  It looks like you upgraded from crayons to a magic marker.

Dave Van Domelen (dvandom) says: Looks like Sharpie to me, skave.
Leon Arnott (l) says: Wednesday's Comic: ah, Wednesday cliffhangers. A crutch for the humour-deficient... or the greatest misunderstood plot device ever?

Today's lesson learned: Even drawing tools intended for whiteboards can be integrated into the comic creation process!

Spot colour instances: 5. (Or 6 if you count grey crayon, and about 8 if you count grey flood fills.)

Possible alternative imaginary continuity what-if storyline: Dave dies here (as he was always running the risk of throughout this storyline), and Dr. Narbon, despite also being contracted to kill Dave, is the one who brings him back to the live world. Except... inside the bodies of increasingly inappropriate animals! (What? I like storyline necromancy.)
Pete (westrider) says: Mattias: There are holes in the ceiling. Mell complains about having to patch them up later.
Chris Shabsin (cshabsin) says: "Aaaand... fire!" is a perfectly cromulent punchline.  The key is in the timing.
K G (muppetk) says: Hee!  I forgot that I said that about Helen's mom!
Leon Arnott (l) says: Thursday's Comic: Dave's lecherous feelings finally overwhelm him. Also: someone hasn't yet tamed the beast of cross-hatching?

This strip nicely reveals another design trope of the serial webcomic that I shall dub the "recap panel" - in which the first line of dialogue is an echo of the last line in the previous strip. In today's extremely obvious case, the implication is that this episode begins one second before the last episode ended.

Also: I was just about to violently and shamefully admonish you on omitting the gaping bullethole that ought to be in the remote control, but it seems that this dreadful breach of continuity actually first occurred halfway through last Saturday's strip - and since that episode came and went without any such admonition from any of us, I suppose I have no choice but to let you walk free. But this isn't over, by any means!

Fourth-wall dialogue: 12!
Leon Arnott (l) says:
"I really REALLY wanted the laser to miss just slightly and give dave a piercing. I wanted it alot. Wouldn't it have been a great plot point? Think of the things that Mell & Artie could've hooked up to him in his sleep?"
--Karoline, 9 March 2001.
Michael Suttkus, II (the_mess) says: The ironic thing about fourth wall breaking dialogue is that it's mere existance is dependent on the fact that there be a fourth wall.

In everyday life, I say dialogue that would be fourth wall breaking except that I am in real life, so there is no fourth wall and I am presenting no great awareness of any author, just being facetious.  For instance, I recently responded to being fired by saying, "I'd like to smack whoever wrote today's episode."  I also like to narrate my actions to the audience.

So, the philosophical question of the day is, if I made a webcomic where I was a character speaking the same kinds of lines I say every day, would that character be breaking the fourth wall or just being an idiot like me?
Adam Underfoot (unnatural20) says:

I'd argue you'd be breaking the fourth wall only if nobody ever acknowledged that you were standing in a room and talking to yourself. 

Leon Arnott (l) says: Friday's Comic: And that 'doofy little twist' became one of those loose ball-bearings that rattles around in the Narbonic Plot Machine and eventually comes rolling back to knock the characters' feet out. But this implies that Dana's behind-the-scenes machinations that spring forth from her survival are not as integral to the workings of the Plot Machine as other forthcoming events are...

Current named gerbils (deceased in italics): Artie, Dana, Jaye(?), Ethan, Dale, Lise, Allison, Kate, Marc, Ben, Mike, Keri (92.3% completion). As it turns out, exactly one unnamed gerbil died during this episode. Now the question is: what was the name of number 13, and was it that one or Jaye that perished on that day? (And was this ever even resolved in the strip?)

This, by the way, is the second time that two gerbils have been the sole survivors of the unmitigated chaos of a Narbonic story arc.

Say, what dialogue trope are you using today? Ah, here it is.

T-shirt quote of the month: "Killing everyone always seems like a good idea until you actually get around to doing it." Awwwwwwwwww.
Dave III (dave_iii) says: My question is, is Dave really being philosophical, or is he just afraid that if he lets go of Mell she'll hurt him MORE than with just her sharp, bony knees?
Jaye Brown (illogicalv) says: Dammit! I'm not dead yet!
David Harmon (mental_mouse) says:

Music:  Did you already include Rocky's entry song from Rocky Horror?  "In just seven days and seven nights... I will make you a man!"

Regarding "killing everyone", a quote from unknown parts:  "The thing about dictators, is eventually they realize that if they don't like someone they can just have him killed!  Sometime after that, they realize that they don't really like all that many people...." 

Michael Brazier (michaelbrazier) says: If only Jaye had been literate!
John Wells (johnwwells) says: Speaking of reader-suggested songs, the Transylvannian Lullaby from Young Frankenstein is on iTunes. Two versions, even.
Leon Arnott (l) says: Saturday's Comic: Requiesat in pace, thirteenth gerbil. With your passing goes the last hope of finding out your name.

Things That Never Happen Again Because Now Helen Knows Better: ur-gerbils, employee brain scans, superintelligent sane gerbils. Had Helen decided to revisit any of these maleficient technologies, things might have been much easier later on. Fortunately, several forthcoming storylines will introduce Narbonics Labs technologies that are functional and stable enough to recur in subsequent storylines.
Matt Katinas (nidoking) says:

Besides which, if the owl is flying to the left, shouldn't the gerbil be somewhere to the left of its previous position? Either that owl's still flying backwards, or the gerbil leapt backward at the sound of its approach and right into its claws... which would be a great explanation if owls made any sound while swooping.

Still, you have an owl flying backwards. All it needs to do now is deliver a letter to someone and it becomes an homage. 

Rachel S. (masamage) says: The facial expressions and body language are particularly awesome here.
Corey Klemow (cklemow) says:

Woohoo!

Today's Doomed Gerbil obviously has very strong tail muscles that go rigid in moments of sudden fear.

And the owl is obviously deliberately choosing to fly in the opposite direction that the reader's eye is traveling.  What kind of hunter would he be if he could be easily tracked?  Damn crafty owls.

Paul Anderson (pmanderson) says: Whoooo questions the owl? Sorry, Shaenon, this isn't as bad as you think it is. The owl should surprise the reader; coming from an unexpected direction is part of this. And the gerbil victim looks natural. The owl is flying slowly, near stall speed, to grab things on the ground. It's grabbed Victim and *yanked him up and backwards,* as is only sensible; why let your prey cling to the ground. ~~~~
Ed Gedeon (eddurd) says:

Actually, I prefer the messed-up owl.  It gives me hope for my own crappy artwork.  If I weren't so sleepy right now, I'd look up the Sunday strip in the archives where Shaenon complains about her own lack of skill ... and besides, who sells more calendars, Da Vinci or Gary Larson?

 

K G (muppetk) says: Regarding "I really REALLY wanted the laser to miss just slightly and give dave a piercing" ... man, it's just never good when I get quoted in public. 
David Shaw (tihnessa) says:

Regarding Dr. Narbon's 'resurrection', the answer is quite simple, really.

**** HERE BE SPOILERS.  YARRRR! **** (Sorry - been watching far too many pirate movies recently.  That is, movies about pirates, not...  Oh, never mind.)

We know that Dr. Narbon is capable of cloning herself - as will shortly be revealed.

In D.D' we learn that clones can be 'speed grown' - even if Helen had started to grow her Dave clone the day he joined the lab, she'd only had about five years to grow him and he is clearly a fully grown adult.  Well, at least as adult as Dave can be.  So, she must have speed grown him.

Also in D.D', we learn that it is possible to take a backup copy of a person's mind and then re-imprint it onto a clone.

So, all Dr. Narbon has to do is speed grow a clone of herself and then keep it on ice, hooked up to an imprinting device with a relatively recent backup copy of herself and access to the news archives to fill in the gaps.  Then , when she dies, the backup is activated - this can either be via an implant which sends out an 'I'm dead' signal on cessation of vital signs or by setting up a computer to scan the news for certain keywords.

Ta-dah!

Now, the only question remaining is whether Shaenon will acknowledge my brilliance in working this out or will she do the truly evil thing and try to claim that she had it all worked out in the character's backstories all along?  Not exactly a hard question to answer, is it ;-)

And as to why Helen went through a normal childhood rather than beiong speed grown?  Well, Dr. Narbon wanted a subject to study from 'birth' for her seminal work on mad geniuses - genius'?  Genii?  Whatever, you know what I mean  :-)

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The education bestowed on Shaenon K. Garrity by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged. ... full profile