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This is one of my favorite strips. What with all the cheap jokes about what a nerd Dave is, it's easy to forget that Helen is pretty dorky herself. Dorky but dangerous. I also like the idea that the sprites have a poker night.

The initial core concept of this storyline was Dave being sent to infiltrate Madblood's lair disguised as Madblood. I wrote exactly one strip (which I'll point out when it appears much later) around this idea, then sat on it for a year or more, unable to come up with anything else.

Then one day I thought of putting Madblood's lair on the moon, and suddenly the whole story clicked together. I churned out eight months of strips without too much more trouble, although Andrew helped me with a couple of key creative blocks. I don't know why picking a setting for the story made it gel, but it wasn't the only storyline that only came together once I'd settled on some apparently minor cosmetic detail. For instance, I couldn't get "Battle for the Lost Diamond Mines of Brazil" to work until I came up with Mongor the Iguana-Man.

This is all tangential to this particular strip, which was written fairly early (although still long after that first, lonely strip) and just serves to slowly introduce Helen's improved transmogrifier. It also features the first in a series of amusing goggles Helen wears this week.

(Okay, it's really just two sets of goggles. And the next set is better. I'm sorry.)

Man, I love these goggles.

I stretched out this conversation between Helen and Artie for almost a week. I probably could've condensed it, but then the strips would've been even wordier, so it's probably just as well. Anyway. Transmogrifier. The word isn't original to "Calvin and Hobbes," but that's obviously where I got it. "Morphic matrix," I believe, comes from the Discworld books.

Humans do have large and colorful gene pools compared to other species, probably partly because civilized living allows weird mutations to build up in the population. Dogs are genetically diverse too. Gerbils, not so much. Almost all pet gerbils are descended from 20 breeding pairs brought to the U.S. from Mongolia in 1954, so they have a relatively low genetic variability. I mean, they're not like cheetahs or nothing, but they're pretty homogenous.

More important, the design of the transmogrifier is clearly based on a Super Soaker. I wasn't at all consistent about this, but I tried to give Helen's inventions the look of colorful toys. If I were doing the strip over, I'd give each of the mad scientists a distinctive design style. Madblood would be all steampunky.

Man, those goggles are boss.

Helen hangs the transmogrifier gun on the wall in a ridiculously literal interpretation of Chekov: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired."

So, yeah, Artie and Dave start messing with the gun next week.

"He'd make a big silly fuss if I shot him" is a line I'm still pretty proud of.

This was a fairly early script. I was and continue to be a huge sucker for big bombastic captions like this. The great part is how they leave almost no room for the art. I'm really in the wrong line of work with the whole cartooning thing.

I do like the whole exchange in the second panel.

37 comments:
So It Begins (soitbegins) says: Heh. Whodathunkit?
Leon Arnott (l) says: Monday:

Personality sprites: 11. The notion that one person's personality sprites independantly converse with other people's personality sprites breaks their underlying metaphor pretty bad (because does this mean they exist outside of the subject's mind? Are they actually supernatural? Metaphorical angels become literal angels?!), but it's not like there isn't a precedent for this in other webcomics.

(That's the second time in 2 years I've linked to that Sluggy episode for comparative purposes. And the first time, I forgot to count a certain Narbonic episode's use of personality sprites, so that means today's the 11th such instance instead of the 10th. Personally, I expected it to be even a bit higher than that by now.)

The notion that Helen still has any motivation to mingle with lesser mortals is somewhat encouraging.
Ed Gedeon (eddurd) says:

(TUNE: "Afternoon Delight", The Starland Vocal Band)

Gonna meet up with some other people's shoulder sprites,
Yeah, we'll order out for pizza and some Miller Lites;
I hear Artie's Angel arguing for civil rights,
And there's Evil Helen showing off her fishnet tights ...

My Saturday nights!
Poker with the sprites!
Po-o-oker with the sprites!

John Campbell (jcampbel) says: Huh. Dave's Social Life swore. With an actual swearword, not punctuation or whatever. I hadn't noticed that before.
Michael Weiss (mweiss) says: Not sure if anybody's asked this recently, but is anybody keeping track of the filename story these days?  The one that used to be at purplemagpie.0catch.com hasn't been updated since last August.
John Campbell (jcampbel) says:

I am, in fact: http://www.ci-n.com/~jcampbel/narbonic.txt

It's not all nicely punctuated and capitalized like the version Valerie was compiling, but it is up to date.

I've also got the Skin Horse one: http://www.ci-n.com/~jcampbel/skinhorse.txt

Joyce Melton (halfelven) says: We shall goggle at the goggles.
So It Begins (soitbegins) says: Ooh, she looks evil in that last panel.

Beautiful, too.
Leon Arnott (l) says: Tuesday:

I'm not entirely sure how it happened, but those goggles give the appearance of the entire strip's linework being smoother than it has ever been before.

So, how exactly does a moonbase lead one, creatively, to this storyline? Well, the moon, existing outside the Earth, gives one freedom to unleash terrifying destruction on the entire world without personal repurcussions. Say, a bomb, a killer virus or plague. And since Madblood is established as a roboticist, then it would be a robot plague.
So there's a robot army. If Dave is there, then he's either trying to pass off as Madblood to the robots OR pass off as a robot to Madblood. What about both? If the robots look like Madblood, then we can do both.
The next logical step - Madblood impersonating Dave - is a bit of a reach, assumedly springing from desires to play with the Freaky Friday trope, desires to see Madblood betrayed by his creations, and more smooth-flowng Dave jibes. I'm not even going to attempt to postulate how Mell and Artie get roped into this.
Rockphed (rockphed) says: Contractually.  It is in their contract that for every 1st teir character involved in a storyline, one of them must also be involved.  Since Helen is a 0th teir, her class reunion squeaks by with just Artie.
John Campbell (jcampbel) says: Did Helen make that thing out of a Super Soaker?
ribbles (ribbles) says:

It's IN SPACE!

 http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ptitlekt6mtovm4vne?from=Main.INSPACE 

So It Begins (soitbegins) says: Uh-oh.
Leon Arnott (l) says: Wednesday:

Nice seamless recap by Artie there. But Helen wouldn't really turn Dave into a gerbil unless she knew that the process was reversib
Ed Gedeon (eddurd) says:

(TUNE: "Cherry Pie", by Warrant)

I trans-mog-ri-fy!
Can't alter species of a girl or guy ...
That's why Dave isn't ankle-high!
Trans-mo-gri-fy!

Hannah Cairns (cola) says:

I think I read somewhere that the Discworld books got the word "morphic" from this guy:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morphic_field

kicking_ k (kicking_k) says:

She could at least turn him into a different-coloured gerbil. Black. Grey. Orange with white spots (I think that's about the most exciting-looking gerbil I had). OK, perhaps the possibilities aren't limitless.

Now I see where the doppelgängers come in to it.

Leon Arnott (l) says: Thurs:

"...and the President into Marilyn Monroe." There's gotta be a JFK joke in there somewhere, but where?

I appreciate that care has been taken to illustrate the importance of those small capsules to the transmogrifier's functionality, even though this detail doesn't amount to anything later on.
William Saunders (scholaroffortune) says:

I'm glad Narbonic stayed modern in its depiction of Science.  I love Steampunk, but I've got Girl Genius for that.  Narbonic is where I get my fix of B-movie robots, modern bubbling test tubes, and gleaming steel Clone Tanks.  My 14 year old daughter, a budding biologist of the MAD persuasion, prefers Narbonic to GG for that reason.

 And for perspective, the ears in "Bloom County" are freakishly small and deformed, so the ones you draw are just restoring karmic balance to the cartooniverse.

Elaine Corvidae (elaine_corvidae) says:

Actually, humans have a fairly low genetic diversity, even with compared to our endangered cousins whose populations are much smaller than ours. IIRC from my genetics class, there is more divesity in a single chimpanzee troop than in the entire human species. So our gene pool is actually fairly restricted; it seems otherwise to us perhaps because we natrually look for minor differences between each other so we can keep up with who's who.

A fairly good summary can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_genetic_variation

John Campbell (jcampbel) says:

She did make it out of a Super Soaker!

When I was a kid, I had a gerbil who was tan with a white underbelly and a white spot in the middle of his forehead. (Or possibly her forehead. We never did figure out which sex our gerbils were, except that they were both the same, because we had two and never more.) I selected that gerbil because I was able to tell him (or her) apart from my sister's gerbil, who was tan with a white underbelly and no white spot in the middle of his (her) forehead.

Though later on, the spot proved unnecessary, because my sister's gerbil grew morbidly obese to the point of being basically a furry ball with eyes on one end and a tail on the other, and presumably feet somewhere underneath, whereas my gerbil kept his girlish figure by dint of spending approximately twenty hours a day, every day, energetically attempting to dig a tunnel through the glass floor of the cage.

Ed Gedeon (eddurd) says:

(TUNE: "Wheel In The Sky", by Journey)

Helen is loose ... again, oh my ...
Weapon she'll use ... to transmogrify ...
I know she's gonna ... test it on someone ...

Got the motive, and she's got the means
To re-arrange somebody's genes;
Humans!  Don't wanna become one!

    And alleles in diguise keep on churing,
    I don't know who I'm gonna be tomorrow,
    Alleles in disguise keep on churing ...

Adam Underfoot (unnatural20) says: ...Dear sweet bippy, Ed. Alleles in disguise. You are my hero for the day.
EvilMid nightLurker (emlurker) says: Elaine: I've heard a theory that the human breeding population was dramatically thinned out sometime back when we were all still in Africa, and we're all descended from the few inbred survivors of some kind of natural disaster...
Rockphed (rockphed) says: I've heard that it happened a couple times.  Once in Africa, and once later in Russia.  There might even be a couple more that I haven't heard about.
So It Begins (soitbegins) says: Heh. It looks like Helen knows her manipulation after all.
Alex KB (kbkarma) says: This Chekhov's Gun, or this Chekov's Gun?
Leon Arnott (l) says: Friday:

This is Helen's extended revenge for that surprise gender formula trial from last year. Incidentally, it's quite visually effective that she reveals her eyes as she reveals her alterior motive.

Does she ever wear that coat again? No, really, I want to know.
Leon Arnott (l) says:
"YEAH! SHOOT MEL! MAKE MEL CHANGE!
it's her farging turn."

--willow_the_wanderer, 13 Dec. 2002

"Somehow, this stuff *never* happens to Mell."
--Shaenon K. Garrity, 13 Dec. 2002
kicking_ k (kicking_k) says:

@jcambel: Our gerbils did the tunnelling thing, too. I think it's a sure sign of Artie's superintelligence that he has never been seen in a corner, frantically scrabbling.

We always had three gerbils of different colours for the purposes of avoiding doppelgängerism, though I now think that once you know them well, you can tell them apart.

Ed Gedeon (eddurd) says:

(TUNE: "Still The One", Orleans)

This ray's untested, it's dangerous ...
If Dave got shot, he'd make a big fuss!
I told you not to touch, and I'm sure you heard,
But you'll be back, 'cause I know you're such a nerd!

It's Chekhov's Gun!
It's a plot device!
Chekhov's Gun!
Now I've told you twice!
Helen's having fun
With her Chekhov's Gun!

John Campbell (jcampbel) says: Helen looks great in the coat and goggles.
Daniel Ross (nentuaby) says: Madblood would have been Steampunky? Odd, I would have pegged him more as a Raygun Gothic sort, with the moonbase and all.
So It Begins (soitbegins) says: *sigh* I know DARN WELL how they're related.
Leon Arnott (l) says: Saturday:

Percentage of comic with actual drawings: 20%.
Non-canon weekday strips: 5. The previous one.
David Harmon (mental_mouse) says: There's an odd conflict between the in-world interactions and motives, and Dave's fourth-wall appeal to the cartoonist....
ribbles (ribbles) says: Panel 2 is one of my favorite panels in all of Narbonic.
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The education bestowed on Shaenon K. Garrity by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged. ... full profile