mad science


Wednesday’s Webcomic: Narbonic

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Because I had written about Girl Genius and Dresden Codak in the previous weeks, I now have MAD SCIENCE on the brain. Specifically, mad scientists of the female variety, which brings me to the now classic daily webcomic Narbonic. Narbonic is the story of Dave Davenport, a chain-smoking recent graduate in Computer Sciences who lands a job as a henchman with Narbonic Labs right out of college. His new boss, Dr. Helen B. Narbon, is a certifiably mad and and gerbil-obsessed scientist with a penchant for buggy doomsday machines. Her cheerfully amoral gun-toting intern Mell is searching for some direction in life but until then has a large stockpile of grenades. Later on one of her experimental gerbils, Artie, achieves sentience and tries to be the voice of reason, but usually fails miserably. Dr. Narbon’s lair is frequently attacked by her rival, amorous mad scientist Lupin Madblood, the vigilante hero Antonio Smith: Forensic Linguist, her own twisted creations, and her diabolical mother. What at first appears to be a light-hearted comedic strip seductively lures you into an intricate story of madness and morality, love and the fear of intimacy, and the many different shades of good and evil. Many a “throwaway” line becomes a Chekhov’s gun much later, so pay very close attention!

Dave and Mell

Narbonic is mostly a black and white daily strip with the Sunday strips in full color. The colored Sunday strips are very rarely part of the main story line, but are usually some type of side story,  fan art, fan songs, or fan poetry of the main story. This includes long palindrome songs sung by Helen’s Giant Ur-Gerbils. This is another opportunity to watch an artist evolve and refine her technique, although the artist’s style remains consistent.  In the beginning it is a much rougher hand drawn style and smooths out beautifully over time.  Not only is the comic a long cohesive story, in the original website Dr. Helen Narbon’s secret origin story was hidden in the file names of the images, a few words at a time. A fan compiled it into this text file.  The comic ran from 2000 and was completed 2006 and the comic has been re-running with Director’s Commentary for a few years now. I recommend reading it and the hidden backstory file after reading through the original comic. It has also had a few print runs, and the books can be acquired here.

The Author and Her Other Works

Narbonic was Shaenon K. Garrity’s first webcomic, but it thankfully wasn’t her last. She’s either created numerous other webcomics, as well as numerous published short stories columns and you can peruse her body of work in her gallery. I shall draw attention to Skin Horse, her current long running project which has some connections to the Narbonic universe  She has been an editor with Viz Media since 2003, a colmunist for Comixology, and is a long time volunteer and advocate of the Cartoon Art Museum located in San Francisco. The Cartoon Art Museum is the only Comics and Cartoon oriented museum in the western Hemisphere. You should visit and/or give them money. You should also read Garrity’s brilliant retelling of The Trouble with Tribbles in the style of Edward Gorey.

Meet Helen. Meet her Ur-Gerbil.


Wednesday’s Webcomic: Girl Genius

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I spent some time when I began this column trying to set a limit when a webcomic would become “too big” to recommend. Too many daily hits? Too many spin off projects? A massive video game convention held in its name? I quickly realized that if I thought that anyone’s life would somehow be less without knowing that the comic exists, no matter how many people already know about it, then I should recommend it on the off chance that they have not. Mostly I want to go on and on about one of my favorite comics ever to come to the web, Girl Genius!

Girl Genius is what the authors, Phil and Kaja Foglio, have dubbed a “Gaslight Fantasy.”  I would describe it as part Victorian science fiction, part romantic fantasy, and 100% MAD SCIENCE. On another and nearly unrecognizable Earth, some humans are endowed with a gift and a curse called the Spark. The Spark gives a person incredible genius, vision, and charisma, but also frequently causes uncontrollable rages and an inevitable descent into madness. The world of Girl Genius has been ruled by mad science for thousands of years, and it has done a horrible job.  Our heroine, Agatha, begins as a hapless student of Transylvania Polygnostic University when one scary run-in with some wandering soldiers in an alleyway sets in motion a chain of events that not only shakes the foundations of Europa but leads Agatha to discover the secrets of an ancient and feared Spark dynasty long thought dead. What follows is a tumultuous and fast-paced journey as she wins true-hearted allies, outwits foes, enamors handsome geniuses, and defeats giant monsters in a pulse-pounding pulp adventure spanning ELEVEN volumes and counting!

Girl Genius was originally printed in paper form in 2001, but made the transition online in 2005 and has been updated with astonishing regularity since then. The setting of the comic has an incredibly well-planned history and culture which has barely been hinted at. The anatomy is well-studied and the facial expressions are dynamic. The rich intricate illustrations and embellishment of the machinery and clothing  lead to an incredible amount of hidden details in the artwork. A few short stories are interspersed with the action at chapter breaks in the comic. The comic is also available in book form as well , with eleven of the volumes in print. Three of the print volumes have won the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story, as well as numerous other awards. The first two story arcs have also been adapted into two Girl Genius novels! Girl Genius really sets the bar high for epic webcomics.

The Authors and Their Other Works: 

Girl Genius is the work of the married team of Phil and Kaja Foglio. Phil is the primary  illustrator and Kaja is the primary writer and web designer and the world building is very much equal between them. Both of them are written into the comic as bystanders and chroniclers of the saga. They each had long separate careers prior to starting Girl Genius, which has been their main project since 2000 and has led to the novels, riotously funny podcasted radio dramas, and a devoted and massive fanbase. A major contributor is their colorist since Volume 5, Cheyenne Wright, who has many other fascinating projects, many of which are of the steampunk persuasion.

Girl Genius Online Comics Weasel Queen Intro

The intro from the Girl Genius Short Story “Revenge of the Weasel Queen!”

As an aside, I am loathe to end this recommendation without mentioning my favorite characters: the charismatic, adorable and brutal Jägerkin. They will pillage your heart and conquer your mind, all while singing a jaunty tune. 

Handsome Schmott Guys- The Jaegerkin
You might not believe it now, but they really are irresistible to women.