shaenon k garrity


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.