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Up is down. Crazy is sane. Evil is cute.

Narbonic, a daily comedy webcomic by Shaenon Garrity, was started on July 31, 2000 and will conclude on December 31, 2006. After becoming the veritable flagship of the subscription-based comic page Modern Tales and winning the 2005 WCCA for Outstanding Writing, Narbonic has recently become free due to its impending end, so that we mundanes will become hopelessly addicted just in time to have our supply cut off and die.

The strip both uses and subverts the mad scientist cliche, offering a look into their world that's far deeper and less one-sided than the usual demonizing fare. Sure, they engineer freaks of creation, but what do they do on their days off? How do they recruit their minions? And what about the ones without vast international criminal organizations who have to build giant robots in their mothers' basements? In particular, it focuses on the staff of one upstart evil laboratory, viz.:
  • Helen Beta Narbon
    "Mell, the electrodes!"

    Helen is a psychotic lunatic driven to tamper in God's creation with no regard of the havoc and destruction she could wreak. She's also a blonde, plump, optimistic and cheerful woman in her late twenties/early thirties who wears pink glasses, a white lab coat and a T-shirt that says "evil" on the front with a heart on the "i". As a mad geneticist and the head of Narbonics Labs, her creations include a race of giant carnivorous Ur-Gerbils, a cellular destabilizer, swarms of exploding gerbils, viral weaponry and a gerbil ray.

    Helen is an ecletic mix of brilliance and raving insanity. In top form she shows both at the same time. She has a slight tragic element, being essentially a slave to her own fractured psyche, but it's usually drowned out by all the screaming.

  • Dave Davenport
    "For the past year I've assumed I'm in one of those "Matrix" pods, and I've never been happier."

    A disgruntled computer technician who was - Wikiquote - "recruited directly from his college's graduation ceremony to fix a malfunctioning doomsday machine." Bespectacled, hunched, smoking like a chimney, Dave has "geek" written in every part of his body (he shapes up somewhat later on, particularily after he never starts smoking.) As the vaguely normal member of Narbonics Labs, he's the most common viewpoint character. In a sense, the strip is very much about Dave's journey to the world of madness.

    Dave is a pessimist and grumbles like a pro. In his defense, he gets used as a lab animal more than Artie, who literally is one. He's a bit of a wuss about this, but again in his defense his co-workers could kill him repeatedly. He somehow has a strong moral core, which gives him trouble from time to time, but in the end Dave can't resist the shiny gadgets.

  • Mell W. Kelly

    An evil intern who brews the coffee and throws the grenades. Glasses. Short skirts. Strange mish-mash slang. A straightforward, devil-may-care and quite homicidal attitude. Mell's talent for violence borders on being a force of nature, and she's been observed to pull weapons larger than herself out of nowhere. She steals the nuke gun if given half a chance.

  • RT-5478 (Artie)
    "Granted, my unauthorized gender-swapping experiment got a tad out of hand."

    A superintelligent gerbil (so the woman has a fixation) with an IQ of 250, who'll thank you for not calling him the cute talking animal. Artie is an onlooker and an outsider: the sole good soul in a den of villainy, the one sensible person among obsessives. Plus he's a #¤%@ gerbil.

    His quote does him a disservice, branding an accomplished hypertext poet, activist and ordained Unitarian minister yet another mayhemist, but the little rodent has it coming. He starts off very well aware of his intellect (though not of why he shouldn't show off), proud of his non-humanity in the Hobbesian tradition and prone to making things a bit more interesting when he lacks stimulation.

Narbonic runs Mondays-Saturdays with traditional monochrome, 4-panel newspaper strips. On Sundays, anything can happen: Fan art, side stories, haiku contests, odd RPGs, et cetera. The comic is hand-drawn, apparently with pencil-y methods at first and inky ones later, in a somewhat cartoonish style appropriate to the format with few shadows and limited backgrounds, but expressive characters and good body language. Much of the style's evolution happens during the strip, this being a webcomic, but excepting the first few months in the gradual development sense rather than the paradigm shift sense. It's also cute. Not in the overloading Snugglybear sense, not as a central theme, but Helen's smiles just are adorable. Artie may grumble, but he still rides around on peoples' shoulders and heads.

The comic's world is one almost exactly like our own, but beneath its thin veil of sanity lies the laughing maw of madness ("The editors of the New Journal of Malology will be frothing at the mouth! Of course, they usually are..."), where doomsday devices come in kits with their manuals badly translated from Japanese. There are some overtones of magic realism, but Narbonic is largely goofball comedy/adventure; if it was realistic, the planet would've been blown apart half a dozen times by now. The traditional horror angle is ignored. All things considered, it's surprisingly family-friendly: the much-touted evilness comes across as crazy rather than immoral. To paraphrase a forum member, it's CUTE FUNNY evil. There's little un#¤@%&#ed cursing, little onpanel violence, though there are some nonspecific references to sex and to really, really weird sex. It's even conceivable that it might make the newspapers someday!

The story is character-centric (what good is a fantastic concept if the reader doesn't care who gets strapped into it?) and works magnificently. The prontagonists bounce off each other, develop, bond and grow as persons. The inevitable gradual office romance not only works without getting overbearing or too sappy, but really adds to the dynamic. Even Mell finds some things she'd be hesitant to shoot. This isn't to say that Shaenon can't set up sweet, sweet mayhem. Consider: Mell, Dave and Artie (who’s been turned into Dave) versus Helen’s nemesis-cum-crush, mad cyberneticist Lupin Madblood (who’s also been turned into Dave), a rebellious AI and 15000 singing, dancing invulnerable battle android Madblood copies. On the moon.

Both individual strips and story arcs are fairly self-contained. Everything short of character death ends with a punchline, which does on a few occasions hurt the archive's flow. Storylines build on previous events and characters, but still followed the premise - build-up - Twistarama - resolution cycle and rarely led directly into one another. Followed, because at the start of the final year the status quo was shattered with a hammer and the hammer with another hammer, to bring the events to a climax they had, as it turns out, been heading towards all along. Readers more critical than I remarked on short-term damage to the humor, but the plot twists that followed shut them up right quick.

Guru Scott McCloud has said that "Garrity is emerging as one of our best online humor writers", and I heartily agree. Narbonic has a tragically rare sense of infectious whimsy. Cliche or no cliche: From far too quotable lines ("What was wrong with the toaster oven?" "Tasted human blood."), to the common yet unobstructive science fiction references, to the small side story running in the actual comic file names, Shaenon Garrity's work shows every sign of being a labor of love.

MAD love.

Sources and links

This is original work, but I crammed the following in my head beforehand:


The strip:
http://www.narbonic.com/ - Main page
http://www.webcomicsnation.com/shaenongarrity/narbonic/series.php?view=archive&chapter=9763 - The first page, to avoid spoilers
http://www.webcomicsnation.com/shaenongarrity/narbonic/series.php?view=archive&chapter=9994 - A fine, if long, story.

How's my noding? /msg Kizor.

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