Smart Gerbils: February 12-17, 2001

My backgrounds have an unfortunate tendency to go all tilty, even if I use a ruler. Still, cute doomsday device. We also get the first mention of Dana, the only insane superintelligent gerbil destined to survive this conflict.

The insane superintelligent gerbils don’t come off as particularly insane in this storyline, to be honest. As Artie says, they’re basically just human. Dana gets nuttier later on.

Song list:

13. “Code Breaker,” by Tunng

Like Watson and Crick
You seem to look
Into my soul
And though my DNA
Is too small for your scope
You make it much deeper

Will I ever get tired of science love songs? No. The answer is no, I will never get tired of science love songs. This one’s sweet and melancholy and kind of sad.

You know, I’ve gotten a lot better at drawing gerbils since these strips, but their little expressions and poses are still pretty funny. This is one of countless strips that would be improved by some damn backgrounds, though. I hate drawing backgrounds.

I like that the gerbils can’t even tell if their fellow gerbils are male or female. As is established later in regards to Dana, Artie has the same problem.

Song list:

14. “Female of the Species,” by Space

Frankenstein and Dracula have nothing on you
Jekyll and Hyde join the back of the queue
The female of the species is more deadly than the male
Oh she wants to conquer the world completely
But first she’ll conquer me discreetly
The female of the species is more deadly than the male

Another song I just really like. Someone on the message board suggested this one. I also have a cover by Fembot, off the last Narbonicon CD, but I prefer the Space version.

It was kind of hard to cram three characters and a BFG into that third panel, but it doesn’t look too bad. I really should have written more insane war-movie rants for Mell over the years.

The day this strip ran, Valentine’s Day 2001, I went on my first date with my friend Andrew Farago. I’d broken up with my boyfriend a few days before (yes, I’m that cold), after Andrew conceded that we could kinda sorta maybe try going out. This was on the third of a series of weekends on which I stayed at his apartment all night playing “Super Mario 3” and falling asleep in his bed, and it was all kind of complicated and not worth going into here, except that somehow IT TOTALLY WORKED.

For our first date, Andrew asked me to meet him on the corner outside a big hotel where he was working on a temp job, manning a booth at a computer-tech conference. From there, we’d go out for pizza and see “Annie Hall” at the Red Vic on Haight Street. I showed up at the appointed hour, stood out in the cold for a while, then went into the hotel to see if Andrew was still working. No dice. I spent the next hour–a full hour–running in and out of the hotel from that corner, searching for Andrew amongst the straggling techies, increasingly convinced that he’d gotten cold feet and ditched me.

Then it occurred to me that it was a large hotel, and I was on the wrong corner.

Feeling like the queen of all idiots, I walked down the street and around the next corner, and there he was, right where he said he’d be. Right where he’d been standing for the past hour, in the damp gray February cold, waiting for me. He looked like a shivering baby bird. And when I walked up, he smiled at me like I hadn’t been a minute late. It was at that moment–that smile–that I knew I was in love with him.

Of course, since I work in advance, this strip was drawn four weeks before any of that. But what the hell.

Song list:

15. “I Don’t Want To Live on the Moon,” by Ernie

Well, I’d like to visit the moon
On a rocket ship high in the air
Yes, I’d like to visit the moon
But I don’t think I’d like to live there
Though I’d like to look down at the earth from above
I would miss all the places and people I love
So although I might like it for one afternoon
I don’t want to live on the moon

This one goes out to Andrew, because I know how much he digs Muppets.

The gerbil is standing on a copy of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, one of my favorite novels about superintelligent rodents. I know there’s a lot of stiff competition there.

I don’t know where the gerbils got an old-fashioned cheerleaders’ megaphone, but there’s probably a lot of unexpected odds and ends lying around Narbonics Labs.

Song list:

16. “Big Gun,” by Ice-T

Living life to the fullest
Buckshot and bullets
Trigger, she’ll pull it
Earth, she wanna rule it
Maybe she will cuz she’s quick to kill
The city lights make her dresses tight
Yes she bites…

Yes, you have discovered my secret weakness: 1990s gangsta rap. Actually, this was on one of the Narbonicon CDs, but it led me to a strong affection for Ice-T, especially his earlier, more political material. Also, it is an awesome rap. BEST SONG ABOUT A GUN-CRAZY LADY EVER.

A rare three-panel strip. Three-panel gags are hard! And no, I don’t know where the sofa is in relation to anything else in the lab. It seems to be off in its own separate living-room setup. It’s still around in the next storyline when Helen’s mother hangs out on it.

Song list:

17. “Everybody Wants To Rule the World,” by Tears for Fears

Its my own design
Its my own remorse
Help me to decide
Help me make the most
Of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world

A confession: sometimes* I fantasize about there someday being a Narbonic TV series, and in this TV series there is a scene in which Professor Madblood goes down to his mother’s basement, gets into his flying saucer, and pops a weathered Tears for Fears cassette into the dashboard. Then he flies out a hatch in the front lawn and off into outer space, while the above song plays, and for one brief, bright moment he’s happy. That’s what I think about whenever I hear this song.

*By which I mean “constantly.”

If there were a Wizard Price Guide for webcomics, this strip would be highlighted in pink and labeled SGa 1: Dr. Narbon. And it would be priced at 300 million dollars, slabbed, because it would be HOT!!!

Also notable: Artie gets to do narration boxes, a rare privilege. And this strip has a “To Be Continued” caption! I never pass up an opportunity to do a “To Be Continued”!

Artie’s internal monologue here is, of course, a takeoff on Apocalypse Now, as is Dr. Narbon’s first line in the strip.

Song List:

18. “Purely Evil,” by The Rogers Sisters

I don’t care if I’m the lonliest man
As long as it’s out of my hands
Automatic firearms and safety plans
As long as it’s out of my hands
And when I find I’m in a serious state
As long as it’s out of my hands
I got a feeling, got a feeling i emancipate
As long as it’s out of my hands
I wanna be purely evil

I addition to collecting songs about mad science (and plain old regular science), I collect songs about being evil. This is a good one, plus The Rogers Sisters is a good band in general. It’s peppy.

63 thoughts on “Smart Gerbils: February 12-17, 2001

  1. How about love songs that are sweet and melancholy and kind of sad that start out like they’re going to be science love songs and then stop being science love songs after the first verse but are still sweet and melancholy and kind of sad?  If that sounds pretty okay, then you may enjoy this song by Jill Sobule:

  2. Monday’s Comic: I wonder – when this storyline was being initially plotted, some three-quarters of a decade ago, at what point was the orbiting death laser going to kill Dave? Was it always going to be Dr. Narbon who pressed the button, or might that responsibility have fallen to these gerbils at one point? Both storylines seem to give the orbiting laser equal prominence.

    Hey, you didn’t mention who Dana is named after. (If it is revealed that Dana is named after “DNA”, I will have no choice but to wince.)

    I would like to again comment on your accurate depictions of Earth’s surface. This story takes place 100 years after the Victorian arc, providing ample time for the Atlantic rift to have split the supercontinent Pangaea into two land masses, as can be seen in the world map in panel 3.

  3. Well, form Artie’s perspective, humans are pretty freakin’ nuts. Look who he has as examples, here. Dave is probably the most stable of the bunch, for good or ill.


    I’ll grant thee random access to my heart,
    Thoul’t tell me all the constants of thy love;
    And so we two shall all love’s lemmas prove
    And in our bound partition never part.

    Cancel me not — for what then shall remain?
    Abscissas, some mantissas, modules, modes,
    A root or two, a torus and a node:
    The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

    I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,
    I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.
    Bernoulli would have been content to die
    Had he but known such a-squared cos 2(thi)!
                    — Stanislaw Lem, “Cyberiad”

  5. Tuesday’s Comic: Backgrounds? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

    “Contenance”: is it a word? Expert computer programs say: no!

    Current named gerbils (deceased in italics): Artie, Dana, Mike, Jaye, Ethan, Dale, Lise, Allison, Kate, Marc, Ben. (84.6% completion)

  6. Of course “contenance” is a word!  I saw a guy staring at an anthill, I asked him what he was doing, and he said, “I’m contenance to see how many there are!”  (The ants go marching one by one, hurrah! Hurrah!)

  7. OK, I’ll cover Sarge’s straight line:

      “Only not even they know for sure… “

    Of course, even vets have some difficulty sexing gerbils and the like.  Pet store owners are worse:  “Yes, yes, they’re both male”… so my sibs and I wound up raising several generations of hamsters!

    I presume that Helen’s manipulations disrupted her gerbils’ olfactory processing… thus sacrificing the confidence of instinct for the chattering confusion of intelligence….


  8. PS:  <a href=””> countenance</a>.  Artie seems to have a bit of trouble with misspelled word balloons — perhaps the dictionary he ate didn’t agree with him?

  9. From

    contenance: an outward appearance.

    countenance:      to approve, support, or encourage.

  10. That is quite odd, because Google insists that “contenance” is a French word, and that there are no English definitions of it on the Web.

  11. My French-English dictionary defines “contenance” as “capacity; bearing, attitude; countenance. So if Artie’s slipping into French for some obscure reason, he’s close, but not spot-on. Although, all things considered, I wouldn’t put it past Artie to secretly speak a couple of extra languages by the end of Narbonic’s run.

  12. This editor says “countenance.” Merriam Webster’s Collegiate, the dictionary that the most publishers depend on, agrees. Remind me never to trust, because they’re wrong–and that’s distressing!

  13. Gerbils must be nothing like rats, because it’s quite easy to tell if they’re male or not.

  14. Yeah, I was going to say:  male mice and rats have *huge* equipment, at least relative to their wee little bodies.

  15. Wednesday’s Comic: Is that thick grey beam the projectile… or the nozzle? Either way, it’s a wonder she can even carry the darned thing. I suppose that some kind of dessert stomach logic ensures that no firearm is too heavy for Mell’s arms.

    Poor, poor Mell. She really belongs in a zany college roommates webcomic where she can terminate Xenomorphs and zombie clones of herself all day long, while her fellow foils plead with the Author’s avatar for assistance, only to have two other webcomics’ casts and their cute animal mascots cross over into their apartments for a few weeks and eat all of their grumblecakes. Instead, all she gets to do here is pull the main cast out of its own abominable mess about once a month.

    Also: only four weeks?

    Wednesday’s Song: Is actually the only one so far that I have ever heard performed. Don’t pity me. I am already dead.

  16. That’s such a sweet story! Um, “that” refers to you and Andrew, of course. As an aside, my beauteous and oft-praised Jungle Goddess and I will be flying into SF on August 17th, and driving south on the 21st. We’d love to see you again, and meet Andrew, too!

  17. Note how Andrew’s persistence foils the forces of Chaos!. I imagine a quick walk around the hotel might have helped too — IF he’d avoided the wandering spirits of deceased comedy teams…..



  18. Scott & Melissa:  Gerbils and hamsters just look anonymously fuzzy back there.  On the other hand, if you want “huge equipment… relative to their wee little bodies”…   check out turtles!  Long enough to get past both shells, means up to half the size of their shell, and they’re liable to show it when you pick them up.  Can’t dig up the link offhand, but there was something on ScienceBlogs.

  19. “The turtle lives ‘twixt plated decks / Which practically conceals its sex. / I think it clever of the turtle / In such a fix to be so fertile.”  — Ogden Nash

    I must admit, Shaenon, your first date beats mine with my wife (dinner at Cracker Barrel next to the Interstate).  Yet, somehow, we’ve lasted for nearly seven years now.


  20. Noah: Of course! Email me!

    On animal genitalia: During mating season, some species of ducks grow tubular penises longer than their ENTIRE BODIES. It’s crazy; most birds don’t have penises at all (just a unisex organ called the cloaca), so it’s like waterfowl have to make up for everybody else.

    Ah, the penises of the animal kingdom. This is one of those topics of conversation that make me such a hit at social gatherings. Who doesn’t want to spend dinner hearing about how female hyenas give birth through their false phalli?

      • You need to read Ursula Vernon’s webcomic “Digger”. (Everybody needs to read it! Bwahahaha!) No lesbians, but all the main characters are female (without them making a point of it)… and it will give you far better reasons to fear anthropomorphic hyenas.

  21. NOAH!

    Are you and JG still heading south through the Santa Barbara area on your trip? Let us know!

    Chris “BKITU” Gleason 

  22. That is definitely the best looking gun yet. And I agree, the rant is awesome.

    Also, awww at your story. That makes me extremely happy.

    And yay at Ernie!

    And yay at your anatomical knowledge. X)

    Basically, it’s a really, really good day to be a Narbonic fan.

  23. Apparently the damage to a first-time mother hyena is pretty gnarly, and a lot of them don’t live through their first litter, but after that it’s a lot easier.  Has to do with a large concentration of male hormones the females are exposed to in utero.  Cool stuff.

  24. I’ve always especially liked this strip.  I feel a strong kinship with Dave here, because I too have a strong lack-of work ethic.

  25. Thursday’s Comic: I suppose “once again” refers to the deceased Doomsday Machine? Had Dave completed that infernal device, this webcomic would have concluded a lot sooner. Let it be known that in the Narboniverse, slackers are naturally selected!

    I find it amusing, even in that vein, that the only things Dave and Helen feel the need to do at this point are standing around and grinning glibly.

  26. Not to be nit-picky, but is Dave smoking or chewing on a toothpick?  I assume he’s smoking, but that’s an awfully teeny-tiny cigarette … maybe it’s a Virginia Slim?

  27. Perhaps “it goes without saying” –like the vehicle in Dictionopolis– {or it has up until now}, but


    is one of the truly great Narbonic observations/aphorisms {an aphorism if slightly rephrased}.

  28. The gerbil is standing on a copy of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, one of my favorite novels about superintelligent rodents. I know there’s a lot of stiff competition there.

    Ah, yes! The source material of my absolute favorite animated movie, The Secret of NIMH! They just don’t make (or write) ’em like that anymore…

    So sad…so sad… 

  29. Friday’s Comic looks noticably crisper and clearer than previous episodes. A case of technological advancement over the years, or merely a spot of luck?

    Three-panel gags? Hard? Well, I never. Now I know what I’ve been doing wrong all these years. Thanks!

    Unwanted Corrections: Somehow, a quarter strikes me as a little mundane for a secondary punch-line. And yet the only replacement line that I can think up in short notice is “I’ve struck gum!”, which, despite calling to mind a certain episode of The Goodies, isn’t much of an improvement. Everybody loses!

    Y’know, I sometimes fantasise about a Narbonic feature film trilogy spanning the entire run. Yes, just a trilogy. This particular intellectual tangent forces one to attempt to pare down the Narbonic story to its most important events. Could you, for example, successfully portray the “Everlasting Ices/Madness” arc without the hamsters and their backstory? How important is the “Dr. Narbon, Dave’s Dead, D-Con” and “Island” string of arcs? Which of the Madblood arcs prior to “Everlasting Ices” should be retained? Such questions haunt those who pursue fantasy scenarios without thinking through the plausibility of their conditions first.

  30. Jeez, Leon, you’d really have to pare it down.  Maybe it would be better to have a one-hour weekly show and try to cover a story line each season.  
    Has anyone reading ever tried to write out a Narbonic storyline in Final Draft?  What does it end up looking like?

  31. I too dream of Narbonic TV/movie adaptations.  I see it done as a series of animated films, each covering one or two storylines (depending on length).  As for the voices … Caroline Rhea as Helen, Charlie Sheen as Dave, Grey DeLisle as Mell, David Hyde Pierce as Madblood, Doris Roberts as Dr. Narbon, Julia-Louis Dreyfuss as Zeta, and Dr. Stephen Hawking as Foot.

    Whadday think, huh?

  32. Blast you Sarge, now you’ve given me the mindworm!  😉

     I don’t know that you could cut entire storylines, but if you had to, I’d ditch “Diamond Mines of Brazil”, folding Artie’s upgrade and Mel’s revelation into the Dave Conspiracy line.  (Perhaps relocate the fight to the end of D-con?)  Some of the arcs could be abbreviated, or visually compressed — for example,Dave’s trip through Hell, or the travails of his zombified head.  Likewise, a lot of the demon / angel stuff could be done much more briskly onscreen.  It’s amazing how many sight gags you can cram into the background of a running fight…


  33. I can’t help but think of Tress MacNeille doing one of her old crone voices for the voice Dr. Narbon. 

  34. As for the voices … Caroline Rhea as Helen, Charlie Sheen as Dave, Grey DeLisle as Mell, David Hyde Pierce as Madblood, Doris Roberts as Dr. Narbon, Julia-Louis Dreyfuss as Zeta, and Dr. Stephen Hawking as Foot.

    Whadday think, huh?


    But who plays Artie?

    I’d like to suggest/nominate either Shemar Moore of Criminal Minds or Coby Bell of Third Watch.

  35. I suspect that the writers of a Narbonic TV show would be badly tempted to show madness “from the inside” at some point, and of course it would end up being ridiculously and predictably dark. Maybe one of the final scenes would go like this…

    As Dave sits placidly on the floor, fiber optic cables dangling from his nostrils, the scenery warps, and we’re back in Slumberland. Two Little Daves wander the corridors, arguing fiercely. Innocent Dave wants a reconciliation; Angry Dave wants to show them all. They begin to fight, and, for a moment, Innocent Dave seems to have the upper hand. “I won’t let you hurt her!” he says.

    Then the dream Daves look up, and see that they are, somehow, in Madblood’s lair. Holographic Dave rises from the floor and regards them quietly.

    “Hello, Davey,” he says, smiling horribly.

    Fade to black.

    (Also Artie dies a noble death, Mell and Caliban settle down to a quiet bourgeois existence, and Helen, depressingly, turns out to not be so bad after all.)

  36. If there were a Wizard Price Guide for webcomics, this strip would be highlighted in pink and labeled SGa 1: Dr. Narbon. And it would be priced at 300 million dollars, slabbed, because it would be HOT!!!

    I believe this is the earliest original Narbonic strip I own.   (Currently for sale, asking price, $300 million, but with a 25% discount through the end of Comicon).   I won it in the Spot The Non-Dave Contest, but it wasn’t the strip I asked for, (that one will show up in a few days).  This strip arrived by mistake, but rather than send it back, I kept it, and told Shaenon that sooner or later, I would get the correct strip from her.  I think it took a year, and I don’t remember how I got it, but I did.  The are both hanging in my lab now, along with a few other Narbonic strips. 

  37. If you’re talking about songs about just plain evil, “I Wish I had an Evil Twin” by the Magnetic Fields is pretty good.

  38. Saturday’s Comic: Y’know, I was wondering what was going on when “1 Down: Smells like victory. (16 letters)” turned up in a recent crossword. And yet there it is in panel 4. Thanks, six-year old webcomics, for solving my trivial and possibly fictionalised problems!

    Now for an issue of contention! In strip number 00002, the laboratory is referred to as “Narbonics Research”. In all other instances since then, it is referred to as “Narbonics Labs”. What’s up with that?

    (Also, it is unclear whether or not the sign in today’s episode sees the gerbil head logo in strip 00002 replaced with the recognisable pink heart. Maybe it is an inverted triangle logo that forms the missing link between them?)

    Today’s Lesson Learned: If you want to draw looming shadows, perhaps turning a pencil on its side isn’t quite the best way to shade them?

  39. How do we know it’s Mom? I’m thinking it’s Helen’sevil twin sister Helga (explains “Beta”). Don’t Irecall something about Mom getting bumped back in theflashback sequence?

    Wait a sec.
    Helen is evil herself. Would this make her the GoodTwin Sister Helga?
    Or the Eviller twin?
    Or the Evil-but-in-a-different-way?

    Ow. My brain just jumped out of my skull and ran offdown the hall. I hate it when that happens.
    Stephen Boyd, 21 Feb. 2001.

  40. Today’s Lateral Thinking Puzzle: A superintelligent gerbil is on a highway median strip, and sees a middle-aged woman. At that instant, an unseen audience knows that a distant universe has been destroyed. How come?

  41. Drat, I knew I forgot someone … Artie would be voiced by Michael Dorn.  (In a cameo, Wanda Sykes would be the worker at the bus company Lost & Found.)

    To John Wells:  In *my* universe, Narbonic TV/movies do not get made until the original author gives final script approval.  Sarge, if I ever win the lottery, I promise you this will be done.  Your creations shall come to life!  LIFE, I say!  Ha ha!  (Excuse me …*ahem*ahem*)  BWAHAHAhahahaha*cough*cough* drat I need more practice…

  42. …I wanna be purely evil

    Well, yeah, but “This is the end (KABOOM!!!)/beautiful friend” would fit quite nicely too.  Or is that for further down the road?

  43. I always imagined Artie being a somewhat more even toned voice… maybe Phil LaMarr being not quite so over the top as  Samurai Jack. Michael Dorn is perfect if you want to imply an imposing physical presence, but Artie has an intimidating intellectual presence.

  44. Leon:  (Also, it is unclear whether or not the sign in today’s episode sees the gerbil head logo in strip 00002 replaced with the recognisable pink heart. Maybe it is an inverted triangle logo that forms the missing link between them?)

     Well, the prior lair got trashed, and Helen might have wanted the Labs to be a little less recognizable!  Thus, a new logo sans gerbil.  The elevator behind Artie is marked with a down arrow.

  45. Oh, drat, how could I have forgotten … and of course, Patrick Stewart for ANTONIO SMITH, FORENSIC LINGUIST! 

    As for the sign, I think Leon was referring to the heart/triangle on the sign that reads “Narbonic Labs” (directly above the ‘o’ in “Narbonic”).  Looks like a heart to me, but that may just be a bias caused by my Lucky Charms addiction.  

  46. Much-belated Big Freakin’ ™ Gun count: 4 (Wednesday’s comic)  To this day, Mell’s line is one of my favorites in the entire archive.

  47. I just thought, on the subject of science- and mad-science-related music (and previous mention of JoCo), would “Betty and Me” count, even though the “improved” baby is improved via eugenics and not the gene-splicing the narrator/singer suspects?

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