Smart Gerbils: February 19-24, 2001

I love writing Dr. Narbon’s dialogue. It’s not very polished here, but you can tell I’m getting into it.

Many members of my family sensed a resemblance between Dr. Narbon and my own mother, starting with panel three of this strip. Personally, I think I was tapping universal experience. I’m sure most people’s mothers travel everywhere with several boxes of pink wine in reserve. I mean, what if your mom reaches her destination and finds that there isn’t enough boxed wine around the place? What if she gets thirsty on I-90? What’s a woman supposed to do?

Iron City is the beer of Pittsburgh, land of my forefathers. The natives take great pride in its awfulness.

Song list:

19. “Dr. Luther’s Assistant,” by Elvis Costello

Oh, he’s Dr. Luther’s assistant
He’ll close in when he seems so distant
Dr. Luther’s assistant
He’ll get on top of you when you lower your resistance

Actually, this isn’t a very good fit, but I’ve got a bunch of Elvis Costello songs on the Narbonic playlist for some reason. I have “Doctor Luther’s Assistant” and “B Movie” because they’re kind of vaguely tangentially Narbonic-y, and “Pump It Up” because Andrew always mishears the line “She’s like a narcotic” as “She’s drawing Narbonic.” Corny but true.

Incidentally, I felt a real sense of accomplishment the day that a Google search for “narbonic” didn’t turn up the suggestion that I meant to type “carbonic.” Take that, H2CO3!

Dr. Narbon’s boxed wine is “Autumn Blush,” a flavor my mother was fond of at the time. It’s pinkish. “Box-O-Wine” is the derisive family nickname for my mother’s favorite bulk alcoholic beverage. My mother likes to note with pride, however, that most of the relatives who mocked her have been gradually converted to an appreciation of boxed wine. What your boxed wines may occasionally lack in sophistication, they make up for in quantity, and my family loves to drink.

Except for me. For most of my adult life, I have squandered my stout Irish constitution by forsaking alcohol. I just don’t like the taste. Nowadays, however, I will drink the occasional bottle of wine.

Artie pushing the giant box of wine is pretty cute, although I don’t know what’s going on with his tail in that first panel.

Song list:

20. “Brainscan,” by the Hoodoo Gurus

You need a brainscan
To convince me you’re not dead
You need a brainscan
And hope they learn to transplant a head

I just like this song, plus I kind of picture Artie listening to songs like this. I think Artie has peculiar musical tastes, due partly to possessing a different hearing range than humans, and partly to being Artie.

Too…many…words…strip…illegible…arrgh. I dig Mell’s confused lingo, though.

Yes, the crate reads AMMO. Sometimes it’s hard to think of things to write on crates.

Song list:

21. “Cat with Two Heads,” by the Aquabats

A scientist creates a beast
In a secret laboratory
Nature plots revenge
It’s blood it seeks
That’s where we begin our story!

Completely silly, but there aren’t many story-songs that are just straight-up about a mad scientist and the monstrosity he’s created.

I was in my laboratory
Creating what I thought would be…
Something great for the World!
A two-headed cat!
You could pet one kitty’s head
Then pet the other kitty’s head!
But little did I know the power of Atomic Energy
Would create a two headed man-eating monster!

Thank you, Aquabats. Thank you.

In the last panel, it looks like Dave is checking out Mell’s butt. Although it would be hard to blame him, he really is more interested in the totally boss remote he built. Yes, Dave has a skewed sense of priorities. Mell, of course, is entirely fixated on the superweapon.

Man, I wish I hadn’t filled stuff in with gray on Photoshop. It looks so out of place. At the time I figured I’d learn how to do more and more Photoshop shading, maybe even–gasp!–coloring, but I never did. Instead, I gave up and just learned how to do spot blacks.

Again, I cannot stress enough that at the time I was really, really into “Babylon 5.” Dave would have to be taping the repeats, because it had ended by this time.

Song list:

22. “Falling Is Like This,” by Ani DiFranco

I’m sorry I can’t help you, I cannot keep you safe
I’m sorry I can’t help myself, so don’t look at me that way
we can’t fight gravity on a planet that insists
that love is like falling
and falling is like this

I listened to this one a lot in the last year of Narbonic.

You know, this strip still looks pretty decent, mainly because of the charred gerbil skeleton in the second panel. What’s more charming than a small, furry animal getting disintegrated with a death ray? Also, I’m starting to make the gerbils more chubby and cute, which is good.

Song list:

23. “My Man,” by They Might Be Giants

My man
Muscles from hand to foot
Completely coated in uninteruppted skin
My man
Signals command the leg
To follow orders coming down from headquarters

As a nerd, I naturally love They Might Be Giants, and even rhapsodize on them in a later Sunday strip. Sadly, however, the band that defines geek rock has recorded surprisingly few songs evocative of mad science. “For Science” is about aliens. “My Evil Twin” is warmer, but not quite there. “Rocket to the Moon” is better, but there’s a number of other songs about flying to the moon that I like better (yes, moon songs comprise an entire subset of my Narbonic playlist). So TMBG is represented by this biology-minded song from their Mink Car album, which I’m partial to anyway because I got it autographed by the Johns. I’m such a nerd.

Those flying gerbils in the third panel crack me up. How the hell are they doing that? I imagine some kind of gerbil catapult or blunderbuss just off-panel, launching kamikaze gerbils at Dave and Mell. Also, at this point in Narbonic I’m getting pretty good at drawing the gerbils. This storyline gave me plenty of practice.

Everybody’s eyebrows are completely out of control.

Song list:

24. “With a Gun,” by the Minus 5

I like you with a gun
The way you shine the silver barrel in the sun
It’s no wonder
I sleep underground
‘Cause I just wanna
Just wanna be around

Yes, another love song to a gun-toting girl. I don’t remember how I found this one–I don’t have the rest of the album, which usually means I bought it off iTunes–but it’s pretty great. Kinda bouncy.

62 thoughts on “Smart Gerbils: February 19-24, 2001

  1. Good point. How am I supposed to cogitate the timbre of Dr. Narbon’s voice? These webcomic authors are notoriously, though understandably, lax when it comes to textually and/or visually communicating the sound of their characters’ voices. If only these Narbonic commentaries included some kind of weekly audio segment…

    Monday’s Comic: I find it hard to believe that either Mell or the gerbil rebellion is so liberal with their application of high explosives that the very top of the elevator shaft has been set alight. It’s a wonder that the elevator itself is still functional.

    But wait – doesn’t elevator entry require some kind of spot-coloured retinal scan that, while failing to prevent the senior Narbon’s access, would at least somewhat reveal the Doctor’s identity? Mmm-hmm!

    Panel four. meanwhile, proves the old adage about sentences ending in more than one punctuation mark.

    • “I think Artie has peculiar musical tastes, due partly to possessing a different hearing range than humans, and partly to being Artie.”

      This… this line is awesome. Prior to reading this, I have thought of so many hilarious ways this idea could be applied to so many non-human characters (usually robots), but I’ve never seen it phrased this perfectly.

  2. I thought the multiple-punctuation-mark rule only applied to exclamation points.

    As I mentioned before, I always thought Dr. Narbon sounded like Doris Roberts (she plays the mom on “Everybody Loves Raymond”).  Or maybe Bette Midler from “Ruthless People”.

    Of course, I’m sure the author imagines her own mother’s voice associated with Dr. Narbon.

  3. The best thing about Iron City is that now it comes in those metal bottles, you can toss the empties around and it sounds like someone’s throwing artillery shells into your kitchen.

  4. Leon: The idea that Mama Narbon has hacked her daughter’s security is equally plausible and scary, so the nature of their relationship is not necessarily tumbled at this point.

  5. Ahhhh Iron City!  It was also the Keg of choice at most of the parties I went to in college back at good ol’ IUP.  I’m sure Shaenons mom and I would have gotten along famously!  Yuns guys got any gum bands?

  6. Ah…Iron City, which replaced Coors Light as Worst Beer Ever. And my dad looks so happy whenever he can find it.

  7. Leon Arnott said, “I find it hard to believe that either Mell or the gerbil rebellion is so liberal with their application of high explosives that the very top of the elevator shaft has been set alight.

    I would think it perfectly in charater for Mell to try to cause as much collateral damage as possible.

    The blast could be coming through the ground surface behind the elevator, and the smoke drifting up the shaft from a different explosion.

  8. My parents were over the moon when our local IGA turned into a Giant Eagle, a Pennsylvania-based chain, and they were able to buy Iron City. They ran right over and stocked up. It was on that occasion my mother noted with pride that Iron City is the only beer for which the lite version doesn’t taste substantially worse than the regular version, since they’re both awful.

  9. I just remembered, if you haven’t heard the song Muffin Man by Frank Zappa, you need to. Perfect Narbonic cd material.

  10. The real-life Dr. Narbon (Shaenon’s wonderful mother Kathy) shares her fictional counterpart’s scientific genius, at least when it comes to bar and beverage implements. When she received complaints that her box wine left red drip marks on the floor and refrigerator after each pour, she invented a complex yet mobile cantilevered drip-catcher that would have made Frank Lloyd Wright proud.  And so it went for almost a decade of Kathy’s unfortunate fascination with box wine.  Lately, however, our dear cousin is far more likely to show up to a host’s home armed with exotic liquors and sickeningly sweet (or salty) mixers, often accompanied by tacky theme glassware from her favorite discount retailer, Marc’s.  Whether this is an evolution in taste is something the family continues to debate.  In the meantime, prickly pear margaritas, anyone? 

  11. Low quality beverages so far; LoneStar beer, Iron City beer, and cheap boxed wine.  I love these commentaries.

  12. This, (Tuesday’s) strip was the one I requested for winning the Spot-the-non-Dave contest.  By a fortunate accident, I got the strip that appeared last Friday, that has been appraised in the 100 millions range.   I eventually got this strip as well, although I can’t remember how, (probably blackmail).   The reason I requested this strip is that Artie is completely out of his element, his brains do him no good, and he has no brawn. 

  13. Tuesday’s Comic: “Giant Gerbils Ravage Midwest”. It seems as if the strip hasn’t yet assembled a distinction between which ‘consequences of madness’ are permitted to filter out into the vision of Greater Mundanea. Mayhap this particular headline was found, not in respectable news sources, but in a certain nefarious weekly publication of world news? (And thus, providing the fondly regarded sane madman trope?)

    Incidentally, today’s punchline happens to rise above its more typical variations only by virtue of the contained contradiction in the Doctor’s dialogue. So… thanks?

  14. As for mad scientists in the news … what do you think the “MS” in MSNBC stands for?  Oh sure, they pad the schedule out with a lot of other stuff to look like a mainstream news source … until 3am when the *real* news comes on. 

    “Good morning, mad geniuses, I’m Matt Bwahahaha, and here are today’s headlines…”


  15. Tuesday’s Comic: “Giant Gerbils Ravage Midwest”. It seems as if the strip hasn’t yet assembled a distinction between which ‘consequences of madness’ are permitted to filter out into the vision of Greater Mundanea.

    Well, much later the Blonde Anchorwoman does an entire TV report on the Madblood robots, and Dave explains that some people just won’t register it.

  16. retinal prints aren’t genetically determined — while I’m sure Dr. Narbon could have used Mad Science to make sure Beta developed the same congenital features as well, I’m not sure she would think to do so.  Or does dulplication of whatever’s funny automatically come with the Mad Science Cloning Technique?

  17. Wednesday’s Comic provides us with one of the first examples of the fearful knowing gaze, which indicates to the reader that plot-significant information is being transferred.

    Some first-time readers incorrectly assume that Artie is the obligatory zany comic relief character by virtue of being a talking animal. As this strip – among others to come – nicely illustrates, that character is actually Mell. From here on in, Artie’s place in the main cast is well-cemented.

    Finally: dramatically diving for cover is, as we all know, the best way to escape approaching bad news.

    Wednesday’s Song: How this was ranked down to #21 is beyond my meagre comprehension.

  18. Yeah, it’s properly mad to hide behind a case of ammunition…

    One of the cool things about this comic is how some of the trope roles hop around — notably the Trickster/Joker and Chick roles, for which everybody gets a turn!  

  19. I’ve never heard the Aquabats song, but may I also recommend the song “Robot Cat” by Logan Whitehurst and the Junior Science Club.

    Well, it slices, it dices, it catches the mices.
    It’s got a stock ticker with the wall street prices.
    Knows how to sew, cook, play the guitar,
    Ssay, it even put a new transmission in my car.
    It’s got a titanium cranium, chip in the branium.
    Pentium? Best representium,
    Pour in the eggs, milk, syrup, and flour,
    ‘Cause the robot cat needs pancake power!

  20. Yeah, it’s properly mad to hide behind a case of ammunition…

     Well, it’s not like the gerbils have (or could lift) anything* with which to shoot at them and/or the ammunition. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for them to be hiding in the first place, come to that. I’m guessing they just think it’s The Thing To Do.

     * Except the death ray, and given that it’s demonstrably capable of shooting through the roof of the underground lab, it pretty much makes what you’re using for cover irrelevant.

  21. The thing that scares me most about this strip is that I totally follow Mel’s dialogue, comprehending the meaning despite the completely inappropriate references.

    To be clear: I understand Mel.  That’s the sort of thought that’ll keep you awake at night… cackling madly.

  22. I was desperately trying to tape the entire TNT run of Babylon 5 for a very long time, IIRC. It didn’t help that a certain housemate of mine (and insane gerbil-to-be) watched part of a tape in progress and forgot to fast-forward it to the end before I taped more episodes.

    Which reminds me, Sarge, I rewatched and enjoyed the MST3K classic “I Accuse My Parents” the other night. Thanks again.  🙂

  23. Thursday’s Comic: What is beauty? I will tell you: it is a solid line of perfect white, clothed in shimmering rings, that reaches out across matter and distance, and snuffs the life of those that it touches, with absolute finality. Usually. And it is far above any comparison to Mell’s butt.

    Falling, incidentally, is my favourite method of unpowered locomotion. I guess I’m just foolishly romantic like that.

  24. Lots of Zelazny fans taking that poll — over 7% chose “Brachiating”!  Translation: climbing –the reference is to Doorways In The Sand, whose protagonist is a bit compulsive about it.  Amusing that falling seems so much more popular though — I guess folks are just lazy.  😉

  25. I think the idea of sexual attraction between Mell and Dave… even in the mere appreciation of one another’s finer points… simply does not enter their brains. Heck, it took this long for Mell to realize Dave had value beyond being a useful target.

  26. This may have been the first Narbonic strip that I read, or close to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the line about Babylon 5 hooked me, because I was a big fan.

  27. Technically, falling and its modified forms such as gliding or skiing
    are the only form of unpowered locomotion.  Most of the others are self powered.
    If we’re going to post in a mad science forum, lets do it in a precise manner :p

  28. Friday’s Comic: Death from on high! The road of mad science wanders ever deeper into God’s domain. And with black-on-white skeletons, too – the nightmare fuel of a generation. (Also, the cool nightmare fuel of a generation.)

    One may perhaps call into question the logistics of a ‘laser’ that evapourates living tissue but leaves walls and floors untouched. One could also argue that this incongruity fittingly augments the laser’s existing deific features.

  29. btw… as far as I know, brachiating=/=climbing.  Brachiating is swinging from branch to branch.  Slightly different beast. 

  30. FWIW, the Oxford English Dictionary (next to me) has no entry for “brachiate” as a form of locomotion. According to it, “brachiate” means “having arms” and is used chiefly in botany for bilateral branches.

    However, if it were used for locomotion, it would make sense that it means “moving by the arms” as in swinging from branch to branch.

  31. Actually, the above was written by David Tallan. I didn’t realize I was reading this signed in as Tara.

  32. Bah, nitpickers!  Seriously, I was being fairly casual about the definition — mostly because the Zelazny novel was the only place I remember seeing the word applied to humans.  (Google gets a handful of definitions and many articles on various apes and monkeys.)

  33. If we’re going for biology-minded TMBG songs, there’s also “Mammals,” off of (I think) Apollo 18.

  34. For moon songs, there’s “You Will Go to the Moon”, by Moxy Fruvous. It has the added cool factor of having been used to wake the US Astronauts one morning.

  35. Actually, there is also Brachiate ”v”., which is defined by the quotation ” Their [sc. apes’] ability to brachiate, that is to swing their way from branch to branch by their arms.” Still not climbing though; brachiation downward may be close enough to falling to count as unpowered, even for nitpickers.

  36. Dearest nerds,

    All ERB/Tarzan fans know that brachiating is swinging from branch to branch [my thanks to Melissa for first pointing this out].  Re:  OED – no one loves the OED more than myself, however, it has never kept up with American verb constructions [Who could?]

    Now, as regards Helen’s mother’s accent:  [I’ve been waiting for this.]  The key to her dulcet tones has been – AT LAST – presented to us by our gracious author/director.  The final piece to this great puzzle is her own admission to family roots in Allegheny County, PA.  Firstly [showing, YOU WILL NOTE, my zen-like discipline in not going into an historical rant on IRON CITY BEER], the great metropolis of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has its own Upper Ohio Valley patois.  In a bigish tri-state region, it demonstrates itself in such pronouciations as:  iggle for eagle and feesh for fish.  However, the purest version is encountered in Pittsburgh itself, spoken by the natives in, according to a native Pittsburgher friend of mine, about a one mile radius whose epicenter is the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers itself.

    This pure VALLEY {as in “I’m from da Valley.”} patois is frequently mistaken by outsiders as an East Coast accent, but it is not.  One can {or could, as he retired in 2005} hear it in the CLASSIC broadcasts of sports announcer/commentator Myron Cope {the MAN who invented the TERRIBLE TOWEL!}.

    Secondly:  It is obvious to me that Helen’s mother is from Pittsburgh — Nay — from the Golden Triangle itself.  This may be easily deduced from her ATTITUDE, TACTICS, FONDNESS FOR BOXED WINE, and MAD PROCLIVITIES.  One could suggest that for a true Pittsburgher Dago Red would be the wine of choice, but this argument ignores 1. the times we live in, and 2. Dr. Narbon’s subtle Upper Ohio Valley femininity.

    I speak as one who knows.


    1. brachiate v. (of certain apes) move by using the arms to swing from branch to branch: the gibbons brachiate energetically across their enclosure.

    From The New Oxford American Dictionary

    {O, the joy of once getting it right!} 


  37. And recalled from biology class, brachiation involves the rotation of the arm directly over the shoulder, without moving the upper arm out to the side.  This is a motion that all or most of the monkeys and most of the apes can do, but we can’t, having given up the ability to move our arms behind the midline of the body for greater rotation in other planes.

  38. And who can forget “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” (1965) by Jonathan King? (Not exactly scientific, I know, but it’s still a neat song…)

  39. I think the protagonist of TMBG’s ‘No One Knows My Plan’ is arguably a mad scientist, or some close variant.

  40. Of COURSE the floor is scorched.  You can’t see it under the dust.  Nevermind that the beam seems wider than the dust pile, that’s only because of fluorescing air molecules around the actual disintegration radius.

  41. The senior Dr. Narbon as a Pittsburgher… oh, my.

     As a native of the ‘burgh who is preparing myself to play the role of a Mad Scientist next week for a children’s affair at church… it’s not just inspirational, it’s downright eerie.  Shaenon, please say it’s so!


  42. Saturday’s Comic: Yoink.

    I love the fact that Mell’s eyebrow in panel 3 is actually curling all the way around. You should’ve pursued this logical continuation of your unique art style!

    Today is a good day to notice for the first time that Mell’s neck is unnaturally thin and elastic. Superhero Mell with Mr. Fantastic powers confirmed?

  43. Villain?  Mell?  Nawww … she’d be a hero that blows up villains.  Eliminate the competition, right?  Plus, after you get rid of bad guys, people cheer for you and give you stuff!  I can just imagine Mell smiling and shaking the President’s hand, while thinking *you poor gullible fool … heh heh heh*. 

    *SPOILER* Just remember what Mell will be like when she starts studying law, and how she interacts with her classmates. *END SPOILER*


  44. “Yoinks” goes back to the Scooby-Doo cartoons. I’m surprised there’s no mention of that on that page.

  45. Much-belated Big Freakin’ ™ Gun count:  I’m assuming this is still the same gun from last week so it doesn’t count.  Holding at 4.

  46. Given today’s technology, the last panel on Thursday’s comic looks like Dave is taking a picture of Mell’s butt with a cellphone.

  47. Wrongo! I grew up in southwestern PA and drank every cheap beer that came my way in my youth. Iron City was worst way before Coors Light was introduced in the dark days of the ’80s.

    Rule of thumb: Never drink Iron City unless it’s on draft, and you’re in Allegheny County, and you have a shot of Jim Beam first to numb your tongue. 😀

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