Smart Gerbils: January 1-6, 2001

With the new year, we segue into a new storyline, “Smart Gerbils.” I manage to squeeze an extra couple of days out of the aftermath of the Helen/Madblood non-date, though. Good work, me!

Around this time, I started shading in some stuff with clumsy gray fills on Photoshop. You can see it on the smoke in the first panel. I figured I’d eventually move towards doing more shading and effects on the computer, but I never really did. In the last couple of years of Narbonic, I swore off computer effects almost entirely and shaded everything by hand, which looked better anyway. Computer coloring looks fantastic when it’s done well and hideous when it’s done badly. I’ve generally done it badly.

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“Bug with a feature.” One of my all-time best lines, and I threw it away in the second panel. I. Am. So. Awesome.

Less awesome is the art here, which suffers from the need to fit five panels into the strip. I swear, I don’t know how Lynn Johnston does it. I like that I drew little sewer pipes into the cutaway view of the elevator shaft, but I really should have included some dinosaur fossils and pirate skeletons as well. Shame on me.

In the first panel, Dave is reading a book entitled Obsolete Scripts and the Men Who Love Them. You can just about make it out in the print version. I had a brief run on goofy computer-tech books for Dave.

The cashier at Circuit Continuum later got a job at the lost-and-found counter at the bus depot.

And the final member of the core cast makes his appearance. Strong language is very out of character for Artie, though. My early concept of Artie’s personality was substantially different from the way he turned out. I thought he’d be arrogant and abrasive toward humans, which he was. I just didn’t realize he’d also be…well, nice. So the Artie strips I wrote early on tend to be a little off-model. Over the years, I ended up ditching a lot of my early strips for precisely that reason: OOC Artie.

Wanting beer is, however, entirely in character for Artie. Wanting beer is in character for everyone in Narbonic.

In reality, behavioral scientists usually use simplified mazes with less room for chance to measure learning, rather than the classic labyrinth setup. But that wouldn’t be as much fun to draw.

Nice “Destroy All Monsters” shirt on Helen. Also note that she’s timing the run with her pocket watch, an accessory that makes rare but consistent appearances throughout Narbonic. I used to carry a pocket watch.

This might have been the first strip featuring Artie that I wrote. It was way back, anyway, probably while I was still in college. I had planned to include Artie as a regular character from early on, but I didn’t include him in a lot of the first storylines I wrote (which include both these early storylines and many later ones, like the time-travel story). Once I started drawing this storyline, however, Artie’s character fell together for me, and it became much easier to write strips around him. It just took a while.

Yes, Helen’s t-shirt reads, “GURPS: Borginine.” As far as I know, this concept started as an in-joke among fans of Steve Jackson Games’ Generic Universal Roleplaying System: a GURPS supplement allowing one to roleplay the many fabulous worlds of Ernest Borgnine. Mark Schumann, my roommate at the time this strip was drawn, went so far as to commission a mock GURPS: Borgnine cover from our coworker, Jason Thompson. I really wish I could share it with you, but as far as I know Jason never put it online. He did, however, make a giant four-foot reproduction of it that he kept at Viz for years, until the company moved to a new location and he was forced to take it back to his apartment.

So, yeah. That’s GURPS: Borgnine. Much, much later, I had some contact with Steve Jackson Games, and Jackson let me do a couple of card illustrations for Munchkin (a giant gerbil in Munchkin: The Need for Steed and Foot in Super Munchkin: The Narrow S Cape). That was way fun.

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I don’t think Helen really created Artie primarily to have someone to do her taxes. I think that’s just the excuse she gives. She really created Artie because it would be funny.

Today’s t-shirt: Bluntman & Chronic. Why not?

This one’s just silly. I only drew it to indulge my love for the Daniel Keyes novel Flowers for Algernon. And, of course, the short-lived stage musical adaptation, starring Michael Crawford as Charlie Gordon. If pressed, I will happily sing the “Charlie and Algernon” tap-dance number for any and all interested parties.

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Smart Gerbils: Next

44 thoughts on “Smart Gerbils: January 1-6, 2001

  1. This has historically been the strip I use to introduce people to Narbonic. (Usually followed by a whole lot more, but still.)

  2. Monday’s Comic: That full-body shot that is panel 1 ain’t too bad, either.

    Total occurences of the “I’m evil” catchphrase: 2.
    Total occurences of Shaenon congratulating her past self: 3.

  3. Obligatory response to panel 4:

    I’ve got it. We laser our way through.
    An excellent plan, with just two drawbacks: One, we don’t have a power source for the lasers, and two, we don’t have any lasers.
    Red Dwarf

  4. Tuesday’s Comic: Can I safely assume that Dave was perusing a webpage entitled “Mr. T Vs. Ellman?”

    Y’know, when I read the fourth panel, I suddenly had a terrible involuntary premonition that Dave’s fixed car came at the price of the Crystal of Last Story Arc, as Helen realised that she never really wanted it after all, as Madblood was what she actually desired. Of course, in reality Helen simply robbed Madblood blind, thus subverting the moral of the entire story. So, thank you for resisting the vacuum-like pull of Conventional Narrativium.

    Incidentally, what exactly was the origin of the “…and the women who love them” snowclone?

  5. Leon:  Yeah, we know that Helen keeps the Crystal for pretty near the entire run, since it’s the thing that’s powering the cellular destabilizer, which itself keeps on making cameo appearances throughout the strip.  Thank goodness.

  6. I think the phrase originated with the mid-’80s bestselling self-help book Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them.

  7. Restoring a 1967 Kombi to “like new” comic sparkle? Having dealt with a 1970 Type 2 chassis, all I can say is Madblood must have had a hellacious credit limit.

     Emphasis on the word had once Helen got through with it.

  8. Did you plan for Artie to be as  major character as he turned out to be, or was he originally only a bit player? 

  9. Heh. GIven the circumstances, I think it’s entirely appropriate for Artie to lapse once. Besides, he doesn’t find his humanist vocation for a bit yet, does he?


  10. Wednesday’s Comic: Another story arc means another Webcomic Time update, whether you like it or not.

    The previous story arc, “Professor Madblood and the Crystal of Marinia”, happened over five days – one for the TV interview, one where the ornidroids were wrecked, one where Helen ‘cases the joint’, the night of the duel, and the early morning car crash. So, let’s say Novembers 20-24. Let’s further assume from context that Dave’s car repair happened one day after that.
    Thus, today (by which I mean 3 Jan. 2001) marks the beginning of the temporally consecutive arc triptych, “Smart Gerbils/Dr. Narbon/Dave’s Dead, Dave”.

    Now for another issue of contention: early on in Narbonic: Director’s Cut I accused Helen of breaking character somewhat by abandoning interest in the Narbon family abomination, the ur-gerbils. Well, today marks another such turning point for our Helen, because Artie is the last gerbil-related heresy that Helen ever produces, up to the very end to the comic.

    Consider it: all of the subsequent smart gerbils were created by Artie, that Vincent woman predates the beginning of the comic, the ur-gerbils are the offspring of those from The Job Interview, the slime gerbils never even existed, and the gerbil ray, though built with good intentions, never worked in the first place. Unless my memory of various throwaway gags has betrayed me, Helen seems to be silently shedding one of her defining motifs.

    (But, I suppose it could be argued that Artie’s static presence sufficiently obviates Helen’s need for any more gerbil manifestations from Narbonics Labs…)

  11. This is one of my favorite gags in the strip, as the classic scientist’s attitude to her subject, suddenly upended by… the subject’s attitude. 

    “Success for who, lady?”   But then, Artie is enough of a success himself, to render further experiments irrelevant.  It’s not just that he’s smart…she’s created what turns out to be another mad genius!  OK, he’s not an evil mad genius, but hey, you can’t have everything.

    In light of the later revelation of the Tinasky experiment, one could argue that this is her lifework, and gerbils as such are just convenient raw material.  And note that this too is inherited from her mother!


  12. I’ve been told that chimps react roughly the same way to boring tests.

    Also, give Artie a break.  If he’s been listening to Dave for too long, he may not know any other words yet.  And he’s just learning to be nice to the humans!

  13. James Rice (jhrice) says: Did you plan for Artie to be as  major character as he turned out to be, or was he originally only a bit player? 

    I always intended to keep him on, yes.

  14. Helen still tests things on her gerbils – she tried the transmogifier on one, but it just turns it in to another, identical gerbil.

  15. Not even MAD science can avoid the Harvard Law of Animal behavior.

    “Under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases.”



  16. As an aspiring horologist, I’d like to beg you to carry your pocket watch again, Shaenon. They’re keen!  Get an antique one with a fusee, that’s a tiny little bicycle chain with links 0.03 mm wide! They’re super-keen. Ever since attending the last Narbincon, I’m getting more and more mad. It’s great! I quit my $22/hr phone company job (so yeah, I’m less evil) and now I wear a lab coat every day at watchmaking school!


  17. Thursday’s Comic: Now, Shaenon, there’s only so much nerd-celebrity namedropping that our delicate stomaches can withstand in such a short span of months before spirals start forming in our eyes and our heels are suddenly where our heads used to be.

    By the way, what on Earth would Helen want with subliminal mess- I mean, an orbiting spy satellite backslash death laser? (Apart from sending Foreshadowing Chills down your readers’ backs, that is. Poor, poor Dave.) And how did she get it into orbit in the first place? (Please let it have involved mad backyard bottle-rocketeering.)

    Fourth-wall dialogue: 9. (I lost track last time, saying ‘five or six’ instead of ‘seven or eight’ but now all is well.)

  18. And speaking of suggestions you won’t take seriously (I’m sorry, Julie, I’m afraid I can’t do that), may I suggest names for the gerbil? If a boy, I like:

    Ernest of Nine
    Li Mu Bai
    Arthur C. Gerbil
    T.S. Zarathustra

    And if a girl:

    Julie Hamilton, 5 Jan. 2001

  19. Heh. I once wrote a 1000+–word paean to base six – I’d forgotten Artie proposed it here. πŸ™‚

  20. I’ve seen the gerbil card (as I own a copy of the expansion in question) and it is indeed one of my faves. :3

  21. Since Dave hasn’t gone mad yet, this could be the strip’s first example of someone simply not seeing things that are too weird for them.

  22. Still trying to get the font right for the “Mad Steed Disease” curse card that causes your steed to – well, you know the illustration, anyway.

  23. Oh, you don’t have to be mad to not see the abnormal. Rather, not seeing things like Artie is a sign of being hyper-normal (aka DULL). Dave’s simply no longer fazed by gerbil-based weirdness by this point.

  24. For the uninitiated, I dedicated a recent strip to Marrissa Flores Picard,heroine of a series of infamous “Star Trek” fanfics written by one StephenRatliff. In the extensive Ratliffverse, Marrissa runs the Starfleet Kids’Crew, becomes heir to the throne of the planet Essex, wins a series of horseraces, wipes out Romulan fleets with chilling ease, all but destroys entirealien races, breaks diplomats’ legs, periodically dresses as Sailor Moon,and ultimately takes over Starfleet. Many hate and fear Marrissa, but Ihave a powerful fondness for the bloodthirsty teenage despot.

    I had to wait for a strip in which Helen was especially *evil* to run adedication to Marrissa, but it occurred to me long ago that the two havemuch in common:

    1. Both are female.
    2. Both are blondes.
    3. Both wear a lot of pink.
    4. Both are evil and heartless and ruthless and cruel (but cute!).
    5. Both have parents missing and presumed dead.
    6. Both have second-in-commands who happen to be engineering geniuses.
    7. Both are, like their authors, Roman Catholics (at least, I thinkHelen is Catholic, with the Italian surname and all. She doesn’t seemterribly devout, however, and, unlike Marrissa, has not yet been personallyadvised by the Pope).
    8. Both have been suspected of eating human flesh (check out AdamCadre’s brilliant but obviously disturbed “Dark Marrissa 1: The MasterBuilders” if you doubt me).
    9. Both have omnipotent teleporting stepbrothers who wind up marryingChelsea Clinton. Wait, that’s just Marrissa.

    Shaenon, 5 Jan. 2001

  25. Leon: They ceased when the strip first moved to MT; the MT architecture did not support them, IIRC.

  26. Yeah. There’s a workaround that would have allowed me to keep doing dedications, but it was kind of a pain, and by that time I was running out of ideas for dedications anyway. As Andrew can attest, I used to sit at the computer for about half an hour every night, racking my brains over the damn dedication.

  27. On the other hand, there is the story within the story embedded in the file names.

     As for Marrissa – I’d love to see a steel cage death match between the two of them.

  28. Marrissa would win, of course. She always does.

    Besides, knowing Marrissa, it’s likely to end up involving horse races and singing.  

  29. This isn’t a “just silly” comic, it’s brilliant! Not only does it have the crackin’ joke about the nicotine, but it shows another nerd-thang, that lots of smart programmer-type guys can’t spell worth diddly. Even when they’ve got their joneses satisfied.

  30. I was kind of surprised to learn that Adam Cadre, author of the brilliant text adventures Varicella and Photopia, was also the Eye of Argon MSTer. I cannot imagine anybody better qualified to do a Narbonic game. 

  31. Leon: highly belatedly, might I point out that Helen never *did* get her laser into orbit, because the whole thing was a test as part of the Tinasky study. The death ray was a melted mail sorting machine before Dave got his hands on it; presumably it hooked into an existing orbiting laser (probably owned by another mad scientist or mad government). Or, hell, if you want to be really scared, perhaps Dave’s mysterious power of unknowing mad science through repair actually *created* the orbiting laser.

  32. The way I figure it, they drove into the ditch because they were drunk, but telling Dave that would be embarrassing, so they claim they did it just for the evulz.

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