Smart Gerbils: January 15-20, 2001

Man, it’s good to have Artie in the cast, even if I wasn’t very good at writing him yet. This was one of the earliest Artie strips I wrote, if I remember correctly.

Artie’s size changes constantly. He’s way too big in most of these strips. Of course, it’s hard to keep a gerbil visible.

Artie’s line in the last panel is from Sirius, a great Olaf Stapledon novel about a dog with human intelligence. Stapledon is best known for his sprawling sci-fi epic Last and First Men, but his Sirius and Odd John are interesting studies of imagined nonhuman and superhuman intelligences. I read them as background while developing Artie’s character.

Dave’s book in the first panel: Getting To Know Your Orbiting Laser.

After all this time, I’m still only 99% happy with Artie’s name. It doesn’t quite fit him–it’s too cute and casual–but maybe he’s better off with a name that doesn’t take him too seriously. And it’s so rich a referent that I couldn’t resist. It can be read as short for “artificial,” or as a pun on his serial number, like Asimov’s robots. Ooo! Also, I had a pet mouse named Artie when I was a teenager. He was named after Art Spiegelman. I also owned mice named Algernon and Maurice. I was kind of a weird kid.

You don’t need to be superintelligent to correctly guess that 5478 is my birthdate. Dumb, yes, but at least I’d never forget it.

Artie hates his name, of course. This is not the last time this will come up.

I’m so ashamed. Gerbils are actually among the very few diurnal rodents. Please, look away, I’m not fit for human company.

Also, as frequently happens in my comics, the background is sliding slowly but inexorably to the right.

Nice font in the last panel, though. And a spit take! How often do I get to do a spit take?

Later, of course, Artie would become an avowed pacifist. What can I say; he’s stil in flux at this point.

I don’t have much else to say about today’s strip, except that I like Artie’s expansive little pose in the second panel. And I have no idea what he’s perched on. And that’s one crazy multitool Dave’s got in panel one.

Oh, you will, Dave. Sooner than you think.

Ellmann’s Own soda again. Dave’s book, in both the first and last panel, is entitled Martha Stewart’s Gracious Custom Platforms. Helen’s shirt bears a not very good likeness of Pogo.

The asterisk over the head is one of my favorite comic-strip conventions, to be used many, many times over the course of Narbonic.

For more silent penultimate panels (although this one kind of breaks the rules by appearing second rather than third), please enjoy The Silent Penultimate Panel Watch!

37 thoughts on “Smart Gerbils: January 15-20, 2001

  1. He doesn’t quite “sound” like Artie yet.  I think that happens about the same time that Dr. Narbon arrives.   Still, he is probably the funnest character in the strip, so it’s great for him to finally arrive.


  2. Oddly, the only Stapledon I’ve read is Starmaker which deals more or less with God, I suppose. I think I have Last Men in London in my giant pile of books picked up whereever and to read eventually.

    The creation abused by its creator goes back at least to Shelley and probably to creation stories; one wonders how Artie managed to end up actually a relatively sane and functional person. I blame Dave.

  3. 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.
    Shaenon, 7 June 2007.

    I hereby take back one of the things I’ve said about you being inconsistent.

  4. Tuesday’s Comic: What exactly is Mell holding in the second panel?

    Viewers at home: if you are a non-human and are currently struggling with the not-entirely-pleasant side-effects of human intelligence, please consult Wikipedia, the bastion of all existentialist information.

  5. Man has an Oversoul

    But not the Mole

    What the Mole has isn’t clear

    But it’s and Undersoul I fear. 


    Stapledon and Cordwainer Smith you are a pure SF nerd indeed.



  6. Looks to me like Mell is holding some kind of binder or notebook. I guess she is in college right now, after all.

  7. Interestingly, today’s is on the topic of domesticated hamsters, a phenomenon less than a century old for the golden hamster. And a SERIOUS generic bottleneck. All golden hamsters raised as pets (or made superintelligent in Narbonic Labs) today descend from half of a single litter.

  8. All golden hamsters raised as pets (or made superintelligent in Narbonic Labs) today descend from half of a single litter.

    And there are, as far as anyone can tell, no more in the wild! That one litter was all anyone ever found. The main reason we have so many golden hamsters in captivity today, incidentally, is that they were initially sold as lab animals, and the descendants of that single litter were bred like crazy to meet demand.

  9. You don’t need to be superintelligent to correctly guess that 5478 is my birthdate…

    But, it doesn’t rule it out either, right?  



  10. Wednesday’s Comic: But what has yet to be explained is what the ‘RT’ stands for. Think fast, cartoonist!

    Personally, I’d have been quite amused if you really had chosen “Thomas Stearns Zarathustra.” For awhile, at least.

  11. Maurice, as in “His Educated Rodents”?

    Heh…no, this was a long time before the Terry Pratchett book. Maurice (I think there were a couple Maurices; mice tend not to last long) was named after Maurice LaMarche, who did the voice of the Brain on Animaniacs.

  12. RTficial? That’s what I thought at the time. I assumed Helen was making a cutesy pun.

    Other possibilities:

    Rodent Transgenic? No, too forced.  She’d use GT. Unless she was playing for the Artie pun from the start…

    Replica Tube? Slightly more plausible, especially if 5478 doesn’t actually mean 5,478.

  13. I just love the crestfallen look on Mells face just before Helen springs Arties name on her.

  14. “He was named after Art Spiegelman. I also owned mice named Algernon and Maurice. I was kind of a weird kid.”

    Maurice …was named after Maurice LaMarche”

     I don’t believe you can get a higher nerd score with three mouse names that that.





  15. Thursday’s Comic: A fitting return for Evil Coffee. And tell me: which of us would not enjoy immersing their entire head in toasty black coffee on a cold, unspeakably early morning?

    Plot hole: the coffee that Artie is being baptised in is actually decaf! (Okay, not really.)

    How exactly does one enunciate the curly font? (A mystery that has thwarted many a Sluggy reader throughout the ages.)

  16. Well, there IS that coffee that comes from rodent-excreted beans…I expect there’s a similarity in gerbil-steeped coffee.

  17. Also, Artie really IS diurnal…he just fakes being nocturnal to get people to dip him in coffee. It’s one of his early powertripping ploys.

  18. I tried to envision a pronunciation for the font. It sounded in my head like a cartoon character seeing stars and Tweety birds, or maybe <a href=””>Rumble Red</a>.

  19. The background is sliding over because Mell’s leaning on it. See her doing it in panel 2? She might need to lose some weight.

    (ducking from impending shooty death) In weapons! All those guns she carries must weigh a ton!

  20. Actually, most species of gerbil are nocturnal.  (See for confirmation.)


    Further research confirms that Meriones unguiculatus (the species of gerbil popular as pets) is indeed one of the nocturnal species. (See for a study that confirmed that they are indeed nocturnal.)


    Wikipedia seems to be the only place claiming otherwise – and they aren’t an authoritative source. 

  21. I fell asleep and I dreamed that I received a phone call. It turns out that they wanted me to audition as the voice of Artie for the hour-long, animated network special. They put me on hold, and all of the usual dream-anxities occured (I started getting choked up, my voice felt weak) so I let my friend who loves Narbonic more than I do (who only existed in the dream) audition for and win the part. We talked to Shaenon on the phone afterwards about what the special was going to be like (it was going to have a ’70s Tom and Jerry vibe, for some reason).

  22. Friday’s Comic: Perchance that multitool is another manifestation of Dave’s hidden abilities?

    Little known fact: the Narboniverse is one of the few non-video game universes to also contain Buzzy Beetles. When you work in a refurbished sewer system, you can’t expect these guys to not pop up every now and again.

  23. I assumed it was a light that would flash red while sirens blared in the event of a doomsday machine explosion.

  24. Saturday’s strip:  Helen’s shirt bears a not very good likeness of Pogo.
    What do you mean it’s not very good?  It’s just about perfect given the size and contours you had to work with.  I remember reading the original Pogo comicstrip in the newspapers when I was a kid.  The first time I saw this strip, I instantly recognized Pogo on Helen’s shirt, and had a cool Pogo flashback moment .   For that, I want to thank you.

    By the way, my very first piece of Narbonic fan art, “Gerbil Intelligence” was based on the drawing of Artie in the second panel of this strip.



  25. Saturday’s Comic: My only complaint wih the asterisk convention is that in some cases it just isn’t powerful enough to denote an immense and incredible realisation. But more on that as it comes.

    Previous Silent Penultimate Panels: 1, 2, 3.

    (Not included: 1, 2,. The essence of the SPP is that no activity higher than advanced cognition is taking place.)

  26. Saturday’s strip:  Another favorite…  but I’d call those two middle panels a split panel, where Artie goes from dumbfoundment to a seriously distracted exit.  (He tells Dave to “hold that thought”?)


  27. “… but I’ll probably die of it someday.”  In fact, tracing the causal links, that little remark actually got Dave killed twice.  Time travel can be truly mind-bending …

  28. Y’know, I had REALLY thought that “Artie” was part refrence to a sequel of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. There was a character named Arthur called Artie, written R-T (assuming, of course, I remember correctly)…strangely enough, the same names Artie goes by over the course of Narbonic, in reverse order.

  29. I love the Olaf Stapledon line, it’s exactly how I’ve felt about trying to work with computers in the last 30 years! 🙂

    The details are not nearly so much fun as that one line, sadly. Initially, I didn’t communicate enough with other people doing what I was trying to do. When I did start communicating, I was already brain damaged by the whirlpool of hubris surrounding Linux. Red Hat’s need to ‘encourage’ people to buy their support contracts had affected me almost as badly as all the morons who couldn’t do anything simply to save their lives, and I didn’t even realise it for years. Anyway, the effect of all that was to make me feel like an alien in a world where I was sure I had intelligence, but was terribly frustrated at not being able to get anywhere most of the time. I absolutely have to read Sirius now!

  30. Listening to a Podcast about “Last and First Man” and they mention Sirius! Actually I’m here because I wasn’t sure it was the same book that help inspire Artie (I know it had to be, but still).
    They’re not overly impressed by Stapledon

  31. You know, the fact that Artie’s personality doesn’t match his later beliefs doesn’t really require a plot hole to explain.

    He’s just young. Give him more than a couple days, he’ll figure himself out :p.

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