Professor Madblood and the Doppelganger Gambit: January 20-25, 2003

All the NASA acronyms Dave uses are real except for HDD, which, of course, stands for “Hostess Ding-Dong.” This is another of my favorite strips from this storyline, because I would totally do this. I wanted very badly to be an astronaut when I was a kid, in between wanting to be a writer and a psychiatrist.

I still hadn’t figured out how to draw Dave’s hair at this point, but I was getting better. Also, Helen’s right arm in the first panel is total fail. How does that even connect to her body? Drawing is hard.

Incidentally, I have absolutely no idea what Helen is building.

This is really just me messing with Dave’s head, of course. Helen is totally innocent.

Mostly innocent.

I wanted to be accurate about the fact that there are two Van Allen belts around the Earth. This is the kind of thing I worry about.

Helen looks very cute with a power drill. Again, I have no friggin’ idea what she’s building.

This is another case where Dave is standing in for me, albeit in his computery, non-poetry-composing way. I wanted to have at least one strip where the characters could pause and note that going to the moon is super freaking awesome.

When Dave went into space at the beginning of the week, I made him shave off his mustache and go back to just the chin scruff. There’s no special significance to the change; I just decided I didn’t like the mustache. The combination of shaggy hair and chin scruff is my favorite look for Dave, and I continued to draw him this way for the rest of the strip. I’m still drawing his hair too flat here, but eventually I got the hang of it.

Also, I think he looks cute with his flannel off.

This strip is, of course, based on the famous tearjerking sci-fi story “The Cold Equations,” by Tom Godwin. In the original story, an astronaut is forced to throw a teenage stowaway out of an airlock in order to save his ship and its medical cargo. A while back I read a feminist essay which posited that “The Cold Equations” represents the 1950s sci-fi attitude in a nutshell: a square-jawed scientist killing a sexy girl with math.

Anyway, the story bugged me from the time I first read it as a teenager, so sooner or later I had to do a version where the girl throws the astronaut out the airlock.

Dave’s leg is too long in the last panel because I couldn’t figure out where to draw in his foot. I actually fiddled with it for a long time when I penciled it, but it came out looking wonky anyway. Oh well.

I’m sorry, this one still cracks me up. Sometimes I’m awesome. In fact, I’m awesome throughout most of this lengthy storyline. Good work, me!

Helen finds a surprising number of ways to keep busy while Dave and Mell are off in space. Earlier this week she was building a… thing, and now she’s playing Scrabble. More on that tomorrow.

This strip came out of a bit in Jeffrey Wells’ very long fanfic about how Helen always wins at Scrabble because she knows all kinds of multi-syllabic medical terminology. Even in the days before Skin Horse, I was stealing all of Jeffrey’s good ideas.

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73 thoughts on “Professor Madblood and the Doppelganger Gambit: January 20-25, 2003

  1. (TUNE: “Signal In The Sky”, The Apples In Stereo)

    (Flying tech nerd, tech nerd flying,
    Flying tech nerd, tech nerd flying …)

    Hey Dave, hey Dave, say, can you hear me?
    Hey Dave, hey Dave, I read you clearly!
    It was a perfect launch!  It went off with a bang!
    And now you’re having lunch of Ding-Dongs and some Tang!

    A nerd in outer space!
    He’s gonna capture the lunar base!
    A nerd in outer spaaa-a-a-a-ace!

    Hey Dave!  I hope you have a pleasant ride …
    Hey Dave!  And don’t forget your hat outside …

    (Flying tech nerd, tech nerd flying,
    Flying tech nerd, tech nerd flying …)

  2. Also, Helen’s right arm in the first panel is total fail. How does that even connect to her body?

    With science.  Duh.

  3. Of course, as Helen is mad, it’s quite possible that she has no idea what she’s building herself.

    • Your comment makes me want to go watch Bubblegum Crisis once more…

      Hot babes + high-tech power armor + berserk robots + cool soundtrack = awesome 80s cyberpunk anime.

  4. @soitbegins: You cannot go wrong with a corset.  Helen has a power drill, lacy underthings, and mad science.  She can go wrong with a corset.

  5. (TUNE: Theme from “Blazing Saddles”, John Morris & Mel Brooks)

    She wore a lacy corset!
    She had a power drill!
    And soon, without remorse, it
    Would give her time to KILL!
    She looked demure so that she could lure
    “Wolf” Madblood into her pow’r!
    What’s more, that lacy corset
    Makes Dave … need … a … cold … shower!

  6. Tuesday:

    I don’t know how I feel now that as of yesterday you’ve gone back to not delineating between Dave’s skin and beard, in the style of pre-Island Dave… and yet preserved his intricately rendered lack-of-haircut. It’s like elements of the past and the future combined into something not quite as consistent as either.

    This is actually a somewhat underplayed punchline – the reader might construe it as simply the jarring disconnect between the tasks of flying oneself to the moon vs. finding the most enticing of one’s underthings.

  7. @Paul: Dammit, that’s what I was gonna say! Curse your ability to read Narbonic and think of witty comments earlier in the morning than I! Curse it, I say!

  8. You gotta be careful with those Van Allen belts.  One wrong move and they’ll just burst right into flames, and the next thing you know, you’re on a voyage to the bottom of the sea.

     (Richard Basehart!  Richard Basehart!)

  9. Wednesday:

    Aaaaaugh!! The bareshouldered monster lives!

    I’m surprised that Dave hasn’t decided to recite a more oft-quoted reflection on exactly the same conundrum (“Some celestial event. No – no words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should have sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful… I had no idea.”) – but then again, an experience as significant as this deserves only one’s own words and thoughts, even though we all can’t help but tend toward the same reaction.

  10. (TUNE: “When You Wish Upon A Star”, Ned Washington and Leigh Harline)

    When you fly above the Earth,
    Makes you wonder what you’re worth …
    Far apart, you feel your heart
    With awe consumed …

    Then, just like a nightmare dream …
    In space no one hears you scream!
    Here comes Mell!  Oh, bloody hell!
    I think I’m doomed!

  11. Oh, Dave. Haven’t you learned not to wish for anything yet, especially when talking out loud?

  12. “Hello?  Is this thing on?”

     Is Dave talking into a recorder?  The black box?  Broadcasting on open frequency?  On the line to Helen he forgot to switch off?

  13. Fate is cruel

    She brings to those who hope

    the knowlege they’re a dope

    and don’t deserve more.


    (The song has  a bridge)

  14. Like a bolt out of the blueMell jumps out and shoots at youOut of luck, you’d better duckShe’s af…ter…youuuu

  15. Hmmm, has anyone read the logs of Willaim Beebe and his bathysphere, from back in the 1930s? Unlike Dave he had the words to describe what he saw, and how it moved him.

    Willaim Beebe is, like Tesla, a man for Mad Science to live up to. 🙂

    The Auld Grump, trying, and failing, to find an example of his descriptions online. 

  16. The Cold Equations <i>bugs</i> me. Who the hell builds a deep space vessel that operates on safety margins <i>that razor thin</i>, and why do they not take basic OSHA precautions against stowaways?

     Nevermind that while the air thing might be reasonable, the mass part is total B.S. There’s no way the mass of one small human being could kill the trajectory of any vessel big enough for her to stow away from in the first place, and there’s no way it doesn’t have enough non-essential fixtures (even essential fixtures for doing things other than making the next planetfall) that they could be jettisoned to make up for her mass.

  17. Can’t quite see “Cold Equations” as being about “killing a sexy girl”, since (as I recall) she’s about twelve.  Cute, yes; but not sexy.

    And yes, lots of people have rebutted it over the years.  Godwin went over the top to make his point.  It’s still the Hell of a story.  And the basic messages, that the universe doesn’t care how nice you and your intentions are, and that stupidity is as dangerous as evil, are stiill valid messages.

    All that said, Dave should have known better than to try that on Mell!


  18. I read in a reprint volume of Godwin’s work, that he originally had a different ending. The two tossed out anything not 100% essential, and both walked out on the planet-alive, smiling with triump, and in not much more than their skivvies! (And the girl was a teenager, not 12, I believe.) But the editor at the time nixed it, and insisted on the harsher ending. An obscure Tom Godwin story was the first scifi novel I read, waaay back when.

    And I love this strip! 

  19. Googling “The Cold Equations,” I came across this essay, which argues pretty convincingly that the real howler in the story isn’t the absurdly thin margin of error (although seriously, they couldn’t jettison a chair or something?); it’s the complete lack of security on the space fleet. The story indicates they have problems with stowaways on a regular basis, which they deal with not by putting up gates or guards, but by giving the pilots guns so they can kill the stowaways and throw them into space. Future people are assholes.

    Carl: The story gives the girl’s age as 18. She talks like a not very bright twelve-year-old, but that’s not too uncommon with female characters in pulp sci-fi, alas.

    • You wouldn’t happen to know where we can find a copy of Ballad of Lost C’Mell (preferably Kindle or pdf if possible) by any chance, would you? I’d love to read it, but it seems impossible to find a copy anywhere that I have access to.

      • Really late reply, but you can probably find a Cordwainer Smith collection or two with it. It’s in The Rediscovery of Man collection, possibly called The Instrumentality of Man – the collection naming is a bit of a mess, unfortunately.

  20. Thursday:

    This is a really quite well-delivered strip, as well as the silliest thing that has ever happened to Dave outside of Helen’s influence – being sucked out of his own spaceship by a vortex of Cartoonish Mell Logic. Frankly, I almost wish it resulted in chaos and upset for the whole remainder of the storyline, rendering the past few weeks moot.

  21. (TUNE: “In The Arms Of An Angel”, Sarah MacLachlan)

    Dave is thrown out the airlock,
    Into empty space …
    See poor Mell standing sadly
    With a tragic look on her face …
    Oh, those damned cold equations
    Means they’re out of luck …
    As he’s thrown out the airlock,
    Dave’s last tho-ought is,
    “Hard vacuum sucks!”

  22. The mass of one astronaut, plus food, air and water for them is not negligible.  The weight of the extra fuel required to launch and land this weight is also not negligible.  Designing a ship that carries enough for an extra is a significant increase in overhead and a related decrease in payload.  And what if there are two stowaways, or three.

    As near as I can tell, for a shuttle launch, each astronaut is 500lbs or ~1% of the payload, with all supplies.  A rough estimate of fuel use for a shuttle launch is 6 lbs of fuel for every pound lifted to orbit.  Thus each astronaut at lift requires ~1.5 tons of weight at launch.  If this is an increase over the expected payload, then you also need extra fuel to lift this fuel, so it’s not linear.  


    Admittedly, in this story, with anti-gravity, I’m not sure why you’d design that tight, but the basics of “The Cold Equations” do have some very logical origins. 

  23. Shaenon: “Future people are assholes.”

     The Cold Equations was published in 1954.  We are those future people.

    And yes, quite right you are.

  24. Honestly, it seems like the occasional Public Service Announcement in the spaceport lobby would be a hell of a lot more effective then a couple underpaid mooks with zap blasters.  People can get around security, but if they just understood ahead of time that Stowaways Will Die and Likely Get Others Killed, it might just keep ’em out.


    Unless they just refused to publicise the whole ‘shoot the kid’ policy for fear of public backlash…maybe future people are assholes. 

  25. So I did some googling about “The Cold Equations” and found references to “The Cold Solution.”  There is a way around the problem, however, we just hope that everyone isn’t too attached to their limbs.

  26. We’re way better than those 1950s future assholes! When Apollo 13 broke down, did we start chucking astronauts out the airlock? No, we got Gary Sinise on the line and fixed that thing!

  27. I note that pretty much all of the debunkers and solvers of The Cold Equations fix on the mass problem; not the oxygen problem.  That’s true for most of the comments here; the solution in (I think) next week’s strips, and the cut-off-the-limbs story.  (As I recall, the pilot in that one is a woman; presumably that’s why she’s wiser and more empathic than the one in Godwin’s story.  I don’t remember whether or not she’s a Latina, though.)  It doesn’t seem unlikely that there’s stuff that can be safely jettisoned; but “Just saying No” to breathing is a bit harder! 

    And I stand corrected re the age of the girl in the story.  I still maintain that she wasn’t presented as “sexy”, however.  Just as being cute, innocent and likable.  I don’t think that was due to misogyny.  Rather I suspect that Godwin (like many other horror writers) was relying on the fact that many people find horrible things happening to a cute, innocent, attractive and likable girl more distressing than if they happen to an ugly old man.  (Think Neda.)  Sure; this is still sexism, but it’s the sort of sexism that opens doors or gives up bus seats; not the sort that pinches asses and whistles.  Remember’ this was the 1950s.  Today, of course, we’re more enlightened, and realize that violence against men is just as reprehensible as violence against women, and that young women are no more innocent than young men.  (Consider Dave and Mell!)  So we reject that formulation.  (Unless we’re the sort of person who gets a kick out of seeing a nut with a chainsaw dismembering naked co-eds, of course!)

  28. But oxygen is exactly the sort of thing a good spaceship design would make allowances for! We don’t need THAT much; according to NASA, about .8 kg/day. If the mission takes a year, that’s a problem. Otherwise, it makes sense that allowances would be made.

  29. I’ve never read the original “Cold Equations” short story, just seen the 1980s Twilight Zone version… which I loved.  Judging from what folks are saying here about the short story, it sounds like the screenplay and casting for the TZ version emphasized the story’s virtues, while minimizing its problems.

    As I recall, the girl came across as intelligent, if understandably impulsive and idealistic given her youth, and the pilot wasn’t some square-jawed captain but just an ordinary schlub of a trucker.  I don’t recall anything in that version about stowaways being a regular problem, or the captain having a gun… it was quite simply a company policy for stowaways to be ejected, period.  Both actors were utterly likeable, and I found the story to be heartbreaking.

  30. And looking it up, I see the adaptation was done by the wonderful Alan Brennert, who wrote some of my favorite 80s TZs (“Her Pilgrim Soul,” “A Message From Charity”), as well as a spooky-ass Batman comic story where Batman, transported to Earth-2 – where the original, 1940s Batman had already died – confronted his own mortality.

  31. Friday:

    In the extremely unlikely future event that all of this webcomic’s hard copies and image files are destroyed by the rigors of time, leaving only these Director’s Cut texts and comments as clues to what these comics once contained, let me just say this to posterity: you guys ought to be sooo mad that you’ve missed out on this episode.

    (The marvellous thing about this strip is that it seems like it’s playing a fairly standard “Sound in Space” subverted-trope punch-line, until you get to the end of the speech balloon and instantly realise that Helen’s entire reaction is completely ludicrous.)

  32. It occurs to me now that the “Cold Equations” plot gains much of its superficial plausibility from the treatment of stowaways in a much older situation — long-haul sailing ships, and especially privateers/pirates. There, of course, the primary issue was food/water….

  33. (TUNE: “Eight Days A Week”, The Beatles)

    Dave in space is fallin’,
    Scared and all alone!
    Now for help he’s callin’
    On his mobile phone!
    Pleadin’ … yellin’ …
    Needin’ … Helen …
    Helen says, “Call back, Dave!”
    Needs air to speak!

  34. Wouldn’t the fact that they’ve already launched with an extra person’s mass and thus used up the fuel for landing mean they’re screwed no matter what they do?

  35. Leon, Dave could hear the phone by pressing it directly against his skull and having the vibratios from the speaker go through the plastic of the phone into his skull, where the vibrations would rattle the membrane of the ear and send the sound to him.  


    Ok, unlikely, but it’s an explanation.

  36. @Flipkat:  Most of the Cold Equasions stuff goes out the window when you’ve got an anti-gravity device.  Besides, remember Middleman, when Wendy flys the company Harrier to the Dread Itzilichlitlichlitzl?

    Wendy: “I have a pyramid of Itzilichlitlichlitzl in my sights but I don’t see a landing strip anywhere.”

    Ida: “That’s no problem.  You’ll just have to bail in the upper atmosphere, parachute onto the top of the pyramid and find your own way in.”

    Wendy: “Bail? Parachute?  How am I gonna get back?”

    Ida: “You’ll either be dead…or you’ll rescue the Middleman and Sensei Ping, kill all the wrestlers in your way and jack whatever plane they used to get here.  What, you never watched a Bond flick?”


    The plan is sheer elegence in it’s simplicy. 

  37. In defense of ‘The Cold Equations,’ I want to point out that the story was transgressive.  Goodwin pulled hte trigger and killed the spunky kid.  That sort of thing did not happen in ‘escapist’ literature.  SO when it did in CE, it was a blow.   

  38. Corey: Brennert was also one of the minds behind the final, critically acclaimed season of Star Trek: Enterprise. But his best Batman story is the one from Detective #500 c. 1982, when Bruce and Dick went to a previously unvisited Earth where Bruce was still eight and his parents weren’t dead yet.

  39. Monday:

    Frankly, the idea that Mell would do something so suicidal and/or personally inconvenient as stow aboard a spaceship is one that not even Artie would so quickly deduce.

    Silent Penultimate Panels: 16. This storyline seems almost to be a SPP boom time.

  40. (TUNE: “The Age Of Aquarius”, The Fifth Dimension)

    When you’re body’s losing muscle mass,
    Although you take in calories,
    When you feel fatigue and weariness,
    And lean … muscle atrophies,

    You’re said to suffer a
    Complaint called cachexia,
    Complaint called cachexia …
    Cachexia … cachexia!

    It’s a quite severe condition!
    Dif-fer-ent from malnutrition!
    Eating more is not the answer;
    It could be a sign of cancer,
    Metabolic acidosis,
    Or perhaps tuberculo-o-sis
    Cachexia …

  41. OK, that’s one of the very few of the daily filks that’s gotten a laugh out of me.  *L*  (mostly I don’t read them but I wanted to know what the word meant too.)

  42. Gotta wonder how long Dave’s been conducting EVA without benefit of a pressure suit at this point. Artie kind of implies that it’s been a while.

  43. There’s basically a cottage industry of responses to “the Cold Equation” with how many takes it’s spawned. I do recall at least one variant where the astronaut takes the walk instead of his stowaway.

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