Smart Gerbils: January 29 – February 3, 2001

And once again I make a point of drawing all thirteen gerbils into a single panel. Man, I love drawing gerbils.

Many people have noted that Artie and the other gerbils have little hands, which is not really anatomically correct (as if these are otherwise accurate depictions of gerbils). Rodents do have little clawlike pseudo-hands, but of course they don’t have fingers and opposable thumbs like I’ve drawn on Artie in the last panel. I tried to avoid that type of thing, but sometimes thumbless paw-hands just look wrong.

I feel like Artie’s character is coming together in these strips. He’s found his place in the universe: impotently struggling against the massed forces of stupid, cheerful, wanton destruction. He will not advance any further in his lonely battle for the next six years, but eventually he’ll gain the ability to pick people up and shake them around while shouting something they’re not going to pay any attention to.

Oh, and starting this week, I thought I’d make a list of my favorite mad-science music. Over the years, I’ve amassed a long Narbonic playlist on iTunes (although it pales beside my Smithson playlist). A lot of the songs came from the mix CDs that the Narbonicon organizers made every year (Narbonicon=awesome). Others came from discussions on the message board, or emails, or just things I stumbled upon myself. Anyway, I’ve got a ton of Narbonic-related songs now, and here are a few…

1. “Some Fantastic,” by the Barenaked Ladies

One day I will work with animals
All the tests I’m gonna do
All my stuff’s completely natural
And when we’re done we’ll boil ’em down for glue
that we can use to re-adhere
your lips to mine if you were here
There’s a lot I will never do
Some fantastic, I know it’s true
But none as much as my want to be with you

At some point this became the unofficial Narbonic theme song in my head. It’s got exactly the right blend of wistfulness and evil. And the Barenaked Ladies are just about nerdy enough to produce a Narbonic theme song. It’s on the same album as their one really popular song, “One Week,” but hardly anyone seems to know it. Go figure.

Yes, the stencil in the first panel reads DEEP FREEZE: CONTAINS HAMSTERS. Back when I was taking bio courses in college, I stumbled upon a freezer full of frozen rats in the biology building, and it made a deep impression on me. I still kind of wish I’d become a biologist instead of punking out and switching to an English major, because it seems like it’d be great to just have dozens of frozen rats on hand whenever you need them. Sigh.

The strategy depicted here never, ever stops working on Artie. Years and years later, he gets much the same thing from a bunch of (non-frozen) hamsters and falls for it again. Poor dumb well-meaning little guy.

Okay, back to my list of Narbonic music:

2. “The Future Soon,” by Jonathan Coulton

‘Cause it’s gonna be the future soon
And I won’t always be this way
When the things that make me weak and strange get engineered away
It’s gonna be the future soon
I’ve never seen it quite so clear
And when my heart is breaking I can close my eyes and it’s already here

It feels like I spent most of the latter half of 2006 fielding emails from well-meaning people desperate to let me know about this Jonathan Coulton fellow and his song “Skullcrusher Mountain,” about an evil mad scientist on a mountain covered in wolves. The only thing that kept me going was the fantasy that somewhere, Jonathan Coulton was deluged in emails about Narbonic. If only…

As it happened, I was already familiar with “Skullcrusher Mountain,” which had been included in one of the Narbonicon CDs (thank you, Narbonicon people!). But I think “The Future Soon,” in which a kid fantasizes about growing up to take revenge on the world from his space lab in space, actually hews closer to the Narbonic spirit. For me, that chorus always conjures a mental image of some futuristic missile bearing down on the characters in the style of the Eames “Powers of Ten” filmstrip (okay, sometimes my mind makes weird associations), which inspired me to draw this cover image for Comixpedia.

I worked a “Skullcrusher Mountain” reference into the final Narbonic strip, but I don’t know if anyone noticed.

Lotta reeeeal bad lettering here. Sorry about that.

I like it when Dave gets so keyed up about some nerdy engineering thing that he forgets that he’s building a horrifying engine of death, or whatever awful device Helen has him working on in a given week. It’s his continual undoing, at least until he finally gives in to the Dark Side and lets his enthusiasm for perverting Science override everything else. You’ve got to love the way he’s bouncing up and down in the first panel.

If I were doing this storyline later in the strip, I probably would have come up with some amusing acronym for Artie’s gerbil-rights organization. Oh well.

On to the Narbonic music list:

3. “Frankenstein,” by Aimee Mann

And when later we find that the thing we devised
Has the villagers clamouring for its demise
We will have to admit the futility of
Trying to make something more of this jerry-built love
And you’ll notice it bears a resemblance to
Everything I imagined I wanted from you

At some point I went to the iTunes store and bought all the songs with “Frankenstein” in the title. I like this one the best, even more than “Frankenstein” by the New York Dolls. Such a great mad-science love song! Also, the lyrics, “I won’t find it fantastic or think it absurd/When the gun in the first act goes off in the third,” meant a lot to me in the last two years of Narbonic, when all my little Rube Goldbergian setups started playing out, for better or for worse.

The name of the refrigerator comes from two of my college friends: Jaye, whose online handle was “Kali,” and Kate, who was “Aiglet.” You know, those things that hold the tips of shoelaces together.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a mad-science story if someone doesn’t say, “I am your creator! You must obey me!” Ideally, it should be inserted into casual conversation at every opportunity.

CRUCIAL FORESHADOWING: Helen is getting a cat.

Okay, song of the day:

4. “Fake Palindromes,” by Andrew Bird

And she says I like long walks and sci-fi movies
You’re six foot tall and East Coast bred
Some lonely night we can get together
And I’m gonna tie your wrists with leather
And drill a tiny hole into your head

Arrgh…I love this song so much. It was on a CD that came with a comic book that neither Andrew nor I could remember purchasing, not usually a good sign. But this comic was the last issue of the HellCar art/music zine, and the CD was actually pretty good. I make it a rule to listen to any CD I can get for a dollar or less. Sure, I endure a lot of pain that way, but sometimes I find awesome songs like this. Other excellent songs from cheap CDs: Sophia Loren singing “Donne-Moi Ma Chance” on a mix CD that turned up in the lost-and-found pile when everyone at Viz was packing up to move to the new location; “Are You Gonna Be There (At the Love-In)” by the Chocolate Watchband on an album called “Garage Band Classics”; and the entire album The Celery Stalks at Night by the Kirby Grips, still by far my greatest dollar CD purchase.

What was I talking about? Oh, yeah. This Andrew Bird song. It’s a good Narbonic theme song for the later years, when the leads have hooked up and things are getting a little darker. And there’s kinky mad-science sex.

This strip introduces what is, by far, the most popular character in the entire run of Narbonic. If you would like to purchase original strips featuring Sir Pounce, I’m sorry, you cannot, because they are all long gone. I should have dropped the entire mad-science angle and just done kitten strips.

Sir Pounce was modeled after Sir Gawain de Pounce, a kitten acquired by my friend Cory-Ellen. He is still alive and well and has grown into a handsome cat, unlike his cartoon counterpart, who is not long for this world. Actually, the main reason I don’t have any original strips featuring Sir Pounce is that I gave a bunch of them to Cory.

It’s a pity I didn’t write more scenes allowing Helen to walk around cracking a whip.

Okay, song of the day:

5. “She Blinded Me with Science,” Thomas Dolby

I don’t believe it!
There she goes again!
She’s tidied up, and I can’t find anything!
All my tubes and wires
And careful notes
And antiquated notions…

Yeah, duh. To be honest, I don’t like this all that much as a Narbonic song, because it’s not actually about a female scientist; it’s about a male scientist rationalizing his attraction to his hot lab assistant (“Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto, you’re beautiful!“) in scientific terms. But it’s still a good song, and, along with Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” it’s the one people most often recommend to me as a Narbonic song. Without trying, I have acquired five different covers of “She Blinded Me with Science,” including one by an MIT a capella group and one by the Stanford marching band. For the record, I have four versions of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” And two contemporary covers of the circa-1929 song “My Girl’s Pussy,” which probably means something.

The gentleman shouting “Science!” was a real-life mad scientist, Magnus Pyke, a science writer and popularizer who appeared on British television for many years. He was reportedly less than thrilled with the celebrity he gained through the song.

The gerbils have mysteriously acquired names. Specifically, they’re all named after people who were on the board of the Nonhuman Students Organization, the Vassar sci-fi club. As has been mentioned previously in these chronicles, I served proudly as First Minister in my senior year. The Kate who leant her name to the unfortunate gerbil here is the same Kate who inspired the name of the refrigerator in Monday’s strip. I hope she was flattered.

Back to the song list…

6. “Mastermind,” by The Divine Comedy

So tell me what the hell is normal
And who the hell is sane?
And why the hell care anyway?
All the dreams that we have had
Are gonna prove that we’re all mad
And that’s okay

The Divine Comedy is one of my favorite bands. Their awesome song “Songs of Love” was used as the theme music in the equally awesome BBC series “Father Ted,” and I didn’t even know that when I bought my first Divine Comedy album. I was listening to it on my headphones at lunchtime while innocently eating a plate of pad thai, and suddenly HOLY CRAP IT’S THE FATHER TED MUSIC. Andrew and I still liked it so much that we included it on our totally boss wedding CD. Anyway, this is the most Narbonic-y Divine Comedy song I’ve got. “The Certainty of Chance” is pretty good, too; I thought of it a lot while writing the post-visible-eyeballs Dave.

59 thoughts on “Smart Gerbils: January 29 – February 3, 2001

  1. Monday’s Comic: Like mother, like daughter, eh? (Except, of course, that Helen’s own megalomania seems to have tapered off at this point…)

    An open challenge: a single A4 page filled with about one thousand Garrity-breed gerbils, entitled “Where’s Artie?

    Music, you say. When I was reading this fine webcomic for the first time, I inadvertantly formed a mental connection between it and the “Maple Leaf Rag”. The connection can be explained as follows: Narbonic -> Mad science -> The Incredible Machine 3 -> The Incredible Machine 3’s background music -> Maple Leaf Rag.

    (I think the Victorian Narbonic arc was also a factor, despite being separated by 75 degrees of longitude.)

  2. I like the verse where they build a machine to eliminate the folks between them and the front of a line. And I would’ve thought “Science Genius Girl” would be the Narbonic theme, if it weren’t already the Girl Genius theme.

  3. The gerbils still make me happy. If I could have the Narbonic-gerbil equivalent of Catz–a little screen gerbil that wanders around your desktop and messes with stuff and complains while you subject it to odd experiments–I would be a happy and extremely unproductive worker.
    I still have all of my envelope gerbils. It’s easy to be shamelessly geeky when they’re so dern cute!

  4. Well, J K… if you could point out which one you’re missing, I could tell you where to find it.

  5. JK: Did you get the one hiding under the back of the chair, and the one crouched down under the others on the table?

  6. Three on the chair’s sitting surface, one on the back support arm, another on the back cushion frame.  Five on the tale surface (one crouched as noted by Rachel, and two on top of whatever-it-is on the table.  Artie on the back cushion makes thirteen.




  7. …it seems like it’d be great to just have dozens of frozen rats on hand whenever you need them.

    This is my new all-time favourite N:DC commentary quote.

  8. Wednesday’s Comic: The unique turn of phrase in the fourth panel reminds me that this entire storyline exhibits the well-known trope of “intelligence equals education.” The sum of the squares on the legs of an isosceles right triangle is equal to the square on the hypotenuse!

    But now, what would the gerbil horde want with frozen hamsters, anyway? Apart from their frozen-ness, of course.

  9. They chose the hamster bin for maximum guilt trip impact. After all, when speaking of “clinical deaths” it helps to be standing on a medical mass grave….

  10. There are times when I wish I was a musician, just so’s I could make an album titled “10^0 Meters To Impact” with that Comixpedia art as the cover.

  11. …it seems like it’d be great to just have dozens of frozen rats on hand whenever you need them.

    Now I know what to get you for Christmas!

  12. Love Helen’s change of heart in the third panel. “yawn…Whoa, the universal remote? Hold everything! SERIOUS BUSINESS here!!”

    Or, more concisely, “Ooh, something shiny!”

  13. Wednesday’s Comic: “Rube Goldbergian” is a very apt description of the plot events in Narbonic, and I’m not just saying that because it conveniently ties into my mention of TIM earlier on Monday.

    And a mention of Chekov’s Gun is particularly well-timed, as in today’s episode Dave is holding it in his hand. Poor, poor Dave.

    Comparing the second and fourth panels has suddenly given me the idea that the size of Dave’s lenses should be psychosomatically correlated to the expansion of his own eyes – retaining their 2006 size in normal operation but inflating to their 2001 size in times of wide-eyed excitement. Maybe in a slightly more rubbery Narboniverse…

  14. See, it’s times like this that Artie really needed the abiltity to physically arrest people’s attention. No wonder he had such a rush when he finally got to do that. ^_^

  15. On an unrelated note: did The Time Warp get included on any of the Narbonicon CDs?  ‘Cause it occurs to me that it should have.

  16. So, did you plan that the start of the Superintelligent Gerbil revolution would rerun on the 4th of July, or is it just a highly suspicious coincidence?

  17. So, did you plan that the start of the Superintelligent Gerbil revolution would rerun on the 4th of July, or is it just a highly suspicious coincidence?

    Sometimes the gods of webcomics just smile down on Narbonic.

  18. “So there’s that. The sheer romance of the thing. Plus the whole tech thing is so wet dreamy; Freeman Dyson called the hydrogen bomb, the Super, “technically sweet,” but the fact is that the whole magilla is technically sweet, from the film badges to the nuclear power subs carrying nuclear tipped MIRVs. And just look at the last few minutes of Dr. Strangelove sometime and try to deny that the nukes aren’t beautiful. The Giant Nuclear Fireball is one mother set of headlights and you can’t blame any deer that’s caught in the tracks.”

     From Jim Killus


  19. Thursday’s Comic: I also purport that it isn’t a mad science story (or, at least not a mad biology story) if someone doesn’t utter the sentence “It’s alive.” On a coincidental note, what explanation is there for the nigh-imperceptible shrinking of the strips over the past few months?

    Speaking of shrinking strips, could someone get Mr. Ellmann to tell me exactly what strip Helen’s got on the fridge? From this distance it looks sort of like that “Garfield” strip where the punch-line is that Jon’s eyeballs are mutating. (Then again, it could actually be today’s Narbonic strip itself!)

    Good job on the subverted Cargo Cult trope, by the way, even though this doesn’t really advance the plot in a necessary manner.

    Thursday’s Song: Good gracious, this isn’t the same Andrew Bird who does guest art for Irregular Webcomic, is it?

  20. Personally, I like the “magnetic poetry” pieces down at gerbil level.  Was this where Artie first realized his literary inclinations, or did the gerbils use this to publish their revolutionary manifesto?  Then again, how many magnetic poetry sets include the words “proletariat” and “alfalfa”?

    Dang it, I gotta get my own mad science songs recorded.  Mel sings an unforgettable love song to TNT …


  21. Then again, how many magnetic poetry sets include the words “proletariat” and “alfalfa”?

    Well, the Revolutionary and Mad Scientist set, obviously. Available at fine stores for $19.99.

    Heh. I would totally buy such a set. ^_^

  22. See, here’s the difference between Lupin “Wolf” Madblood and Helen B. Narbon: Madblood would gesticulate and shout; Helen jams her hands in her lab-coat pockets and looks slightly pouty. Which one represents the better strategy?

    Ed: Those magnetic words are a little high for gerbils, even up on their hind paws.

  23. I am so happy to see you list Aimee’s “Frankenstein”…I have associated that song with Narbonic since I first started reading the strip (though I think I’ve loved the song itself ever since it came out….)  I’ve also associated that song (“But at least it’s my own creation…and it’s better than real, it’s a real imitation”) with U2’s “Even Better Than The Real Thing.”

  24. But what about gerbils standing on each other’s shoulders?

    The Andrew Bird in question is this one; ‘multitalented’ describes him, but a talent for webcomic guest art would be heretofore unsuspected at least by me. (Also, that song is awesome. Come to think of it, a lot of the songs on that album could be read as having a mad science theme…)

  25. If you’re not already tired of suggestions for Narbonic-related songs, I would also put in a plug for Aimee Mann’s “Susan”:

    Oh, susan, you were clued in
    You knew just how this thing would go
    A prognosis that was hopeless
    From the very first domino
    I guess I see it all in hindsight
    I tried to keep perspective despite
    The flash of the fuse, the smell of cordite

     and later, 

    We kissed for a while to see how it played
    And pulled the pin on another grenade

  26. Then again, how many magnetic poetry sets include the words “proletariat” and “alfalfa”?

    I’m pretty sure that the Peasant Farmer set (Marx/Engels Edition) has them…

  27. Would this be a good time to bring up the totally excellent Ookla the Mok‘s equally excellent song Rats Live On No Evil Star?

  28. Those magnetic word sets are actually pretty easy to make.  The simplest way is to buy the magnetic “paper” and run it through you printer, although I think the magnets are weak and may not hold very well.  A st roger option is to print on photo paper then glue to magnetic sheets.  My local pizza store gives out coupons with a card sized magnet attached.  A couple of Months of Pizza would produce a lot of magnetic sheets.   I’ve made everything from little fridge magnet words, to large car door magnetic signs that way.

  29. Ookla the Mok?  There’s seriously a band named after Ookla the Mok?

    I thought I was the only one who remembered that show.

    Ookla, Ariel, RIDE!

  30. Friday’s Comic: It seems that 2001-era Narbonic still has enough youthful whimsy to permit thirteen gerbils to instantly materalise a six-foot-tall caged beast on cue.

    I must give credit to the name “Sir Pounce”, which evokes its entire character in two syllables.

  31. Sir Gawain de Pounce, Lord of Litterbox and conquerorof the maleficent Post of Scratch, would like tohumbly thank Lady Sarge for the honor of appearing inNarbonic.

    Quote: “Squeaky squeakum squeaky squeak.”

    Translation: “Come play with me before I shred thephone bill.”


    Gotta go.
    Cory-Ellen, 5 Feb. 2001

  32. Leon: See, I didn’t interpret the cage appearing as being materialized by the Gerbil Brigade, but rather as being unnoticed by the humans up to that point. Kind of an SEP effect, until it became specifically relevant to the conversation.

  33. Here are some OtM MP3s. They write songs about relationships, superheroes, comic books and monkeys, which I guess makes them more or less on-topic here… plus, they’re awesome. No gerbils, unfortunately, but there is one about a Mister Potato Head…

    Do check out Arthur Curry from that page. 

  34. Leon Arnott, you are teh fabulous for dredging that e-mail up from the bowels of history.  Thank you! 

    Sir Gawain, who has not yet blown up, would like me to thank you for him too.


  35. I guess that would make Kate the first named character in Narbonic to die.   And now the body count is going to soar.

  36. I’m not sure what you’re talking about… Dr. Noah has years yet at this point. In fact, he still has a major part to play in the series storyline.

  37. Dr. Noahs eventual death occurs off-screen at the hands of the hamsters, somepoint after the “Mad science is decadent and depraved” storyline.

  38. Saturday’s Comic: Ah yes – the demure Sir Pounce is revealed to be unexpectedly competent. That trope will never go out of fashion.

    In defense of Mr. Andrew K: I presume he’s referring to the fact that Dr. Noah’s last appearance thus far was supposed to be his Grand Operatic Death Scene. His later reappearance was due entirely to the magick of retroactive continuity. See also: Dr. Marvin Monroe.

    Saturday’s Song: Now, I was wondering what that HTML page description was all about. Another mystery solved! Now all we need is an explanation as to what happened to the Caged Beast of Ambiguous Species from yesterday.

  39. Doh!  I stand corrected — I’d forgot about that.  Must remember the standard “not dead till we see the body” rule (not that that really seems to work when mad science is involved).

  40. And the caged beast from yesterday disappears again without any mention. I presume the gerbils weren’t able to get the cage open, and it goes into storage?

  41. I still get a kick out of introducing myself to random nerds as a superintellegent mad gerbil.

    It’s a pity I didn’t write more scenes allowing Helen to walk around cracking a whip.


  42. And the caged beast from yesterday disappears again without any mention. I presume the gerbils weren’t able to get the cage open, and it goes into storage?

    Actually, Helen disolved it, and Dave accedentlly drank it, thinking it was a Crush.   Well, at least that’s what’s going to happen.


  43. It might make make Thomas Dolby feel more appropriate in this context if we note that the lab assistant he’s falling in love with is a robot.  “When she’s dancing next to me, I can hear machinery.”

  44. I’m starting to think your gerbils are as adorable as real ones, Shannon; I love their poses!

    About the thumbs… it’s been a long time, but I distinctly recall some of my gerbils gripping cage bars in a way which very much made it look like one of their digits was opposable! Others didn’t, just keeping that digit on the same side as the rest.

Leave a Reply