Grass Roots: June 24-29, 2002

And we’re out of the guest weeks and back to Narbonic Prime, albeit without the central cast. They’re still stranded happily on the island.

Hamsters are funny creatures. All golden hamsters in captivity are descended from a single litter captured in Syria in 1930. They were originally taken to Europe and bred for use as lab animals, but ended up being more popular as pets (although they are still sometimes used in labs). The golden hamster is either extinct or severely endangered in the wild (or very, very good at hiding), but other species of hamster are serious pests in various parts of the world, so hamster owners are warned not to release their pets into the wild for ecological reasons. Same goes for gerbils, actually. Also, it’s cruel to the rodents, because backward-swooping owls are everywhere.

The first panel may be the first time we see the eye tattooed on the back of Zeta’s neck. This was based on a tattoo on my friend and Viz coworker Urian. He also has a rude suggestion tattooed on his bicep, but I didn’t draw that.

Two Willows is my default small-Midwestern-town name. I started using it in stories when I was a teenager in a small Midwestern town myself. Elsewhere in Narbonic, it’s mentioned as the town where Dave went to high school, among other things.

This is the first time Ayn Rand is mentioned in connection to the hamsters, although it’s not until the end of this brief storyline that they’re introduced to The Fountainhead. I had established an unwritten rule that the gerbils in Narbonic were all very left-wing and the hamsters were all very right-wing. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, it developed very quickly into the concept of the hamsters as devoted Objectivists, mostly just because it seemed more interesting than having them glom onto some other flavor of conservative ideology. I think we’ve all seen enough right-wing Christian hamsters and neoconservative war hawk hamsters in the media, thank you very much. It’s such a cliche.

I probably shouldn’t have let the typed text overlap the artwork, such as it is. Oh well.

Geez, Zeta’s all out of proportion in the third panel. Actually this whole week was really hard to draw. The hamsters are cute, though. Hamsters are not exactly hard to draw.

“Number One” is a quick and obvious “Prisoner” reference.

At the time I drew this I didn’t have a clear idea of how the Zeta and Dana storylines would fit into the main story arc. Even the main story arc wasn’t really set in stone until the next storyline. When, eventually, it all came together in a relatively coherent way, I was a little bit surprised.

Zeta’s laptop is really skinny. I’ve got a laptop that skinny now, but this was 2002, for cryin’ out loud.

In addition to the radical ecoterrorist group Incisor and Dr. Noah’s dental practice, the business park includes Media Alliance, which used to share a building with the Cartoon Art Museum offices; Mock Man Press, the imprint of my friend Jason Thompson; and a Sylvan Learning Center.

Dr. Noah got his scar in his encounter with Narbonics Labs in the first story arc, natch. I knew it was silly to bring him back, but I did it anyway. Gotta keep myself entertained somehow.

The Che poster on the desk in the first panel is a drawing I’d done as a sticker a while back. I didn’t often cut and paste stuff like that, but I kind of liked that drawing.

The Dana and Zeta stories have a very different feel from the rest of Narbonic. It’s like a different strip, at least until the characters start crossing paths later on. Zeta is so disaffected at this point that it’s hard to play her off the other characters, although her rapport with Dana isn’t too bad. Strangely, my sometime collaborator Jeffrey Wells is very fond of these segments and used to write me little fanfics about Dana.

I brought back the hippie just because Andrew liked him. As I said last time, I think the lobotomized hippie is Andrew’s favorite character in Narbonic.

“The right spark” was a little nod to Girl Genius, which at the time was about a year old and still a print comic.

Dana’s brainpower engine ended up playing a fairly major role in the final story arc of Narbonic. I went through tons of drafts of the final arc over the years. At one point it was set in the Nevada desert and Dana’s device, abandoned at Burning Man and reconstructed by someone or other, was the central element. When I moved the setting to a more appropriate Arctic locale, I developed a plot around Professor Madblood and dropped the brainpower engine entirely. When, at last, the time came to do the final arc, I put it back in after all.

Also, at one point I was going to do the final arc as a Choose Your Own Adventure story. If only I were as clever as Jason Shiga, I’d have gone through with it.

50 thoughts on “Grass Roots: June 24-29, 2002

  1. P.S: The forum ( is back, and better than ever! Go check it out!

  2. Monday:

    Cigarette holders: not a good combination with laptops? You’re not supposed to decrease the distance between one’s keyboard and one’s smouldering ash. That, and they’re a bit hard to draw in relation to the other, as panel 4 indicates.

  3. (TUNE: “Rubber Ducky” by Ernie)

    Golden hamster, you’re a pest!
    You could eat the whole Midwest!
    Golden hamster, I’m not very fond of you …
    (Doo doobie doo!)

    Golden hamster makes the list
    As an eco-terrorist;
    Golden hamsters want to conquer the world, it’s true!

  4. I like how Zeta looks pissed in the last panel, as though she could actually hear people responding by laughing in real time.

  5. To be honest, I totally lost interest when I got to this part of the archives. I liked Ultimate Narbonic, but I was getting impatient with this feeling that we’d, like, never see the main cast again. Did any of you people who were following along from day one start to get worried about the folks we started reading for?

  6. And, of course, the only person who would listen to the ultra-conservative right-wing hamsters is, well, Zeta.  Who is none of the above.  Nice!

    Somewhere, there is a Chew Guevera poster waiting to happen.

  7. But think of all the Jack Hamster tract jokes you passed up. All of the devils could have been stylized gerbils. “Oh, the Baptistry!”

  8. Esther: I honestly can’t recall what the reader response was around this time. Of course, I didn’t have a huge readership then, and it was pretty common for webstrips to take time off–not like today, when we’re all very professional.

    • Am I the only one who noticed that you used Albertus Medium (the same font used in The Prisoner for pretty much everything in The Village) in Monday and Tuesday’s strips? Very nice touch, that!

      Now I can’t wait to see Dana shout, “I am not a number, I am a free hamster!” ^_^

  9. That is one very cute hamster, though.

    Yesterday I learned – via a satirical TV programme called Screenwipe – of the existence of something called “Tales of the Riverbank”:

    Which leaves me grateful that the gerbils and hamsters and so forth in Narbonic are drawn. The bit about the peanut butter is… surely just wrong. Although the temptation to put a top hat on a guinea pig is understandable enough.

  10. I remember feeling the same that Esther did–reading through the archives, I think I skipped this week and next, because it just didn’t seem relevant to the characters I was enjoying, or the main plot. Zeta was such a different character from the core team. Maybe I skimmed it because I’m not into punk so much. I dunno, it took me a while to warm up to her.

  11. I know “Tales of the Riverbank” mainly through the following exchange in “Red Dwarf”:

    CAT: What?re you watching?
    LISTER: Ah, just a vid. This is a classic, man!
    CAT: What is it?
    LISTER: “Tales of the Riverbank: The Next Generation.”
    CAT: Oh, right! I?ve seen this! It?s not as good as the original.
    LISTER: Well, they never really found anyone to replace Hammy Hamster, did they?
    CAT: How could they? The dude was a diva! He smouldered; the camera loved him!
    LISTER: Yeah. He was the rodent equivalent of Marlon Brando.
    CAT: Whatever happened? Whatever happened to old Hammy? One minute he?s a huge star, running around on his own personalised gold wheel, with as much Edam as he could hold in his little cheeks; the next: obscurity!
    LISTER: Well, he went on the slide, the series ended, couldn?t find any more work, and then the ultimate humiliation: Hamstergrams.

    I have this tendency to script storylines specifically to try readers’ patience. I’m sorry about that.

  12. Hey, I guess that one that annoys me out of several hundred in Narbonic, Skin Horse, and my very favorite, Smithson is an acceptable batting average.

  13. Well I quite enjoyed it. Zeta is love. There’s an original strip from Burning Gerbil hanging proudly on my wall. 🙂

  14. Anyone that made it through Dave being dead should have figured that Shaenon was buying time.  On the other hand, somewhere on a tropical island at this very moment, there were scantly clad Helen & Mell.  Anything that delayed getting back to that island was a crime against mankind.

  15. Wednesday:

    Zeta seems to be just the sort of Genre Savvy Deadpan Snarker (not bothering to link these anymore) that’s perpetually two steps ahead of the strangeness and foolishness surrounding her – even more so than Dave or Artie combined. It is, in that light, tremendously merciful that we only have to follow her for two weeks.

    But, that’s not to say that these rodents’ follies aren’t hilarious, as today’s punchline proves.

    How could you not have a clear idea about bringing Dana back into the fold? Surely it was apparant that the easiest solution was a future reuniting confrontation between Dana and Narbonics Labs. Chickens roosting, students becoming masters, hunters becoming hunted, et al. (Of course, since that didn’t really come to pass, the question remains open.)

  16. What I always wanted to hear during the opening of “The Prisoner” …

    “Who are you?”
        “The new Number Two.”
    “No sh*t?”

  17. I thought Number One was tall and stiff with a cheesy looking beard and a thing for Counselor Troi?

  18. Zeta’s laptop is really skinny. I’ve got a laptop that skinny now, but this was 2002, for cryin’ out loud.Hey, it’s Mad-Science World. Those mad computer scientists must be doing *something* to make ends meet.

  19. Why do the brain-damaged rodents always talk to you?  Try different drugs, you might get a variety of animals talking to you.

  20. Thursday:

    What should be worrying to Zeta is that she is apparantly the invisible one this time.

    Say, wasn’t this “grass roots evil” thing the core punchline of that “Job Interview” storyline? I think we’re treading over covered ground here, even down to bringing back the same characters. One would be quite forgiven for thinking that the strip had rebooted itself with Zeta as the new protagonist from here on out.

    Fortieth-wall dialog: 29.

  21. So, Shaenon, you mentioned yesterday that at this point you hadn’t yet decided how to tie the Zeta/Dana subplot into the main plotline. Had you settled on Zeta’s origin?

  22. Was “Dr. Noah” inspired by the Bond villain Dr. No?  Hmmm, what other Bond movie spoofs could you do in Narbonic?  “From Marinia With Love” … “Moonhacker” … “You Only Live Three, Maybe Four Times Tops” … “The Man With The Big Freakin’ ™ Gun” …

  23. Love the double hop-lines on the hamster. They make me think of Pepe LePew.

    The origin of Dr. Noah’s name is given in the comments on the 11-16 Sept, 2000 strips.

  24. John: It was something in the back of my mind for a while, but at this point I hadn’t committed to it. As I’ll be mentioning in the next storyline, this was around the time I had to start locking the big plots into place.

    Ed: Dr. Noah was named after a friend of mine, but I did like that he sounded kind of like a Bond villain.

  25. Aw. Dana’s transparent desire to impress Aunt Zeta with her world-conquering rodent army is so endearing.

  26. Friday:

    Dana really has some bizarre glasses on her. They obscure her eyes even when the artist draws her in profile! Though, her eyes do seem to be obstructed for reasons roughly consistent with Dave’s, as when we finally see her pupils, it’s when she’s become more honest with herself.

    This reminds me… we never did find out what became of that gaudy lady with the facepaint, did we? Oh well. Requiesat in pace.

  27. (TUNE: “Another One Bites The Dust” by Queen)

    There’s a gerbil with an army that will rule the world today!
    They will eat you out of house and home in a very literal way!
    They’ve brought me in to chronicle how it all will come to pass!
    I just sat on the stenographer, what a total pain in the a**!

    Heh heh heh … a hamster just bit my butt!
    Heh heh heh … a hamster just bit my butt!
    Oh I should looked down ‘fore I went and sat down,
    A hamster just bit my butt!
    Owie!  Those little teeth are sharp
    A hamster just bit my butt …

  28. Leon Arnott says: “(…)Dana really has some bizarre glasses on her. They obscure her eyes even when the artist draws her in profile!”That’s Zeta. Dana doesn’t have eyewear.

  29. I’m sure the “gaudy lady with the facepaint” donated all 10,000 brain cells to Dana’s first two hamsters.

  30. “That’s Zeta. Dana doesn’t have eyewear.

    Consarnit! From now on, I’m calling the human “Ms. Vincent” and the rodent “Girl Artie”.

  31. Saturday:

    The brainpower engine seems to be a necessary element for any permutation of this story – it is, after all, the reason for the bleakness of the Bleak Future.

    But, conversely, the irradiation of 90% of the planet seems to be a low priority for our Future cast – instead, their own personal deaths and debilitations are what actually motivate them to change things. And, in the end, the most plot-significant aspect of Dana’s device turns out to be the fact that it is a high place to tumble off from.

    Also, at one point I was going to do the final arc as a Choose Your Own Adventure story.” I’m assuming this doesn’t mean that the strip would suddenly switch to second-person narration. Would you really have been motivated to draw ten different endings, though?

  32. I’m glad it didn’t become a choose-your-own adventure. I always end up picking the most undignified death possible.

  33. I can see Andrew’s point. There is a certain special something about a lobotomized hippie. Maybe that’s the future of personal transportation. Everyone could ride around on a lobotomized hippie.

  34. Andrew just commented that he likes the hippie because it’s like Bruno carrying Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street.”

  35. The final storyline was enough of a mindfuck as it was. Making it a Jason Shiga-style interactive tale would probably have caused my head to entirely melt.

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