Dr. Narbon: March 12-17, 2001

You know, I used to draw really big ears. What was up with that?

Still tying up loose ends from the “Smart Gerbils” storyline, as we segue into “Dr. Narbon.” I don’t know how so much stuff got overturned in a fight with a bunch of gerbils, but the Narbonics Labs staff has a tendency to overdo things. Also note that this is the exact outfit Mell will wear for the next six years.

Song list:

37. “I Can Make You a Man,” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show

He’ll do press-ups, and chin-ups, do the snatch, clean and jerk
He thinks dynamic tension must be hard work.
Such strenuous living I just don’t understand
When in just seven days
[and six long nights!], oh baby, I can make you a man

Thanks to David Harmon for suggesting this one. I went to Rocky Horror shows pretty regularly in high school and college, which is probably the best time for it. Last year a bunch of my cartoonist friends tried to go to a show in Oakland, but we got turned away at the door because some of us didn’t have IDs, and then Jason Thompson packed everyone into his City Carshare car and some people had to ride in the trunk because Jason had vastly overestimated the number of people he could fit in the car at one time, and then he rode the car off a curb. The moral of the story is, I haven’t seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show since college, and Andrew is still a Rocky virgin.

Actually, a bunch of songs in The Rocky Horror Picture Show have the right campy sci-fi feel for a Narbonic soundtrack. “Science Fiction Double Feature” is another good one. And I know all the callbacks.

Check out Mell totally vamping it up in the first panel. I’m still drawing everyone’s heads all out of proportion to their bodies.

“Wacky-rats” is probably the best euphemism I ever came up with for the gerbils, to the point that it’s kind of a shame I used it up so early. Oh, well. It had to be done.

Song List:

38. “Make a Circuit with Me,” by the Polecats

A sweet romance is not for me
I really need electricity
If you wanna make me flip
Come on and hit me with a micro chip

I’m an AC/DC man
You can read my circuit diagram
I feed on electric jolts
I need fifty-thousand volts

I think Kaja Foglio suggested this once as a theme song for Girl Genius, but I’m going to steal it for this list. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for rockabilly, one of ten thousand warning signs that I should not be sharing my musical selections with anyone. I’m so sorry.

The idea that Helen expects her experiments to rise up and try to destroy her will come up more than once in future Narbonic storylines. Ultimately, I think she’ll be pretty satisfied in that regard.

Helen’s assumption that Artie will eventually leave the lab and go on to bigger and better things also comes up later, but it’ll be a long time before Artie actually strikes out on his own. For all his bouts of irritating smugness, he has a lot less faith in his abilities than Helen does. Of course, Helen is apparently under the impression that Artie could go out right now, as is, and take over the world. She could be right.

Song list:

39. “Doctor Octopus,” from Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Superhero

I told you this would happen
I knew it would
If your ship ain’t got a captain
You’re in dead wood
Oh, it’s been such a long, long time
It’s been such a long, long
Now the world is mine

I will punch anyone who tries to deny the greatness of this insane 1975 Marvel Comics concept album, with a nameless band (actually cult band Crack the Sky and some other random musicians from Lifesong Records) singing heartfelt pop numbers about Spider-Man and his amazing friends. And I love Doctor Octopus, to the point that I once wrote an essay on the subject. So of course I dig the hell out of this Elton John-like glam number, with Doc Ock waxing rhapsodic on his plans for world domination. I don’t want to go overboard here, but this just might be the greatest supervillain song ever. Especially awesome is the spoken-word bit at the end, wherein Doctor Octopus taunts various Marvel superheroes (“Power Man! And you, Silver Surfer! You’ve messed with me long enough–now I’m gonna hurt ya!”).

Come to think of it, Elton John kind of looks like Doctor Octopus.

The one thing I like about this strip is Mell chomping glumly on a corn chip. She’s just so very downcast about the loss of a few of her many beloved weapons.

I understand the feeling. A couple of months ago, reader Kent Walker was kind enough to take Andrew, Jason Thompson, and myself out to a shooting range, and I did grow very attached to some of the hardware. Here I am, displaying poor form but enjoying myself a little too much.

Andrew, cool and composed:

Jason, in his unfortunate hat choice, looks eerily like Uncle Duke from “Doonesbury.” He turned out to be disturbingly good with a rifle, which kind of scared the rest of us.

And here’s Kent, schooling us all:

Thanks, Kent! We had a great time!

Song list:

40. “I Wish I Had an Evil Twin,” by the Magnetic Fields

I wish I had an evil twin
running ’round doing people in
I wish I had a very bad
and evil twin to do my will
to cull and conquer, cut and kill
just like I would
if I weren’t good
and if I knew where to begin

Thanks to Kristy Valenti for the suggestion. I really like the Magnetic Fields, but they’re kind of low on mad-science songs. I guess you could use “Absolutely Cuckoo,” if you’re willing to stretch. One thing they do have, however, is lots of songs about the Moon, which is an entire subcategory of Narbonic-related music too vast to get into here. My favorite is “You and Me and the Moon,” because it sounds like something you’d get on Dance Dance Revolution.

The sad thing is, I never got much better than this at drawing phones.

Song list:

41. “Tesla Girls,” by OMD

Tesla girls, Tesla girls
Testing out theories
Electric chairs and dynamos
Dressed to kill theyre killing me
But heaven knows their recipe

Another Narbonicon selection. OMD stands for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, which is a pretty good British-y sort of band name.

The book in the first and last panels is The Plague Dogs, by Richard Adams, best known as the author of Watership Down. In the novel, two dogs escape a laboratory, possibly carrying bubonic plague, and make a run for it across the English countryside.

Panel three features the first of several references to Frank Chu, perhaps the most famous current San Francisco street eccentric. He’s a very common sight downtown, loping along in his grey sport coat and sunglasses, carrying a sign protesting American involvement in the sinister union of twelve galaxies that seeks to destroy society and secretly film the Chu family for a TV show called “The Richest Family.”

Around the time this strip was drawn, Chu’s sign typically read:


The only part that changed was the description of the Rocket Society, which was sometimes Alphatronic, sometimes Betatronic, all the way up to Zegnatronic and Megalogical. Six months or so into the Bush administration, Chu started to call for the impeachment of presidents other than Clinton. Sometimes the sign read IMPEACH BUSH, but it was just as likely to read IMPEACH REAGAN or IMPEACH VAN BUREN. More likely, actually. Then the signs started to get really crazy, and frankly I don’t even know what he’s trying to say anymore.

In SF, Chu is famous enough that local businesses rent out ad space on the back of his sign. Nowadays, the front of the sign is likely to say something like:


…while the back is an ad for Quizno’s.

I talked to Chu once, when Keith Knight invited him in to a Cartoon Art Museum fundraiser to draw raffle tickets. He spoke quickly, softly, and politely about the twelve galaxies, the secret TV show, and some of his many real-life media appearances.

There is a San Francisco bar inspired by Frank Chu called the Twelve Galaxies.


Song list:

42. “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” by Tom Lehrer

We will all go together when we go
All suffused with an incandescent glow
No one will have the endurance to collect on his insurance
Lloyd’s of London will be loaded when they go

There’s been some demand in the comments for Tom Lehrer’s songs about academia, but those fall more into the category of sane mathematics than mad science. We’ll have to make do with this rousing ode to nuclear winter. How many lyricists can come up with convincing rhymes for “ICBM” and “uranious”? And is “uranious” actually a word?

44 thoughts on “Dr. Narbon: March 12-17, 2001

  1. Monday’s Comic: Another instance of a defining Dave character trait: anthropomorphising his electronics. It’s funny because it’s true.

    Another instance of a defining Mell character trait: the arm-splay.

    Admired my guns“. I don’t know what to think about that one.

    I thought that the big ears, as well as your long vertical pupils, were characteristics present in the art styles of those classic comic artists from which your own style is inspired. Not that I actually know which artists or styles, that is.

  2. Well, one possible reason that so much stuff was overturned … in panel one, apparently the floor has tilted 12 degrees (note Mell and Dave leaning).  Also note that I have no right to point this out since my own characters tend to do the same thing.

  3. I’m afraid RHPS callbacks are asymptotic; you can approach knowing alll of them, but you’ll never get there.

  4. I always assumed anything involving Mell involved upturned furniture. She could be alphabetizing her CDs and the room would look like a war zone.

  5. Ian: RHPS callbacks are asymptotic

    Also, idiosyncratic — I’ve heard different callbacks in different theatres.

  6. Go to any SF/Fantasy/Anime con and odds are that you’ll hear different callbacks during each *show*, depending on where any particular member of the audience hails from. The more the merrier crazier!

  7. Incidentally, I think my hearing loss has smote me again re: “six long nights”.  Amusingly, the two lyrics sites I checked omit the whole phrase (which would break the meter), but your version just sounds “righter”.

    Just the other day I looked up the lyrics to “Kissed By A Rose”, and was startled to find that Rose wasn’t on a hill, but on a “grey”, whatever that is.

  8. “I can make you a man” doesn’t sound right to me without the last line: “Just like Tarzan”. I mean, “man” isn’t 5 syllables long, right? Right?

  9. Tuesday’s Comic: Aww, the nigh-imperceptible daily shrinking of the Narbonic strip has suddenly become readily apparant with the significantly populated first panel!

    Dave has, it seems, critically fumbled his self-preservation precognition, as evidenced by his continued presence in panels 2, 3 and 4.

    First mention of clone tanks! History has been made. Clone tanks, stasis tanks, and other human-sized glass containers are the other other mandatory element of the mad scientist’s laboratory – possibly even more mandatory than the Jacob’s Ladder.

  10. I read Mell’s pose in panel one as “Yeah, I’m just totally awesome, aren’t I? ^_^” Say what you will about her, she has a healthy ego.

  11. Saying Mel “has a healthy ego” is sort of like saying the Atlantic Ocean is “slightly damp”.

  12. Wednesday’s Comic: And it seems Helen actually is wiping down a clone tank in this episode. It’s all in continuity!

    I find it hard to believe that, if “Narbonics Labs had only been operational for a few months”, Mell somehow managed to wage 15 unsuccessful assassinations within that time. And I doubt that all of them involved either coffee or gunfights.

    Did you know that 5% of Helen’s body mass is comprised entirely of hair? Honestly, it’s just been growing and growing since the start of the strip.

    Wednesday’s Song: Thanks to you, I might never have noticed the symmetry between the eight-limbed Doctor and the Man whose motif is a Spider. You’ve saved the day again!

  13. Cute essay, but:  the opposite of a bat is not a clown.  How about the opposite of a ur-Goth prig?  (Clearly, I’m not the biggest fan of Batman, but a lot of his villains do run to wisecracking buffoons, and that actually works!)  Also, Gorilla Grodd was strictly “comic relief”; the Flash’s real nemesis was Professor Zoom, aka Reverse-Flash.

    But yes, the best villains do indeed have a “pleasing symmetry” to their heros. to the point where some of them consciously try to build villian-teams matching the heros’ teams.  Note also that some of Spidey’s clones and alternate selves did come out with eight limbs!  But even the ones who turned against him never achieved the sheer class of Doc Ock.

  14. I find it hard to believe that, if “Narbonics Labs had only been operational for a few months”, Mell somehow managed to wage 15 unsuccessful assassinations within that time.

    You’re right. It was probably closer to thirty or so.

    • A comment about your Narbonic Playlist: if you’re including “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” by Tom Lehrer, then you absolutely MUST have “Nuclear Babies” by Oingo Boingo (from back when they were still the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, no less!), if only for the opening lyrics:
      They say radiation’s harmful,
      It’s a pack of lies!
      Without it, we would DIE!

      And, of course,
      We’re grateful for all our mutations
      They’re good for mankind and the nation!
      They’re useful to society,
      And break up our monotony!

  15. I am both entertained and frightened by the fact that handling firearms appears to have  caused you to develop Mell-antigrav-hair in that second photo.

  16. Hmmm. If you’re willing to stretch, and I think you are, the Lemony Snicket / Gothic Archies (= Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields) album, might also provide some good material.

  17. Thursday’s Comic: Just like Dave’s dearly departed electronics, Mell has to cope with the loss of some of her closest inanimate friends. For once, Helen seems the least peculiar of the bunch.

    You know what today’s episode reminds me of? Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour. P.S: If you haven’t read that book, I just spoiled the mystery by mentioning it in this context. Thank you, come again!

    A funny thing about your handlettering – your plaintive sighs and your amorous sighs look almost exactly the same.

  18. Future Bible Heroes might have madder science songs, although I do prefer Magnetic Fields myself.  How’s about Nellie McKay’s “Clonie,” or is that too pop culture for y’all?

  19. Friday’s Comic: Finally you provide confirmation that it was, in fact, the unnamed gerbil that died here and that it was Jaye who died last Saturday. I mean, really, it’s as if you don’t even realise that allowing your fans to uniquely identify twelve identical minor characters is the greatest responsibility any webcartoonist can bear!

    How’d you know it was me?” Because all on-panel phone calls are Coincidental Broadcasts, of course. Y’know, the mere fact that both Artie and Dana are capable of using the telephone somewhat tests the authenticity of the premise of yesterday’s comic…

    Artie and Dana: maybe they’d have been slightly happier in this world if they’d eventually gotten back together? Platonically speaking, that is.

  20. I still maintain that there is no way a mere owl could kill me. Shaenon concurred.

     I had something non-narcissistic to say, but I forgot what it was.

  21. A friend of mine went as Chu for Halloween a year or so ago. Ran into the real Chu, who seemed unimpressed.

  22. “We Will All Go Together When We Go” isn’t set to “She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain”, is it?  Because that bit feels like it ought to be.

  23. I saw an animated film adaptation of The Plague Dogs once, but all I remember about it now is that Patrick Stewart was in it.

  24. Saturday’s Comic: And now we know who’s going to be the mystery guest on the next Narbonic podcast! Make sure you ask him at least one question about ‘Pataphysics.

    For possibly the second time in this webcomic, Artie’s tail appears to be double its typical length in panel 1. Understandable optical illusion, or proof that Mell’s elasticity mutation is spreading to the rest of the cast, and soon the entire world?!
    (Actually, as an in-universe explanation for the artist’s evolving style, that one ain’t too bad…)

  25. Adam:  Heh!  That one might work better in a neighboring city!

    Coral:  I don’t have the album (hmm) but indeed, I think it is.  Lehrer mutates a lot of familiar tunes.  (Meta-filk potential there?)

    It occurs to me that one trope that I don’t recall Sarge using is the “hair standing on end” bit. That last panel would have been a good point to bottle-brush Artie’s tail or somesuch.  Even without that, he manages to be surprisingly expressive for a cartoon gerbil!


  26. At the same time we had a local eccentric here in Tallahassee named King Love.  He would dress in full kingly regalia and stand on street corners spreading his message of love.  His signs were more likely to say, “Help Clinton slay the dragon of racism!”.  The story I have heard about him is that he was once a successful surgeon in Egypt who went a little mad and then started living on the streets.
    My other favorite local character was the guy who would jog dressed in costumes.  One day he jogged by dressed as Batman and greeted me with a “Good evening, Citizen.”  He was only marginally crazy though, unlike King Love.

  27. Coral- I seem to remember it being set to that tune, yes- even if not, it scans perfectly. 

    James- I endeavor to be like your second citizen, but the locals here are too likely to throw rocks at strange people.

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