Interview with the Mad Scientist: November 13-18, 2000

And we launch into the only week-long Narbonic storyline. It’s not that I didn’t want to do more short storylines like this. It just never happened. All the other storylines demanded much more time, often months of it. But, as it turns out, there’s only so much you can do with the concept of interviewing a mad scientist.

Helen’s T-Shirt Watch: Today’s shirt is one that I own, featuring one of the little forest spirits from Princess Mononoke. I had a lot of Studio Ghibli T-shirts because I used to be able to get them at an employee discount from Viz Shop-By-Mail.

Foreshadowing! At this point [SPOILERS FOR 2001 AHEAD], I knew Helen’s mother would be making an appearance down the road, so this strip is intended to provide a little buildup. Also note Helen dodging the subject of exactly how closely she’s related to her mother.

Helen’s broken promise to nuke Long Island is a reference to the three-page story I drew for a contest in the comic book Thieves and Kings back in college. See, it’s all in continuity!

It seems like it would make no sense for Helen’s first mad-science project to still be alive and gnawing wood chips in the back of the lab. But if what Helen means is that the gerster/hambil is the first science project she undertook after officially going mad, it’s actually plausible. At this point, Helen hasn’t been a mad scientist for very long. She went mad in the spring of 2000, shortly before she was to graduate with her doctorate in biochemistry. Her madness was triggered by the news of her mother’s supposed death. The lab above Dr. Noah’s office was her first evil laboratory, funded with her inheritance from Dr. Narbon. At the time Dave entered the picture and the strip began, Narbonics Labs had only been operational for a few months.

Most of this backstory has been established in the strips. In a manner of speaking.

I think this is the first strip to feature my now-famous standard gerbil design. Yes, I’m aware that my gerbils bear almost no resemblance to actual gerbils, which look like this:

I like to think that mine are even better.

Let’s ignore my weak attempts at “Bloom County”-level quasi-political humor and admire my crude but honest little drawings of lab equipment. I think I worked from reference photos for this strip, which was a big step forward for me. I had also taken biology courses in college, so I had some idea of what sort of equipment a genetics lab ought to have (in addition to the huge flasks and beakers of bubbling liquid, which are included in every evil laboratory regardless of its purpose). The object on the right end of the second panel is either a gel electrophoresis array or a Sea Monkeys Ocean Zoo. I routinely flip-flopped on this issue throughout the run of Narbonic.

Personally, I think this joke is kind of dopey, but I managed to sell the original art, so I can’t get too mad at it. If you think it’s on the tasteless side now that President Reagan has passed on, you probably don’t want to hear Andrew’s elaborate conspiracy theory about Jim Henson faking his own death to operate an animatronic stand-in for the previous Pope.

Note the first of many references to the great state of Minnesota. Originally, this was because Minnesota was the headquarters of Best Brains, creators of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Later, however, the Twin Cities became the real-life site of every Narbonicon. Which was awesome. If there’s ever any kind of movie or TV version of Narbonic, I’d like it to be set in Minnesota as a tribute to all the great Narbonic-related times I had there.

Dr. Carlo Lombardi is a mad scientist in the movie The She Creature, which was featured on MST3K. Dr. Wallace Nussbaum is a mad scientist in the highly recommended Daniel Pinkwater novel The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death.

I had that second panel on a business card for a while. It’s still pretty cute. If I were doing this strip over, I’d put a lot more flames behind Helen in the third panel. And try to keep her various body parts in proportion to one another for once, but that goes without saying.

35 thoughts on “Interview with the Mad Scientist: November 13-18, 2000

  1. I imagine you had other ideas for week-long arcs? ‘Course, that’s pretty standard with FoxTrot and the like… so what was some of the stuff you never got around to?

  2. Monday’s Comic: I wrote my first dungeon game in Turbo Pascal some 2.5 years after this strip came out. Though, it wasn’t so much a game as a text adventure with only movement commands. (But it came with its own room editor!)

    What is that black laptop-shaped box that Dave’s had for every one of the meeting strips?

  3. That’s the second image of a Princess Mononoke forest spirit I’ve seen in the past five minutes.  Odd.  (The other was someone’s LJ icon.)

  4. One thing I forgot to mention in the commentary was that I actually did write a text adventure game in BASIC when I was in middle and high school. It ended up becoming so huge that it routinely crashed my primitive PC, mainly because I wrote incredibly long and elaborate “hint” options for each and every branch. If you typed “hint” at various points, you could eventually get the entire “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

  5. Tuesday’s Comic: Alas, my friends, everything is in continuity. Everything that Shaenon has ever drawn, forming a marvellous, unbroken ribbon leading all the way back to the beginning of time, when the mighty Ur-Shaenons first touched the line-drawing monolith and acquired the forbidden knowledge of comicking.

    Even more spoilers for 2001: the computer kills everyone except Dave.

    In Helen’s defense, Sally-Anne might have moved out of Long Island at this point, annulling Dr. Narbon’s reason for neutronising it. Did I just say “reason” and “Dr. Narbon” in the same sentence?

    I quite like the idea, introduced in this strip, that Dr. Narbon is an insidious mash-up of Helen, Shaenon’s mother, and Lord Voldemort.

  6. Hambil & Gerster sounds like a comedy team, or a sleazy law firm, or both.


    -Anonymous Webcomic Site Editor Woman

  7. Wednesday’s Comic: If they hadn’t blacklisted Helen at Reed College, who knows what might have happened?

    This ain’t the first time that a Narbon has gentically manipulated and surgically altered something to exactly resemble something else. FORESHADOWING [Y/N]?

    The Narbonic gerbil seems to be an insidious mash-up of the subgenus Gerbillus, Snoopy, and a paintbrush.

    By the way, gerbil hair isn’t really brown with black points, is it?

  8. The Narbonic gerbils are the best things ever. I have in my posession the original art for a strip from Burning Gerbil and the packaging in which it was shipped to me, and on which is doodled Zeta and Dana (or some other gerbil, Arty would be ashamed of my insensitivity.) They are my prized posessions. 🙂

  9. But to classify the gerster as recent requires classifying (spoiler) as not a mad science projects.

  10. Well, consider (spoiler) and related stuff to have been Dr. Narbon’s heavy lifting with Beta’s input. Kinda like how a kid’s lemonade stand is really financed by (and probably organized by) the kid’s parents. Except in this case, the lemons destroy Cleveland.

  11.  The ur-gerbils do (mostly) have properly rodential postures.  (except for the giant ones, who seem strictly bipedal, perhaps by reference to kangaroos.)

    I don’t have an example handy, but iirc, gerbils have two basic standing positions; standing on four legs (as in the picture) or hunched over their butt and back legs, (while handling something with their forepaws).  Squirrels add a “prairie-dog” standing/begging pose, and the ur-gerbils do seem closer to squirrel size and proportions.  Their expressions, however, make me think of <a href=””>meerkats</a>.


  12. The gerbils are the best animal sidekicks ever. I…um…may have kept every single gerbil-decorated bit of packaging ever received. I cut out a couple of gerbils in curious postures and stuck them to my computer monitor at work, too. They make me happy!

  13. There is something innately exciting about gerbit-decorated packaging.  I didn’t see it coming, but I immediately had to photocopy the gerbil drawings I recieved.  I think it was subliminal messaging or pheromones in the black ink.

  14. On the subject of writing text adventure games — have you seen what some of the modern environments for building those can do? I’m looking forward to playing around with Inform 7; it looks extremely spiffy.

    Mmm… a Narbonic-themed text adventure… that’d be an interesting fanfic idea, though coming from me it’d be *bad* fanfic.


    I’ve also kept all my gerbily packaging, and I’ve probably got over 100 of them by now.  I assume Shaenon is planning on making it big time, sometime soon, so I keep them as part of my retirement portfolio.  That, and I can’t bear to throw them in the trash.

  16. Thursday’s Comic: The three mandatory elements of the mad scientist’s bench are the coloured beakers, the Jacob’s Ladder, and probably the Plasma lamp as well. Also, any one of: bunsen burner, Van de Graaf generator, hanging skeleton.

    Cartoon poses that aren’t reciprocated in real life: Mell hunched so deep into her notebook that she has to hold the pencil sideways. (I get the impression that the reason she’s hunched in so far is that she’s actually drawing the rest of her body onto the notebook, as in Escher’s Drawing Hands.)

  17. You realize, of course, that this strip means there’s a mad scientist somewhere who can honestly claim to have saved the free world.  What kind of bragging rights does that get you at the mad scientist conventions?

  18. “If you think it’s on the tasteless side now that President Reagan has passed on, you probably don’t want to hear Andrew’s elaborate conspiracy theory about Jim Henson faking his own death to operate an animatronic stand-in for the previous Pope.”

    I find it hard to believe that this isn’t a spoiler for a forthcoming chapter of William Bazillion.

    By the way: for curiousity purposes, I’d quite like to see a list of which original strips have been sold already.

  19. True story: this joke is why I wasn’t allowed to use a sequence of Narbonic strips in the installer of our Linux distribution.

  20. “Mad scientists created Ronald Reagan.”Yeah, I kind of figured that. I can only wonder how much more badly awry their “Project Dubya” experiment is gonna go…

  21. Saturday’s Comic: Things that the Narbonic comic doesn’t have enough of: super confrontational close-ups. (There was sort-of one in the ‘Madness’ storyline, and that’s all that comes to mind at this point.)

    I will be expecting either you or Mr. Manley to act out Helen’s parting line in this week’s rapidly approaching podcast episode. I shall then snip it out and use it as a ringtone.

  22. Oh MAN!!  I loved the avocado of death!  Seriously, this is the first time anyone else has noted it that i’ve seen.  but it is a must-read.  Inspired me to wander around after dark on MANY occasions!

  23. I’m surprised the Reagan thing wasn’t a Hitchhikers reference. Not very surprised though, the byproducts storyline is very confusing.

  24. Weirdly, I think learning she’s responsible for inventing Reagan is the first thing to actually creep me out about Helen. The other things were just normal cartoon supervillainy! This is like… wow, she’s actually kind of a sh*tty person, too.

  25. … Oh hey, there’s the original of Madblood’s excellent “steel and lightning and open to the sky” line later. Yes, that is much cuter :p.

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