Mell Expelled: October 7-12, 2002

Okay, this strip isn’t funny or anything. I just wanted to do Chris Ware-style interstitial text. Sorry.

This little two-week storyline provides a bridge to “Class Reunion,” which isn’t all that long either…but the storyline after that is “Doppelganger Gambit,” the longest single storyline in Narbonic. I think “Mell Expelled” was inspired by my concern over how Mell managed to stay in college when her internship kept taking her away from her classes, sometimes for months on end. It ended up being pretty useful for character development and as foreshadowing for future developments involving Mell. Mell’s the most two-dimensional character in the central cast, but eventually she works her way up to maybe 2.6 dimensions.

“Dollboy” is Sugar’s nickname for Spike in Sheldon Mayer’s classic Sugar and Spike comics. At the time, there was some debate on the messageboard over the meaning of Mell’s comment, so I offered a No-Prize for the first person to identify the source. The prize was an empty envelope, just like the old Marvel No-Prizes (one of which Andrew won in the ’90s for identifying a reference to The Brothers Karamozov in Spectacular Spider-Man).

DC, meanwhile, continues to sadden and disappoint me by not putting out an archive collection of Sugar and Spike. I know no one would buy it except me, but I want one anyway.

Dave’s scared little “yes” is quite good, as is his fancy cigarette smoke. You can tell I was getting kind of tired of drawing cigarette smoke all the time.

Man, Mell has big hands in the second panel. At some point I decided that it was better for the characters’ hands and feet to be too large than too small, what with them being cartoon characters and all, so I started to err on the side of large hands. Often this went too far.

Much, much later in the strip, Dave notes that Mell gives Artie a squeaky voice when she imitates him, too.

Still gotta love the sound effect for gender-swapping. I can’t remember when I decided on this plot development, although I guess it’s a logical enough way to get Dave to Mell’s campus instead of Helen. Helen spent a very long period of time male during the D-Con arc, so I might as well turn Dave into a girl for a while.

This is, I believe, the last storyline to feature the gender-swap formula, although much later it’s implied that certain characters continue to use it for recreational purposes. I’ve said this elsewhere, but I’m kind of sorry I never drew the gender-swapped characters later on, when my art was better and I could have made Dave, in particular, look cuter. Also, I never gender-swapped Artie or Mell, but Artie has his own body issues and nothing really bad ever happens to Mell.

Obviously, the best part of this strip is the collection of weird mutant lab animals in the third panel. Check out the two giant messed-up gerbils in the background! Why didn’t I draw more stuff like this? Oh, right, because it’s hard to keep coming up with new ones.

I also like how quickly Dave recovers from being turned into a woman at this point. And geez, Girl Dave is so much shorter than everyone else in the strip.

No, I don’t remember what the Four Fours was, besides a classic mathematical puzzle, or why I wished to commemorate it in cartoon T-shirt form. I don’t think Mell’s various admirers are based on anyone in particular. Or maybe they are and I’ve just forgotten. Many details of this strip are strange and mysterious to me now. All I can say with any certainty is that Mell’s skirt is really short in that first panel.

Mell Expelled: Next

54 thoughts on “Mell Expelled: October 7-12, 2002

  1. So… you’re saying that Mell’s character has fractal development.  That makes a lot of sense, actually…

  2. Monday:

    This may sound familiar, but as it turns out, “Everything’s back to normal” is different enough from “things can’t get any worse” to count as a distinct subtrope of Tempting Fate. (Actually, reading that page just now makes me realise how virulently many numerous variations this trope has.)

    “DON’T SAY IT!”: 2.

    I think I’ll take this brief pause to reveal the secret to putting hyperlinks in WCN comments. Turn off JavaScript, then reload the page. Unlike the fancy TinyMCE input box, the standard input box is unfiltered and allows the all-important ‘a’ HTML tag, as well as b, i, u, em, strong, and br (but not marquee, I’m afraid). But there’s one thing you must do: never, under any circumstances, should you finish a post without closing off the bold, italic or underline tags!

  3. (TUNE: “The Way”, by Fastball)

    Her character’s flat, and needs some direction;
    She’s cute, but made of tropes that never gelled …
    In time, she’ll grow to 2.6 dimensions,
    But right now she’s fretting, ’cause she might be getting expelled!

  4. (In the voice of the announcer from Rocky & Bullwinkle)

     So join us next time for the continuing adventures of Helen and Davenport in

    “All’s Mell that end’s Mell” or “That’s not the gerbil I walked in with…”

  5. Oh god.  I’ve been using this trope heavily in a fight scene I’ve been writing with a genre-savvy chew toy mathematician in it, so as soon as I saw today’s comic I sat bolt upright in my chair and said “Tropal probability!  Nooo!”

    And then I realized I’m not living in Narbonic, or my fanfiction, or anything.  Except now that I’ve said that, I probably am.  Bah.

  6. Interestingly, when Dave warns Helen, that is the one circumstance in which a person is allowed to use the full sentence (or one of its equivalents) without the usual Narrative Comedy consequences – as long as it’s a “you shouldn’t have said that” rather than “here’s why you shouldn’t say what you were about to”.  Subject to GM discretion, of course.

  7. I think it also makes the panel take up more time. Obviously the smoke had to take some time to billow.

  8. Tuesday:

    Poor poor Dave. He’s been among these people too long to know what really matters anymore.

    Silent Penultimate Panels: 12.

    Honest question time: are there any 20th century comics left that have yet to pass across your vacuum-like all-consuming eyeballs?

  9. (TUNE: “Call Me”, by Blondie)

    Super-ultra-double-dog-dare utmost secrecy!
    I just got a letter from my university!
    I’ve been missing too much class,
    So they might expell my hash!

    Listen, geek!
    Don’t you breathe a single syllable!
    Don’t you speak!
    Or you’ll find out that you’re killable!

  10. Mell’s penultimate lip-curl, saying “I know he’ll break, it’s just a matter of when”, is splendid.

  11. @Leon Arnott: Or you could go to the WCN control panel and just turn off the fancy comment editor.

    So, Shaenon, why DID you always draw so much cigarette smoke around Dave? I mean it’s not like he ever smoked or anything.

  12. I’d just like to add that the Brothers Karamazov is awesome (albeit long and very slow for the story to actually start, but once it does, hoo boy), and I applaud Andrew for winning a no-prize regarding it.

  13. Which makes it all the stranger when she turns out to be a cynical politician. I was figuring on something more fun.

  14. Thursday:

    Once again, Shaenon is being completely unfair to Dave. To be unwittingly transformed by his boss Helen is one thing. But to be quite literally emasculated by a small grinning girl, and one of his co-workers to boot, is simply taking this gender-swap thing to unscaled pinnacles of humiliation.

    (If only Dave wasn’t so thick-headed that the symbolic implications of these sorts of events are mostly lost on him.)

    Personally, I think having three storylines containing the chromosome-reversing alfalfa potion teetered this webcomic dangerously close to being typecast as ‘the one with gender-swapping scientists’. Its absense from 2003-5 was a grace that let the public’s perception of the comic shift to more diverse premise-simplifications, such as ‘the one where gerbils turn into naked guys’.

  15. Well, that’s what you get for being forceful, Dave. You might as well not bother.

    Why is being emasculated by a small grinning girl worse than being emasculated than anyone else, Leon? Just wondering. Anyway, I think I take exception to the “small”. Mell’s 5’6, isn’t she?

  16. The thrill of masculinity!  The agony of distaff!  The drawn-out humor of gender manipulation!  This is ABC’s “Wide World Of Splorts”!

  17. Dave may have “become an equal”, but in this lab, that doesn’t protect him from Machiavellian interns!

  18. Hey, you can still draw ’em!  We’re not stopping you!  It’d be fun Sunday material.

  19. kickin’: Mell may be 5’6, but she’s also particularly slim- and compared to Dave, she is short.

  20. I think a gender-swapped Mell would look a lot like Christopher Walken: remote, chill, and not interested in your survival.

    And the thought of Christopher Walken in a checked skirt and off-the-shoulder top is enough to make me grateful Mell never gender-swapped.

  21. Nice one, Ed “Jim McKay” Gedeon. So I know Dave has to be the one wiping out while “the agony of distaff” is spoken – but what’s the visual?

  22. Dave always struck me as a bit more of a tough guy than he thinks just because stuff like this doesn’t phase him.

  23. Friday:

    Now how did that quote go… “This classroom is not a democracy!” Yeah, that’s it.

    All I’m interested in are those bizarre tubes with bubbles in them. Are they small and near, or large and far? (If the latter, I wonder about the rationality of a scientist, even a mad one, who requires ten-foot-tall beakers and test tubes.)

  24. How tall, relatively speaking, are the cast? Mell, Dave, Helen, Girl-dave, Madblood, Artie-man (eventually)?

  25. And after instant sex-changes, death-ray satellites, buggy teleportation, transforming robots, and mutant gerbils, we enter one of the most purely… surreal segments of the Narbonic storyline.  😉

  26. @Adam: I think there’s a reference somewhere in vol. 6 about man-Artie being 6’6″ or thereabouts. I seem to recall reading that when I read through the shiny new vol. earlier this week.

  27. Is that a Domo-kun I see there? NOW WE KNOW THE TRUTH! Designed as shock troops in Helen’s attempted conquest of Japan, the SDF’s timely deployal of kittens averted what could of been a major catastrophe. Helen keeps this last one as a reminder of her failure, and because its so CUUTE!

  28. I seem to remember hearing that ManDave is about six foot and Helen is 5’10.

    And Adam: Mell is short compared to Dave? Not today, she isn’t. GirlDave can’t be more than 5’1. I do like Mell’s big evil grin.

  29. You have to feel sorry for Dave in this storyline…


    Hell, you’ve pretty much gotta feel fsorry for dave right up untill the last few years. And even then the universe goes back to taking huge dumps on him near the end.

  30. We don’t have to feel sorry for Dave in this storyline…because it [SPOILER SPOILER] in the [SPOILER] with [SPOILERS!]

  31. Saturday:

    What is this…?!
    Could it be…?!
    …the triumphant return of Mell’s 8-Ball Jacket?! To think it has been so long!

    I wouldn’t describe this particular Saturday cliffhanger as surreal, Mr. Harmon. The most accurate term, I feel, would be simply ‘discordant.’ The most surreal part of Narbonic is, and always will be, the part where you read the latter four weeks of ‘Lovelace Affair’ in the wrong order because the Modern Tales archive list was all bungled up. But the time to discuss that is yet to come.

  32. There was a Dorothy Gambrell comic called The Four-Fours.  I think they were a band, maybe?  Anyway, perhaps that’s the reference here…

  33. Panel 1:  Yes, Mell’s skirt is short.  Very, very short.  You can see quite a lot of her slender, shapely legs.  My my my, what a short short skirt.  I don’t know whether to thank Mell’s fashion sense, or Shaenon’s erratic drawing skills.

    Panel 3:  The guy obviously got the t-shirt for his sixteenth birthday (’cause he’s such a square).

    Panel 4:  “When guns are outlawed, only sociopathic homicidal maniacs with an almost sensual love for bloodshed and dreams of world conquest will have guns.  (…Heh heh heh).”

  34. It’s alright. When working with mad science, hardly any of your guns is a gun.

    Or, tougher gun control: you want a gun, you gotta wrest it from the girl in the plaid skirt who controls them.

  35. Erin: Of course! It has to be a Dorothy Gambrell reference! I’m a huge fan of her. It’s exactly the sort of thing I would do.

  36. “Four Fours” is indeed a math puzzle. The object is to find ways of representing integers using four fours. For instance:

    0 = 4 – 4 + 4 – 4
    1 = (4 + 4)/(4 + 4)
    2 = (4/4)+(4/4)
    3 = (4 + 4 + 4)/4

    My dad used to use the puzzle in one of his math education courses. I ran across a reference to a “Four Twos” game in a book, which was the same puzzle but using twos. It was apparently a big thing where P. A. M. Dirac, the physicist, was working. One of his colleagues asked him if he had tried the puzzle. Dirac answered that he had found a formula to construct any integer using just three twos.

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