Mad Science and the Art of Comicking: Community Interview with Shaenon Garrity

Shaenon Garrity is the creator of Narbonic, L'il Mel, and More Fun, all published by Modern Tales subscription sites. Garrity’s first strip, Narbonic began in 2000 and features the antic antics of Helen Narbonic, mad scientist extraordinaire. She is widely considered to be not only a true creative talent but also a true thinker, with notable personalities such as Scott McCloud praising her many skills over the years. In the ensuing reader-run interview, Garrity talks about mad science, her experiences with freelancing and comics, and Joey Manley's Evil FactorTM.

Are you, or any of your relatives, actually mad scientists? –kjc
No. I studied Biology in college but switched my major to English because, frankly, Biochem 1 was hard. Nobody in my family is a scientist, although my father is an engineer (he builds submarines). However, in a shocking parallel to recent events in Narbonic, my cousin Kim really did join the Army to put herself through law school. She's now at the Pentagon, working in – I am not making this up – Space Law. She deals with NASA's supply contracts, and environmental regulations on space debris, and things like that. Isn't that the greatest thing you ever heard? Space Law!

I've enjoyed seeing the different artists' takes on Li'l Mell. Will we be seeing any more guest aritists in the future, or will you continue to self-illustrate (which is also fine by me)? If there will be more guests, can you give us any hints as to who? – Alexander Danner
No need for hints: barring unforeseen complications, the next Li'l Mell story, "Brain Wars," will be illustrated by my husband, Andrew Farago. I don't have anyone lined up after that, so if you're interested in drawing Li'l Mell, check back with me when "Brain Wars" ends.

I loved having Vera Brosgol and Bill Mudron draw Li'l Mell, and many kisses go out to them for deigning to illustrate my crummy thumbnails. It was a thrill to work with them. I'd like to get a different artist for each future story – and I'd like to keep Li'l Mell going for a good long time.

I'm given to understand you started out by simply telling seven or so of your office co-workers that you had a strip on-line, then you let word-of-mouth do the rest. This took a long while, and it didn't matter because you didn't have any plans at the time for profiting off of your work. Given that there are many more strips now than then, do you think anyone could do the same thing now (start with no intentions of getting a large readership but winding up with one anyway — especially one with members willing to pay to look)?The Mole
I started by emailing family, friends, and my old Usenet group (go! Woo!). I also submitted my site to the major search engines, for whatever good that did, but I was indeed curious to see how far I could get my readership to grow from two dozen initial emails. It was pretty slow going for the first six months or so, and my hits didn't really shoot up until Narbonic had been running for over a year. Then, of course, they shot up too fast, and I got slapped with horrendous bandwidth charges.

Actually, I think beginning webcartoonists have a better chance of getting noticed now than when I started. I launched Narbonic in the summer of 2000, a boom period for webcomics and web-stuff in general, and mine was one of hundreds of crudely-drawn comic strips flooding the Internet. At the same time, the webcomics community was in the fetal stage; as you can learn from T Campbell's excellent history of webcomics on this very site, it was a time when the old portals like Big Panda were collapsing and Keenspot was the only unifying force on the horizon. (Keenspot rejected Narbonic, incidentally, so that was out.)

Nowadays, there are ways to get started in webcomics as part of a ready-made community: you can join Keenspace, or submit to the Modern Tales sites, or post comics on a blog. Or you can join forces with a few ridiculously talented friends and just suddenly take the entire Web by storm, like the Pants Press collective.

There are webzines like Comixpedia and the Webcomics Examiner, which call attention to good webcomics that might pass under the radar. There's an annual webcomics award (for which I have never been nominated, so it must not be that
great), the Ignatz Awards have an "Outstanding Webcomic" category, and webcomics have been nominated for Eisner Awards. What a difference four years makes.

How has your "dayjob" work with manga affected your approach to your own comics?Joey Manley
It occurs to me that a lot of people don't know what my day job is, so I might as well come clean here. Last year, I was laid off from manga publisher Viz LLC, where I worked as a secretary. I was promptly re-hired, sort of, as a freelance manga editor. My editorial work has grown since then, and now pays better than the secretarial work, plus it's a lot of fun, so I'm happy. I've worked on Naruto, YuYu Hakusho, One Piece, Ultimate Muscle, Knights of the Zodiac, and
Viz's two Tenchi Muyo series. I love the work and am delighted to be involved in the production of Japanese comics.

As for how it's affected my own comics… I'm not sure. I was a manga fan before I started work at Viz, and I've always been interested in what American cartoonists can learn from manga. At the same time, my work doesn't have much of a manga "look", aside from certain aesthetic details like Helen's over-the-ear "Lum tails". Like my coworker Jason Thompson, who draws The Stiff on Girlamatic, I read and absorb a lot of manga, but its influence on my work is subtle at most. The main impact my job has on my comics is that I now work at home, so I can spend an entire afternoon drawing Narbonic strips and watching old Simpsons tapes if I so choose.

That said, if I were a better artist, and a better thief, I would probably steal more elements from manga. I would love to do a gung-ho adventure manga like Eiichiro Oda's One Piece. That's my secret dream. But I just don't have the chops for it.

In everyday life do you think of yourself as funny? Narbonic in particular never ceases to crack me up and I wonder if that's a natural part of your personality or only something that emerges from your writing and making comics? – Xerexes
Thank you; you're very kind. I don't know if I'm funny in real life. You'd have to ask people who know me. But I write funny because I find it comfortable. I can't write serious material at all. I can write light material that has a serious edge to it, but I'm always at least trying to crack a joke.

Are most of your characters inspired by real people? In particular, Is "Dave" from Narbonic based on a real person?Anonymous Dave
Dave is a fictional character, although, like most fictional characters, he incorporates aspects of real people. In Dave's case, that would include most of the computer-science majors I knew in college, certain ex-boyfriends, occasionally my husband (any comic-book geekery is probably based on something he did), and frequently me. But Dave is mostly fictional. Mostly.

Other characters in Narbonic are based more directly on specific people. They know who they are. Same goes for Li'l Mell (fortunately, Derek Kirk Kim seems more flattered than horrified) and occasionally, More Fun.

One of your stories hinted at a rather depressing future for Dave and Helen. Are we in for some drama in the next six months, or are you planning to keep things fairly light? – Anonymous who May or May Not Be T Campbell. YOU JUST DON'T KNOW!!!
I definitely don't want the strip to take one of those sudden angsty turns and become a drag. Narbonic will occasionally lay down a heavy trip, but I will endeavor to keep the tone balanced. Nonetheless, I won't get back to the material foreshadowed in the time-travel storyline for a while, so rest easy.

The next six months should be fun, though. The current storyline, which just started, is entertaining enough, being a Wacky Road Trip, but it exists mostly to tie up some dangling plot threads. The storyline after that contains most of the things I've really wanted to do in the strip. And the storyline after *that* contains the rest of them. I'm giddy with anticipation.

Do you have any desires or plans to venture from the world of the web to the printed page in the near future?Anonymous who May or May Not Be Xerexes pretending to Be T Campbell. YOU JUST DON'T WANT TO KNOW!!!
I have no major plans, desires, or opportunities in the print world, although there is a Narbonic print collection available and I've begun work on the long-awaited (by about five people, one of whom is my mom) Narbonic Volume 2. I did a print story for the anthology "Broad Appeal," and Tom Hart and I did a "Trunktown Kids" strip for an upcoming issue of Nickelodeon Magazine. (Nickelodeon Magazine is, by the way, just about the best monthly comic out there. Lots of great indie cartoonists draw for the comics section – it's really neat.)

I've toyed with the idea of trying my hand at a syndicated comic strip after Narbonic; hopefully, by that time, I'll be almost polished enough to compete with the very worst newspaper strips. But the newspaper page is painfully restrictive nowadays, in more ways than one, and it's a rapidly-shrinking market. It's pretty depressing, frankly. I'd better get back to work on my Marvel pitch for a four-part Doombots miniseries.

You are one of the very few artists – it seems to me – who actually responds to e-mails regularly. How important would you say this is to the growth of your audience? Have you ever had e-mails you decided not to respond to, or regretted you had?The Mole
No! I love getting email! I love attention! It's not like I get an overwhelming amount of mail, and I try to respond to everything I receive. Seriously, it's not like I'm some kind of big-shot cartoonist who gets fountains of mail. As I know from working at Viz, I'm not even on the level of the unpopular manga artists. The lamest character in Dragonball Z gets exponentially more mail than I do. Oh, and if you wrote to me once and I didn't respond, the email probably just got lost. Please don't go around thinking I'm a jerk.

I also spend an embarrassing amount of time on my own message board. It's so sad. Still, I've got to do something between eating Jenny Craig macaroni and cheese and playing video golf.

With three series currently running on various Modern Tales sites to date you may be one of the hardest working webcomic creators around. How has webcomics been as a business case for you? What have been the positive and negative experiences working with the Modern Tales approach and what if anything about it would you change at this point? – Xerexes
I have had only positive experiences with Modern Tales. I know there are people who dislike that I only work on pay sites, and I understand that, but if Modern Tales hadn't come along I doubt I would still be doing webcomics today. The other potential revenue streams available to webcartoonists – advertising, merchandising, BitPass, flat-out asking for money – have not panned out spectacularly for me, whereas the Modern Tales model has been pretty darn successful. Beyond that, I feel most comfortable selling subscriptions; I like that people are paying directly to read my comics, since my comics are what I really
have to offer. Modern Tales has made my comics financially viable and inspired me to work toward producing truly professional-quality work. We should all thank our lucky stars that Joey Manley chose to use his powers to make the Web a better place for comics. And that he hasn't turned evil. Yet.

I'd go on longer about how amazing Joey Manley is, but I'd start crying, and nobody wants that. The only change I'd like to see is for a million more people to
subscribe to the Modern Tales sites, so I can make some REAL money. Then I can finally hire anonymous "assistants" to draw my comics for me. That's living the dream, man.

The readers are guest contributors for the Comixpedia. They may or may not contain Lutein.


  1. It is odd that Narbonic has never been nominated for a WCCA. Garrity is about the funniest writer I’ve read doing a daily strip on the web or in the paper.

    As to her comment above, I think you’ll have to imagine the tone as being less than overly-serious…

  2. Only 4 comments? Poo, I say. Poo.

    Well, ok. I understand it’s an interview, not an op ed piece. Still.

    I can’t speak for Lil Mell, having no subscription to Girlamatic, but I’ve been following Narbonic for three years or so, and More Fun since it started.
    Garrity is an excellent webcomicker, but as any regular on her forum could tell you, she’s exceedingly modest. Her comment about the wcca was definitely a joke, people. Let’s move on. 🙂

    Nice interview. Good questions and a lot of great input letting us know more about Shaenon and her work so far.

    I’m just wondering what she has planned for after Narbonic?


  3. >>There’s an annual webcomics award (for which I have never been nominated, so it must not be that great)

    Oh, the self-effacing honesty with which you speak for most comic artists.

  4. Not that surprising. The WCCA for “reality comic” went to Real Life, so it’s pretty obvious that most of the voters are clueless and/or insane.

    Plus, they seem to be mostly kids who probably don’t have bank accounts or credit cards yet. Can’t get a PayPal account and a ModernTales subscription with just cash.

  5. Um, I think Shaenon was kidding, and both the first poster and Xerexes knew that.

    The CCA’s are nominated and voted on entirely by web cartoonists.

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