Narbonic, by Shaenon K. Garrity, hosted both at its own site and as part of the Modern Tales family is a tale of the fine art of mad science. The aspiring mad scientist Helen B. Narbon has collected around her loyal – if reluctant – followers in her never-ending quest to dominate the Earth (or at least destroy it), and in doing so hopefully gain the approval of her evil mad scientist mother.
'The strip opens with the college graduation of Dave Davenport. Almost immediately, after the Computer Science graduates (of which Dave is one) have been admonished about applying their skills for evil, Dave is approached by Mell Kelly, Helen’s secretary and gunsmith, who offers him an interview with Narbonics Research. For Dave, it goes downhill from there.
The strip is focused primarily on him and how he is both the perpetrator and the victim of many of Helen’s schemes – sometimes both at the same time. Originally hired to debug the orbital laser doomsday machine, Dave becomes Helen’s primary research subject. Among other things, his genetic material is continually being sampled for unknown but worrisome (to him) projects; he is sent to deal with gerbils large, small, vicious, or hyper-intelligent; his gender and appearance are altered; and his brain keeps getting transplanted. Through it all, Dave remains loyal. Why? One reason is that Dave has a slight crush on Helen, even as she frightens him. The other is that, even though he knows that he is involved in the enterprises of a mad scientist, what he’s working on is just so damned cool!
As a computer geek, Dave is in his heaven, even if it has a not-so-healthy dose of hell mixed in. He knows that no corporate drone will ever have the chance to work on a doomsday machine of any flavor, or corral rampaging Ur-gerbils, or attempt to infiltrate the nefarious conspiracy that really controls the world, and if, to do this, he must perpetrate a little evil, that’s just the price he has to pay. How many of us could say that we would act differently, given the chance?
Dave is the everyman, the schlemiel who is plucked from looming obscurity and thrust into events that, while he may not control them is, at least, involved. In fact, Dave really has very little control over anything that happens to him. He is surrounded by overbearing personalities, in Helen, in Mell, in Artie the genetically enhanced hyper-intelligent gerbil, and in Helen’s chief rival Professor Madblood. Ultimately, Dave knows that he is overmatched, and simply goes along for the ride; even when he scores a point against one of these others it often turns out to backfire on him.
Narbonic’s strengths are its double-whammy of quality art and writing. Garrity’s style has remained consistent throughout the run of the strip. Compare the first week of strips, 31 Jul – 5 Aug, 2000, with the most recent week, 20 Jan – 25 Jan, 2003. Although slight refinements in her style can be seen, such as a bolder and easier to read lettering style, the consistency between the first and most recent strips indicates that Garrity had a strong handle on her art style before she first put Narbonic online. Whether the story calls for giant robots, outrageously excessive firearms, swarms of gerbils, or Victorian Amazons, Garrity’s linework and shading convey the story without becoming overbearing.
She also has a fine grasp on how the human body moves, and her characters’ movements are fluid and realistic. They are always doing something, even if it is a simple, incidental act; they are never caught merely standing around, talking. Her style, a combination of simplification and detail that might be called "toonish realism", works well for the subject matter. Despite the often-outrageous situations, the characters are rarely depicted in the sort of distorted cartoonish expressions that would detract from the seriousness of their situation. Make no mistake, Narbonic is a humorous serial strip – it’s just that the characters don’t realize they’re in a comedy. The closest they get (except for some very-infrequent 4th-wall humor) is an acknowledgement that they may be in a tragic farce.
The writing, likewise, is strong. Since Narbonic centers around mad scientists and mad science, a certain amount of technical accuracy should be expected, and Garrity pulls this off. Luckily, many of Helen Narbon’s experiments teeter on or near the fringes of accepted modern science, so it doesn’t take much for the bafflegab and technojargon to sound legitimate.
An excellent example of this is the storyline entitled "David Cronenberg’s The Geek," a parody of David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly. This is one of the few storylines in which Dave does not get the shaft, and instead it is Helen who is the victim as she slowly transforms into Dave after a classic teleporter accident. One particularly fine sequence in this storyline, that combines a faithful devotion to the source material (such as it might be), a close attention to at least the ‘sound’ of science, and a healthy dose of silliness is the week of 2 Sep – 7 Sep, 2002.
Another example of the high caliber of writing in Narbonic, but for a completely different reason than the example above, is "Class Reunion". In it, Helen returns to her high school for her tenth-year reunion, bent on revenge and mayhem, dragging a not-so-reluctant Dave along as her date and accomplice. This story, both funny and poignant, is a particular favorite of mine. I won’t reveal how things turn out, but I will say that attending one’s high school reunion can be a humbling experience, both for you and for others.
Overall, Narbonic is a high-quality strip that effectively parodies the mad-science genre. Despite the outrageous settings and situations the characters are all consistent in their behavior, which in turn makes them believable. Fine art, coupled with strong character-driven stories and generous helpings of humor, hard pseudo-science, and geekery, mix well in Shaenon’s warped beaker of a mind to make this strip a fun, excellent read.