Narbonic Rocks My Socks

Here lately I’ve been interested in the process and analysis of creative endeavors: how is creativity turned into something tangible, and how well does it work for the audience? Blame it on the stuff I’ve been doing for Dragon*ConTV and my natural tendency to analyze. For the forseeable future I’ll occasionally bust out with a critical essay like the one you’re unwittingly reading now, in which I take apart something creative and/or entertaining, ignoring E.B. White’s dictum about frogs and humor and blazing full speed ahead.

With that out of the way, let me introduce specimen number one: Narbonic. Narbonic is a four-panel comic strip that’s web-based. It’s about the exploits of a mad scientist and her henchmen, and it is my favorite comic strip ever.

The comic’s main protagonist is Dave Davenport, a computer programmer who gets a job out of college with Helen Narbon. Helen is a mad scientist who specializes in biology and genetics — not the mad scientist specialization I would choose, but I suppose it works for her. They are joined by intern Mell Kelly and by Artie (literally RT-5478), a hyper-intelligent gerbil that Helen created.

Narbonic, like Girl Genius, posits a world where certain people are mad (or have the Spark) and can thus quite literally create world-destroying wonders. Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet, mostly because Narbonic’s mad scientists tend to laziness and sloth and have the attention span of a ferret snorting Pixie Stix.

The art is solid, though not outstanding. Get Fuzzy is, for my money, the best-looking four-panel comic currently running, and Narbonic doesn’t meet that high standard. But over the years Shaenon has developed a clean aesthetic that works well, and she’s gotten better over the years. Consider this example from the comic’s second week:

An early example of art from Narbonic

But now?

A more recent example of art from Narbonic

I love the composition of these frames. The BOOM and POW! coupled with Helen’s and Mell’s expressions are glee-inducing. And the first Sunday comic of every new year is an homage to Little Nemo in Slumberland, showcasing both Shaenon’s art and her terrible and powerful knowledge of comics history.

A Narbonic comic whose style is taken from Little Nemo in Slumberland

The Little Nemo strips also demonstrate one of Narbonic’s two great strengths: pacing. Each Little Nemo comic presages what is to come in the strip. They feed into Narbonic’s giant story arc, an arc that’s drawing to a close. At the end of this year, Narbonic ends. What’s more, Shaenon decided on the story arc early on. In a recent podcast, Shaenon admitted that she had some idea of the end when she started the strip, and had in fact written one of the pivotal smaller story arcs before Narbonic. Everything was mostly determined by the end of the second year.

And yet the giant story arc doesn’t keep the daily strips from often being funny in and of themselves. Below is the comic with, bar none, my favorite joke in the entire run. It works even if you don’t really know the characters. In between the gag-a-day format of a four-panel comic and the six-year story arc that Narbonic has been working towards are shorter story arcs that last from a few months to nearly a year. Keeping up the pace of individual story arcs while simultaneously moving the overarching story forward and delivering a joke every day is not easy, and yet Narbonic does it, and has done it, day after day after day after day.

An example punchline from Narbonic

I said that pacing was one of Narbonic’s great strengths. The other is characterization. The characters began as two-word traits rather than personalities: the mad scientist, the weapons-crazy intern, the do-gooder gerbil, the geeky computer nerd. But the characters have grown past that without losing the core of their identities. It’s tough to balance recognizable and near-stereotypical character traits with individual quirks. On the whole, Narbonic gets it right.

From that characterization flows the entire strip. Storylines arise because of the characters’ actions, and those actions follow clearly from who they are. Even moreso, the punchlines flow from character, and do so without hitting the same one note over and over.

Shaenon has also let her characters evolve and change. More importantly, those changes matter. Their choices have real ramifications and don’t feel like arbitrary plot devices. Nothing demonstrates this more than the series climax towards which the strip is hurtling. For a long time Narbonic was about wacky mad science, with no one getting hurt, at least not for long. Then we began to see the shape of the overall plot, and shadows crept into the series. Over the last year it’s been growing steadily darker. A major character has become more evil — truly evil — and less sympathetic, going so far as to kill someone coldly and deliberately. Right now the threat of a truly unhappy end hangs over the series, and what’s more, I believe this threat. It’s the corollary to the character’s choices having consequences. Sometimes those consequences are very bad indeed.

Narbonic works because it features believable and interesting characters that I care about. Even in the midst of the wackiest of plots, the characters are grounded. What’s more, I find their story interesting and compelling. Finding interesting characters and a good story within the same work is a wonderful thing.

For a long time, Narbonic was part of Modern Tales. You could read the most recent strip, but you could only browse the archive if you paid for a Modern Tales subscription. Now the strip is freely available. Go read it. You won’t be sorry.

All Narbonic art copyright © Shaenon Garrity. Used with permission.