Saturday, February 14, 2015


"In the past-talking present tense
Gonna break it gonna wreck it gonna try to make it all make sense.
Stasis is what you got
Like a rickshaw getting pulled around by another rickshaw."

Modest Mouse - Steam Engenius

I miss Narbonic. Luckily I don't have to miss it too much since its spin-off, Skin Horse, is arguably more accomplished. Yet there was something delightfully free and freeing about the older comic which the newer doesn't quite grasp even in its goofier moments. Ah, well. I suppose I'm only repeating what I've said about being a SciFi / Fantasy fan, about reading George Martin books before he went "pop" and listening to Amanda Palmer back when she was a Dresden Doll. I miss the underground days. Ou sont les neiges d'antan?

Narbonic started in 2000. At least half of us still used 56k modems. AOL was still mass-mailing CDs to people's houses. The superhero movie revival hadn't started yet. The Matrix had only been released the previous year. A Lord of the Rings adaptation was still only a beautiful rumor. Webcomics tended to be written by computer nerds and gamers more often than by artists. The few artists desperate enough to slap some drawings online in the hope of a few tips were most often fresh art-school graduates who found themselves unhireable in a post-tech-bubble contracting economy.

So Narbonic was not a very professional endeavor. Like many of the early webcomics, it was much less a Machiavellian attempt to capture an audience and wring money out of it than an expression of nerd culture. It built on a realization which nerds all tend to reach while growing up: that we identify with the villains in comic-books at least as often as with the heroes, that human culture at large views intellect as villainous. Combine that with the knowledge that to be an individual you really do have to be a little bit crazy, plus a fascination with Science! with a capital "!" and you get a hilarious re-examination of the mad scientist trope, a slapstick "Grendel" for the James Bond decades.

And lo, they did come! Though most webcartoonists learned quickly to sell their audience the illusion of participation by occasionally publishing fan submissions, Narbonic differed in that some of these were actually worthwhile. Benefiting from a few truly creative fans instead of simply a faceless mass of consumers, it frequently featured collections much more varied and detailed than simple "guest art" : limericks, palindrome poetry, short fiction, you name it. To her credit, the author never allowed these to displace the comic itself, but combined with her own charming digressions from plot (re-imagining the cast as Victorian adventurers, for instance) they lent Narbonic that feel of a nerdy counterculture outcry which typified our (largely imagined) idealized version of the earlier Internet.

However, it stands as more than just a product of its times. As a comic, its charming antiheroes play out, in addition to the giddy horseplay of the scientist off his leash, also the self-destructive "mad" side of mad genius. While it never dives into outright drama and manages to retain a relatively light touch (the term "Cerebus Syndrome" I believe was coined sometime during Narbonic's six-year run and everyone got very self-conscious about it) it gradually becomes clear that lacking a self-control mechanism or three has its downsides. Slowly, tentatively, circuitously, Narbonic transitioned into a character-driven tale of mutual support. Half of crackpot intellectuals' inter-relations, as it turns out, is just keeping each other sane as best they can.

"Both halves are the better half
Like a joke trying to make another joke laugh."

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