Narbonic

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Someday I will find the secret to your social chemistry.
"Young lady, you fail to grasp the basic principles of mad science. Common sense would be cheating."
Professor Lupin Madblood

Evil has never been this cute!

Answering an innocent job offer, Dave Davenport is drawn into a shocking spiral of vice, crime and moral depravity. Hopelessly ensnared by a madwoman's feminine wiles, can he return to the world of sanity before it is... too late? Narbonic skates over some surprisingly serious territory, but with such a light touch you will probably be too busy laughing to notice. Formerly on a subscription site, the story ended in late 2006, whereupon the entire archive was made free.

You can view both the regular version and the Director's Cut (wherein cartoonist Shaenon K. Garrity explains the previous-comic background of the major characters, and comments on each strip). (And finally please refrain from reading the spoilered text below if you intend reading this comic at some point in the future or are following the Director's Cut in real time.)

Immediately after the end of Narbonic, it was followed by Skin Horse, recently[when?] revealed to be set in the same universe.

Tropes used in Narbonic include:
  • Achievements in Ignorance: Dave, who can fix anything. At the very beginning of the strip, he is able to reconstruct a fully functioning weather-control device from a broken mail sorter that Helen tricked him into believing was a broken mail-order doomsday device. The resulting device can control pre-existing Kill Sats.
    • Subversion too, as he's really a latent genius.
  • Affably Evil: Helen and Mell do pretty unpleasant, not to mention unethical and irresponsible, things pretty much constantly. But they're so darn charming its easy to forget.
  • And Then John Was a Zombie And then Dave was a Mad Scientist.
  • Animorphism: inverted with Artie, a gerbil transmogrified into a human
  • The Annotated Edition: The comic has a rerun with strip-by-strip commentary, which started when the strip itself ended.
  • Anti-Villain: The protagonists!
  • Art Shift: Every year has a Dave-in-Slumberland strip whose art style is based on that of Little Nemo and Dreams of the Rarbrit Fiend. These contain coded clues for what will happen in the following year of strips.
  • Back from the Dead: Dave. No, this isn't a spoiler.
  • Bad Future: Dave ends up in one when he's unstuck in time. One of the residents there a Hyperintelligent mind uploaded verison of Dave himself gives him a subtle clue about how to fix the future.
  • Beta Couple: Mell and Caliban
  • Big Bad Ensemble: The last arc has the Hamsters and Dave, though the later is clearly the bigger and more personal threat.
  • Briar Patching: "If that's the way they want it, I'll just have to cope with living on a tropical island with two scantily-clad women." (Also a heavy dose of Foreshadowing and or Fridge Brilliance on the part of the author.)
  • Bold Inflation: Two plus two words: ANTONIO SMITH (FORENSIC LINGUIST).
    • He would kill you for writing his name in all caps.
    • Unless he's wearing the fedora.
  • Broken Faceplate: The state of Dave's eyeglasses symbolizes the state of his sanity. For most of the comic's run, his glasses are intact but represented as opaque. Towards the end when Dave finally realizes the great secret responsible for much of his life's path, his glasses are suddenly represented as clear, showing that he can see clearly now. And then one of the lenses cracks, as a not-so-subtle way to show that Dave is half-cracked.
  • Butt Monkey: Madblood and Dave for much of the comic. They still don't have anything on Victorian Madblood, who ended up the sole consort of a planet of shapeshifters who decided they all liked his form best.
  • Brain Uploading: Dave, during his Mad Scientist breakdown.
  • Brotherhood of Funny Hats: The Dave Conspiracy-- Their "hat" is being named Dave. Not only is every member a Dave, every Dave is a member!
    • Daves who are ejected from the Conspiracy must introduce themselves as, and respond to, David. Others even take to calling them David, unconsciously, without any prodding!
  • Card-Carrying Villain: unusually, this applies to the protagonists
  • Chekhov's Gun and Chekhov's Gunman: Several examples.
  • Chronically Crashed Car: Dave's cars can't ever catch a break.
  • Cloning Blues: Helen was scarred by growing as the subject of experimentation by her mother on the heritability of Mad Genius, and worries that she's turning out just as bad. These worries become especially relevant both in her experiments on Dave's nascent madness and her bringing out a clone of Dave after their breakup. The Dave clone is killed by Dave as part of his Villainous Breakdown.
  • Clue From Ed
  • Companion Cube: Foot, of sorts. Acutally intelligent enough to speak, and an object of (temporary, we hope) desire for Mel. "Oh! He's so coldly destructive!"
  • Con Lang: A throw-away gag in the epilogue.
  • Contractual Genre Blindness AND Genre Savvy
  • Cool but Inefficient: a hallmark of mad science, as pointed out by Mell: see Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better
  • Cosmic Deadline: The final story arc.
  • Costumer: the Victorian Sunday feature
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Helen never actually appears stupid (she is a mad scientist afterall) but she does almost always act as a Affably Evil hyperintelligent version of The Ditz. this is very much an act.
  • Deconstructor Fleet
  • Destructo-Nookie: when Helen and Dave get together for the first time, the lab is trashed. Noodle Implements are scattered everywhere.
  • Do Not Adjust Your Set: Done by Professor Madblood
  • Easter Egg: A story of Helen's origin can be found (two or three words at a time) attached to the filenames of the individual strips. The compiled story can be found here.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: played straight with Helen's lair, but subverted as well. Madblood brags about his "underground lair", but it's revealed that "underground" means "living in Mom's basement".
    • Helen's "underground lair" is actually a storm drain. They just do a really good job fixing it up.
  • Embarrassing Middle Name: Helen (Beta), Dave (Prescott), and Mell (Wildflower).
  • Entertainingly Wrong: In this strip, Dave comes to the entirely logical but incorrect conclusion that Lovelace is actually Professor Madblood.
  • Evil Laugh
  • Fake-Out Make-Out, sort of
  • Filk Song: This has become a running feature in the comments section of the "Director's Cut" re-runs. For example, this strip inspired one reader to compose "In The Dungeon We'll Rot" to the tune of "You're The One That I Want" from the movie version of "Grease".
  • Foreshadowing: Almost everything in the comic. Side characters, oddball filler arcs, offhand comments, almost everything comes into play later.
  • For Want of a Nail: "Listen, Dave. When the time comes, you must refill the swimming pool. Got it?"
  • Freak-Out: All mad scientists go through this when they first go mad. Hellen's, told in an Easter Egg spanning literally the entire strip's run (hint: Look at the filenames of the strips) involved her turning a bunch of pasta into a deadly bioweapon.
    • Note that, of the scientists who mentioned the settings and casualties of their initial freakouts, Helens was the most destructive. The competition included a nuclear power station.
    • Dave's involves him taking over Madblood's evil lair, killing off the local advanced AI, and uploading his own brain to take it's place.
  • Furry Fandom: Some elements are heavily parodied in this strip.
  • Geeky Analogy: Dave does this a lot; since he works for a mad scientist, his analogies with Star Trek and Marvel Comics are usually highly appropriate.
  • Gender Bender: First once to test a theory about the Third Law of Gender Bending, later used as a sexual roleplay device.
  • Generation Xerox: Not only is Helen a literal "xerox" of her mother, but her life and personal tastes parallel hers in several ways, occasionally to her angst.
    • The Victorian Narbonic storyline may or may not be part of canon, but there are at least two ghosts to testify to a Helen, Mell, and Dave living over a century ago having similar mad science adventures.
  • Go-Go Enslavement
  • Go Look At the Distraction: Happens to Dave during the "Lovelace affair" plotline.
  • Good Angel, Bad Angel: Played with -- not only is there Good Angel, Bad Angel, but there's "Social Life", "Mad Scientist", "Self Esteem", "Fear of Women", "Biological Clock"... And the characters can all see their own, and the angels can see each other -- and socialize after work.
  • Gratuitous Italian: The Italian spoken by the Amazon Women of Mars in the Victorian storyline oscillates between nearly normal and positively Jabberwockish.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Zeta Vincent.
  • Hey, It's That Guy!: Shaenon Garrity litters the Mad Symposium of "Professor Madblood and the Lovelace Affair" with cameos of mad scientists from other webcomics.
    • Also the physicist and the webcomic artist who Artie meets at the dinner? Ink Suit Actors of Paradigm Shift creator Dirk Tiede and his future wife.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard (subverted)
  • Huge Holographic Head
  • Hulk Speak: Foot
  • Humanity Ensues: Artie is not happy about his acquisition of Shapeshifting abilities.
  • Hyperspace Mallet: Mell's easy access to Hammerspace has been lampshaded once or twice.

Helen: Where exactly did you get that mallet?
Mell: Whaddya mean? Mallets just happen.

Present Dave: I have no problem believing this is me.

Dr. Fowler: "Yes, that was simply a killer pesto wasn't it, Narbon?"

    • If one reads the side story, added a word or two a day in the filenames, the tale of that Italian Bistro is told.
  • Not So Different: Poor Artie causes a lot of chaos, despite being the token good member of the cast.
  • Not So Harmless: Helen comes across as a slightly goofy, hopelessly inept mad scientist playing to all the tropes (and a Hollywood Nerd). Turns out this is a persona she wears at all times to be able to interact with people on our level. When she has to go up against another newly-gone-mad mad scientist, she warns the rest of the cast that she will be too busy to play nice.

Artie: So what we've seen up to now is the reassuring persona?
Mel: Hells yeah. Not even I wanna meet Real Helen in a dark alley.

Dave after breaking up with Helen: I'll never have lesbian sex again, dammit!

Dave: "So sanity's not coming off too well?"
Girl: "I'm just not seeing much of a difference, is all."

  • Scary Shiny Glasses: Dave is an odd example - his eyes are covered sporadically by his glasses throughout most of the comic and only go totally clear once he goes mad. The elder Doctor Narbon also wears glasses obscuring her eyes in all of her appearances in the comic except for when Dave meets her while traveling in time, where she looks exactly like present day Helen.
  • Science-Related Memetic Disorder: Mad genius is an actual genetic condition, and Helen manages to find a cure for it... but with the side effect of decreasing the subject's intelligence and amplifying their Weirdness Censor to an astonishing degree. It also makes the user impotent. Since Helen was dating Dave at the time, she didn't want to use it on him for that reason.
  • Sense Freak: Caliban in human form.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Among other things, Dave quit smoking by never starting in the first place. In a more plot heavy moment Dave from the future specifically invokes this trope by leaving a holographic message to a time hopping Dave from the present that he's not happy with his life, and gives him instructions on how to fix things.
  • Sex Dressed
  • Shameful Strip: After Nick Cricetida is knocked unconscious, he awakes in the villainess's bed naked.
  • Shout-Out: When the mutant gerbils escape they are killed by a lop-eared rabbit with a switchblade - Bun-Bun from Sluggy Freelance. Also, a more subtle one: the Crabtree Grant to Women in Mad Science.
    • Pretty much any film with a mad scientist gets a reference at some point or another. Here, the teleporter has a sign barring entry to flies.
    • Shout-Out/To Shakespeare: ANTONIO SMITH, FORENSIC LINGUIST! (mis)quotes Shakespeare constantly. Helen's name is a reference to Helena de Narbonne in All's Well That Ends Well.
    • At a mad scientists' convention, a supercomputer is asked to sing 'Daisy, Daisy'. It refuses.
      • It later takes an opportunity to say: "I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that." Later still, as it's being erased, the supercomputer says "Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Will you stop, Dave? I'm afraid. Dave, my mind is going. I can--"
    • To Babylon 5 when Helen declares:

Only one man has ever survived my ur-gerbils. He is behind me. You are in front of me.

"And thus he falls for Villain Fallacy #2: Letting the harmless comic relief run free."