Due to unforeseen circumstances, there’s no podcast ready for tonight. We should have it together later this week, and it’ll be about Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera’s great indian crime drama “Scalped.”
Until such a time as it arrives, let me say that after almost five-and-a-half months I have finally finished reading everything that I bought at Comic-Con. It’s not that I was saving the best for last or putting it off because I regretted having picked it up, but that I had read this already. These “Perfect Collections” of Shaenon Garrity’s “Narbonic” collect her excellent webcomic of mad science, romance, fandom and everything in between. I should hope that the fact that I was willing to plunk down real money for something that I read for free on the internet is proof of its worthiness, because the real story I want to tell here is how I came to read all of it.
Journey if you will back to around December 2003 when I secured a part-time job at the Riverside Community College Assessment Center. I’d still be working there if they had found a way to get me on full-time, and much busier there too according to my friend who is still the head of the center. At the time, though, there was usually plenty of free time between helping people as they came in, and since I had internet access that meant there was plenty of time for cruising the internet for stuff (that didn’t involve sound). Usually that meant webcomics. Thanks to the time I spent there, I devoured lots of them including the ones like “Something Positive,” “Penny Arcade,” and “The Order of the Stick” that I still follow regularly today.
“Narbonic,” however, was not one of them at first.
You see, that particular title was behind a paywall at a site called Modern Tales. While I’ve paid `for a lot of things that I’ve read for free on the net over the years, I was never inclined to consider paying for a subscription to that site. That’s because none of the titles offered there overcame my self-imposed litmus test of appearing better than any of the ones that I was currently reading for free. Except “Narbonic,” and that was all due to Eric Burns.
Burns ran a website called Websnark (I can’t tell if he’s still involved with its current incarnation, but that’s besides the point) which covered the major trends in webcomics and offered some thoroughly insightful reviews about whatever crossed his path. I followed the site and his words for years and came across lots of great comics as a result. The last one I remember him writing about was called “Concerned” and used “Garry’s Mod” and “Half-Life 2” to tell the story of Gordon Frohman, the hapless and terminally stupid precursor to Gordon Freeman in HL2 who wound up causing most of the chaos that game’s protagonist had to unravel. It was genius in its depiction of Frohman’s stupidity and it holds a special place in my heart for not just its overall quality, but because it was the last thing I remember reading on that site before I stopped reading it due to the irregularity of its updates.
There were a lot of great comics featured on the site, but Burns seemed to be most particular to and effusive in praise of “Narbonic.” It’s the story of Dave Davenport, a recent graduate with a degree in computer science who winds up taking a job at Narbonics Labs with one Helen B. Narbon, a mad scientist, and her utterly devious and psychopathic intern Mell. I was all ready to give it a read, but that aforementioned paywall was in the way. So I picked up the first two softcover collections instead, because that’s how strong Burns’ hold on me was. If he said this was THE BEST webcomic out there, then I felt I had to find some way to read it. The dead tree option being the most appealing. Why yes, I will be one of the last holdouts in the industry’s move to digital comics, now let me continue.
After reading these first two volumes I was... slightly underwhelmed. They weren’t bad, but I was expecting greatness. Though these first two volumes (comprising the first two-thirds of the first “Perfect Collection”) introduce a lot of the characters that would go on to play huge parts in the series -- superintelligent gerbil Artie, Helen’s mother Dr. Narbon, would-be romantic interest and archrival to Helen, Zeta the gonzo journalist, Lupin Madblood, Caliban the demon, forensic linguist Antonio Smith -- things hadn’t quite clicked here. It was all competently put together, but that deliriously creative spark that would fuel future stories was only intermittently present here. My defining memory of those volumes occurs when Helen explains to Dave that her lab’s equipment can detect the shoulder angels and devils that have been manifesting themselves to each individual character and the reader. The punchline of this strip occurs when we finally see Mell’s, who only says “Kill... Kill... Kill...”
There wasn’t enough of that to get me to pick up the other volumes on sale, so I pushed “Narbonic” to the back of my mind. I was still aware of it thanks to Burns’ regular updates and it wrapped up in 2006 to much acclaim from him. It was still beyond my grasp... until Garrity took it out from behind the paywall. Enthused, I started reading it during my spare time at the assessment center.
What I found after the comics from the collected editions I had previously bought eventually wound up living up to the hype. Those of you with an interest in picking up the “Perfect Collections” will likely notice that the series maintains a steady upwards trend in quality through the first volume, culminating with Prof. Madblood and Artie winding up with Dave’s body, along with Dave himself, as they try to deal with the army of Madblood robots on the professor’s moonbase. It sends the volume out on a high note, and that level of quality is maintained through the second collection.
It’s there that things start to get crazy and crazily good too. Things start off with Dave getting unstuck in time as he bounces through three eras of his life with synchronicity as his only salvation. Then Caliban becomes mortal with a secret cabal of demons known as the Malebrache coming to Earth to collect on the debt he owes -- which gives the cast all the reason they need to hold a slumber party! You also have Mell, Dr. Narbon and a human Artie having a showdown in the lost diamond mines of Brazil while Dave and Helen do something that would appear to be anathema to romantic tension. Even when it’s dishing out comedic delight, “Narbonic” also proves to be surprisingly adept at injecting real drama and heart to its characters struggles as well. The revelation of Zeta’s origin could’ve been played entirely for laughs, but you really wind up feeling for her struggle to connect with her creator’s family. Same goes for the drama that ensues when Helen’s real plans for Dave come to the surface and nearly destroy the world in the process. This mix of the highly absurd and sincerely dramatic would normally come off as a recipe for disaster, but Garrity makes it work as she never loses sight of her characters’ motivations or their personalities. Everything that happens flows naturally from how they’ve been established in the strip.
This is fantastic stuff, and if I had been aware that there was a Kickstarter to fund these “Perfect Collections” last year, then I would’ve contributed to it for sure. Despite that, I was still able to get these from Garrity’s husband and contributor to the comic, Andrew Farrago, at this year’s Comic-Con. Re-reading the comic in this format was a great experience as I not only got to relive the great parts that I remembered, but was surprised to re-experience the parts I had completely forgotten about.
Though I have no qualms about recommending this to fans of comic strips, quirky humor and mad science, I do have a few issues with the “Perfect Collection” label. It would imply that these collections of “Narbonic” are perfect and that’s not quite the case. While they collect the six out-of-print dead tree collections of the comic, and their bonus stories, they leave out all of the extra stuff that was published alongside the comic on the web. Some of this isn’t exactly essential to the enjoyment of the comic, such as Burns’ sestina about the series, art from Garrity and Farrago’s wedding, Jeffrey Wells’ fanfic, but would’ve been nice to see collected here. What I’m really disappointed about is the absence of any of the “Dave in Slumberland” comics that appeared at the start of each year of the comic. Done in the style of Windsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” these comics served to foreshadow the tone and events of the comic for that year. Yes, putting them in the dead tree editions would’ve broken the “infinite canvas” effect that you get from reading them on the web, but the color they add to the comics themselves is missed. Particularly the final one which acts as an artist jam epilogue for the majority of the cast.
So it took awhile for me to appreciate the charms of this series and almost as long to get it in a form that only requires available light to experience. It may not start out that way, but “Narbonic” eventually establishes itself as a wildly imaginative romp that demonstrates that the four-panel comic is a format limited only by the imagination of its creator. While I like to think that it would’ve blown everything on the newspaper comics page out of the water had it debuted there, it’s obvious that the net was the best home for this series which smashed convention with abandon. I know I’m gushing, but re-reading this title brought that out in me. Eric Burns, wherever you are, now I know how you felt.