The Mad Scientist is a common staple of the superhero genre: you've got Victor von Doom, Tivo spokesperson Arnim Zola, pre-Crisis Lex Luthor and many more. More often than not, these characters skew towards a very specific personality archetype: the megalomaniacal whackjob with Simon Cowell's ego and Tyra Banks' love of monologuing. Of course, since most mad scientists serve as foils to the heroes, these are good qualities to have, because they ensure that we'll want to see the crazy person get taken down. Conversely, this is also the reason there are many stories with mad scientists and few stories about mad scientists, because would you really want to read a six-issue story arc where Doom goes on and on about his brilliance and his heritage and his family tree and then he grows goat legs and uses magical cellphone powers to summon robot insects that... hmm. Right. Moving on... Anyway, that brings us to today's double-feature: NARBONIC by Shaenon Garrity and A MIRACLE OF SCIENCE by Jon Kilgannon and Mark Sachs. These webcomics are noteworthy not just for the fact that they directly feature mad science and mad scientists, but also for their very different interpretations of that character type.
To call NARBONIC a comedy is at once oversimplifying things and oddly appropriate: it is, after all, a very humorous and funny story with a fair share of whimsy, and even at its most dramatic points, it never lets the reader take things too seriously. And yet Garrity planned her plotlines so carefully, so methodically, foreshadowing events that would take years to unfold, that the term "comedy" just doesn't seem apt enough.
The story concerns Dave, a Computer Science graduate hired by mad scientist Helen Narbon and her gun-happy henchwoman Mell Kelly. The first thing you'll notice about Helen is that she's unlike any mad scientist, male or female, that you've ever seen: she's obsessed with gerbils, charming even when she lapses into her "mwah-ha-ha" mode, and talks about killing people with a cheerful grin straight out of a Disney movie. All of Garrity's characters are endearingly quirky, and they keep on surprising you as the series progresses.
One of the aspects I most enjoyed was the way Garrity never stuck to a specific situation or formula for very long. The status quo got shaken up so often I'm not even sure there ever WAS a status quo. And there was a tremendous amount of variety in terms of output: for example, every new year would start with an eerily prophetic homage to LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND. Sundays were occasionally devoted to our heroes' Victorian-era counterparts, or to chapters of an epic fanfic concerning evil yogurt (is there any other kind?), or to guest strips amusingly framed as the cast's desperate search for a new artist. And that was just the peripheral stuff - there was no lack of unpredictable fun in the series proper, ranging from a visit to Hell to a Mad Science Convention to a James Bond-esque adventure story.
But what left me most in awe of Garrity was that, from November 2002 to the very end of the comic, she used the filenames of the strips themselves to tell a prose story about a defining moment in Helen's life. That just blew me away, because I'd never seen anything like it - for printed comics, it would be like using the lines between panels to tell a parallel story to the one playing out on the page. That was an ingenious technique, and very demonstrative of the wit and cleverness Garrity used on a daily basis for over six years. If a rank higher than EXCELLENT existed, I'd award it here.
Kilgannon and Sachs' A MIRACLE OF SCIENCE takes mad science in a decidedly different direction: these are the bombastic, domination-oriented nuts we've seen before, but what's emphasized here is something that's (surprisingly) rarely touched upon in this sort of fiction: the fact that mad scientists are, in fact, mad. In this webcomic, mad science is a form of mental illness, a "meme" that cmpels its victims to follow a precise behavioral pattern that, ironically enough, is the quintessential formula for the mad scientist archetype: first they come up with a ludicrous scheme, then they build a giant robot, loudly announce their plans, get chased by the authorities, and finally surrender on the condition that their research is kept intact. This is intriguing notion because it turns what has traditionally been seen as a character archetype into something different.
What appeals to me with regards to A MIRACLE OF SCIENCE is its particular mix of genres and styles: artistically, there's a strong manga influence (big eyes, odd hairstyles/colors, etc.), but it reads like a Warren Ellis story (well, at least Ellis prior to his Year of Whoredom and the resulting creative STDs) - a hard-boiled detective with a dark secret in his past is paired with an avatar of a living planet, chasing down leads on an impending crime across the solar system. It's an adequately-executed premise that doesn't get bogged down by technospeak, as can sometimes happen with sci-fi. GOOD, because the story is fun and functional but it doesn't reinvent the wheel.
Technical notes: NARBONIC ran from August 2000 to December 2006. There's a link on the main page leading to the "Director's Cut" of the series, with added commentary by the strip's creator, Shaenon Garrity. It's primarily in black and white, with the occasional color strip. Additionally, Garrity toyed with panel length and size during the series' run, so keep an eye out for scroll bars on your browser. The Table of Contents is indexed by storyline, and every link leads to a week's worth of strips.
A MIRACLE OF SCIENCE ran from 2000 to 2007, black-and-white for the first chapter and switching over to color for the rest of the story. Unlike NARBONIC, Kilgannon and Sachs have provided a distinct chapter division for A MIRACLE OF SCIENCE; it's a much shorter read, around 400 pages to NARBONIC's 2000+ strips.