Review: The Astonishing Excursions of Helen Narbon & Co.

The Astonishing Excursions of Helen Narbon & Co. is a Sunday serial that ran alongside Shaenon K. Garrity’s daily webcomic Narbonic (2000-2006). As the title suggests, it takes the webcomic’s central characters, mad scientist Helen Narbon, IT guy Dave, murderous intern Mell and Helen’s sworn archnemesis Professor Madblood, and drops them into a vaguely steampunk-Victorian milieu. Helen, Dave and Mell set off for the Moon in a contraption of Helen’s devising, only to be captured by a fishy race of aliens from Venus, who also have Madblood in their clutches. Can the gang escape the Venusians and get their holiday back on track…?

I’ve struggled to write satisfyingly about Narbonic, to get anything interesting out of the text, and I think the reason for that is: it’s not actually very good. This is particularly obvious in this steampunk serial, which being relatively short and, um, steampunk is on home ground for me, more so than the main run is anyway. As a deliberately pulpy text, plotted on the fly, it suffers from steampunk’s core pitfall: that of prioritising a British imperial worldview that’s upper-class, white and (more or less) straight. The space-exploration trope is pretty classically imperial-colonialist: imperial agents explore other worlds in order to make them legible to Westernised values of Reason and Science; and then scheme against the people they find there for personal gain. At one point we even meet a race of Italian-speaking female clones, referred to at least once as “Amazons”, who demand endless sex from Madblood as the only man they’ve seen for quite some time…which, yeesh.

Yes, these tropes are being deployed knowingly, parodically even (the lead characters in this adventure are, after all, almost parodies of their modern-day selves). But that knowingness doesn’t include critique; there is no coherent statement here other than, I guess “steampunk is aesthetically cool”. Which, to be fair, it is. But in this consumerist age I think we need to be wary of aesthetics; to ask, “What is being sold here?”; to distinguish between harmful ideology dressed up in flim-flam and work that is imaginatively generative, that deploys its aesthetics for meaningful effect. Narbonic and its associated serials are fun, and they’re not trying to be anything more than that; but I think it’s ok to hold our fun to higher standards.

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