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The Webcomic Overlook #89: Girl Genius

Some of my ideas for this site never pan out. A few weeks back, I had played around with doing a theme week. Specifically it was going to be Girl Power Week. (Motto: “Girls rule, boys drool!” Eh heh heh … so true.) A marathon session, reviewing webcomics with sassy, brassy ladies in the lead role! I even had a logo designed and an intro paragraph written (which can be found in The Black Cherry Bombshells review. OK, so it took me all of 3 minutes from googling “gurren lagann yoko” to slapping the logo together in photoshop. But still!

But, you know, actually finding the time to read webcomics and write about them takes forever. I finished about two-thirds of Girl Power Week: along with The Black Cherry Bombshells, I also finished the Earthsong review. But the third comic was too long to do properly. And now here we are, almost a month later.

More than one Webcomic Overlook reader has enthusiastically requested that I take a look at this comic. It’s one of the few comics set in the steampunk framework and does it right. It’s been nominated for Hugo Awards and Eisner Awards, and has won WCCAs and Squiddy Awards (whatever the hell that is). It’s the comic about “Adventure! Romance! Mad Science!”

Yup, you guessed it. The Webcomic Overlook finally reviews the infamous Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio. The webcomic takes a lot of surprise twists and turns, so I’ll try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible. However, there will be some revelations (minor ones, I hope), so proceed reading this review at your own risk.

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Although the Foglios have been working on long-term plotting since 1993, Girl Genius initially saw publication in 2001 with The Secret Blueprints, Volume 1. It’s currently transitioning from Volume 8 to Volume 9, which, according to the Foglios, is the split between the 1st and 2nd seasons. The comic ceased print publication in April 2005 and became the online comic that we know it today. According to CBR, this was a historical move:

“Girl Genius” was the first comics [sic] to move from printing individual issues to serializing on the web, so you can read the whole series for free, if you like. New issues are put out three times a week, and the original printed issues are available for reading as well, making “Girl Genius” about as easy to catch up on as you could ask for. Several other comics, notably Carla Speed McNeil’s “Finder,” have followed suit, but “Girl Genius” is the gold standard for the print to net move, and the series’ results have, as Foglio said, far exceeded their expectations.

The story centers around an intentionally strong-willed young woman named Agatha Clay. She doesn’t seem like a very capable person, initially. In fact, she’s a bit of a klutz. Although, she works as an assistant at the Transylvania Polygnostic University, yet she’s never been able to get any invention to work.

Agatha’s also built like Queen Latifah. I initially thought this Phil Foglio’s style at work, but as I kept on reading, I became aware of the existence of thinner, fitter women in the Girl Genius universe. So it’s kinda endearing that a curvy gal like Agatha will soon find herself catching the eye of every heterosexual man she encounters. Sir Mix-a-lot approves!

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Agatha’s life changes with a relatively harmless act… well, if can ever call a mugging “harmless.” A duo of wandering soldiers purloin a family heirloom from poor Agatha. From then on, things go from bad to worse. She’s late to the school, she’s yelled by one of the professors, and — worse — there’s a surprise visit from Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, the supreme ruler over what seems like all of Europe. (Incidentally, he’s probably modeled after Otto von Bismarck … or maybe Captain Harlock …. rather than some other, more malevolent dictator you were probably thinking of.) He’s not here for her specifically. He’s dropping by because someone is treacherously harboring some forbidden MAD SCIENCE.

Events build-up like a stone rolling down a luge track. Identities are mistaken, Agatha falls asleep, a robot (called a “clank”) rampages through town, yadda yadda yadda, and Agatha finds herself asleep on the Baron’s flying airship and stripped to her unmentionables. Agatha, by the way, ends up running around in her undergarments a lot. (Though, this being set somewhere around the 19th Century, ladies’ underwear is only slightly more revealing than a burka.) She falls in with a group of students/personal prisoners of the Baron who all have The Spark. Later, we find out that Agatha herself has The Spark, and she was only one beetle-shaped trinket away from turning into Washu Hakubi.

What is The Spark, you say? Is it electrical discharge? Is it that stupid box from the Transformers powered by a kickin’ rendition of “You Got the Touch”? Is it a sense of joy for all time? Before I get into that, I will forewarn you that, in order to enjoy Girl Genius, you’re going to have to accept certain rules if you don’t want to be bothered by the plot holes.

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Here’s The First Rule of Girl Genius: The Spark is basically magic. Now, this is not what the Wikipedia entry on Girl Genius says. Here’s how they (who I assume are Girl Genius fans and/or the Foglios) define The Spark:

The Spark is the center of the fictional Girl Genius universe. It is what makes the mad scientists of the story what they are; people say someone is a Spark if he or she has the Spark. It is a rare hereditary trait found mostly within a small number of families – most of the common population that “break through” are either relatively weak or lack the education to make full use of their talents.

Most of the time those who carry the Spark seem no different from anyone else, but they are capable of entering a state of hyperfocus (sometimes called “the madness place”) that greatly enhances their charisma, comprehension and intuition – all too often at the cost of all their rationality or common sense. In short, they can become fanatically obsessive savants at the drop of a hat (though stimulants can easily induce it) – and it is not at all uncommon for some to act as such almost constantly.

Which is all fine and dandy except it doesn’t hold up in the physical sense. There’s a scene where it turns out that Agatha has fitted all the wagons in the caravan with huge guns. Where in the world did she get the materials? I know she scuttled a defunct robot, but I’m assuming that the material used to make that thing wouldn’t necessarily facilitate ammunition. And what of the manufacturing complexities? Even factoring in the whole “bending reality” thing (which sounds like a cop-out), are we to believe a novice girl and her army of tinkertoys managed to form and weld large sections of munitions without large-scale tooling fixtures? And how did they escape everyone’s notice? If invention is 10% innovation and 90% perspiration, that 90% seems to have been wizarded out of thin air.

Before you think I’m getting too nitpicky, keep in mind that Girl Genius is a nominee for the Best Graphic Story in science fiction’s 2009 Hugo Awards (where it faces an uphill battle against Y: The Last Man). Being nitpicky is a revered sci-fi institution.

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Anyway, as a guest of the castle, Agatha has free reign to wander the halls. (How conveeeeeeeeennient. Even more convenient: in a world where advanced robotics is possible, no one has thought to invent the security camera.) She eventually befriends Gil (short for Gilgamesh), the Baron’s son and a man she HATES because he killed her master. But as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Dr. Cuddy can tell you, that just means your hormones mixed up. Maybe you don’t really despise a man; maybe you’ve got sexy intentions.

Fortunately, the Foglios are great at portraying the traditional screwball romance. Agatha and Gil have a chemistry I can root for, which, is fairly rare in webcomics! Yes, Girl Genius intermittently transformed me into a squealing fangirl. I frequently wanted to scribble down some fanfiction to celebrate their “Will they/won’t they” love. The scenes that show the two together were terribly cute. The scenes where Agatha and Gil pine for each other when they’re apart
are even more adorable. Oh sure, there’s a very strong possibility that Gil is evil incarnate, and that’s what keeps sweet little Agatha away … but something tells me that she can find a work-around for that. Because bad boys are soooooo hottt. And he has a magnificent death ray.

Not only does Girl Genius nail the “Romance!” aspect of its subtitle, it gets the “Adventure!” part down as well. Agatha never finds herself in one place for very long. She might be riding in an airship at one moment, languishing in a dungeon the next. Overall, it’s fun and light-hearted at points, but with a strong sense of danger underneath. During the circus arc, for example, we laugh at the silly performers and their histrionic play while realizing that they may be hiding a fairly sinister secret. Or when Agatha gets on a caffeine kick, it’s played for laughs… but there’s still something disturbing how her enthusiasm can bend everyone’s wills.

Every page contains a brand new discovery, some fairly surprising twists to the overall framework. The Foglios reveal the “anything goes” nature of their world early on. They introduce us to a race of goblin-like foot soldiers called Jägermonsters. Goblin soldiers! Whose race sounds an awful lot like “Jagermeister”! And they have ridiculous German accents! What?!?!?! There’s also a talking cat. And a there’s a living castle, too? The comic dares the reader to guess what wild new plot development comes next, only to have the Foglios surprise us without fail.

Girl Genius also has a fully formed back history regarding the Heterodyne mad scientist clan, their heroic offspring (the Heterodyne boys), and a nebulous villain known as The Other (which is probably on the Top 5 list of Most Used Villain Names In Pop Culture History). These factor into the operatic nature of the story, a grand backdrop that tell the reader that no matter how trivial Agatha and friends’ adventures seem, they’re effectively writing themselves into stories that will thrill kids come bedtime.

The Foglios sometimes deviate from the technologies that I would define as “steampunk.” (I mean … lasers?) The genre, however, is so open that the rules always shift depending on who’s writing it. The Wild, Wild West seems to think steampunk is about giant spiders; the Arcana game assumes that steampunk includes elves and magic; and Warren Ellis thinks it’s OK for steampunk to take place in the future.

Incredibly, the only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that the ladies have to wear corsets.

The important thing is that, as each new invention is revealed, you feel the thrill of discovery as if you were a Girl Genius character yourself. Even the goofy ones. I especially appreciated some of the callbacks to authentic examples of wide-eyed Victorian enthusiasm over the promise of technology. Moxana and her sisters, for instance, strongly remind me of both the infamous Turk chess playing robot (which was probably operated by a person inside a fake mechanical facade) and Hadaly from Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s 1886 novel L’Ève future.

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Girl Genius start strong, blasting the reader in the face with a blunderbuss full of enjoyable storytelling, expert world-building, and strong characterizations. On that last part: the comic revolves around three main characters (Agatha, Gil, and the Baron). However, the Foglios introduce a whole new cast of characters with each volume. It’s a gamble: most comics can’t handle three characters properly. Yet none of the secondary feel unnecessary, and it isn’t a chore for the reader to keep track of everyone. A deft combination of visual elements and character quirks keep everybody distinct and interesting. I was a little apprehensive when a butler got hotshot from obscure background character into main event status, but — you know what? — the Foglios made it work.

Girl Genius took me a long time to finish, yet I opened each chapter with with giddy anticipation. I looked forward to curling up with my laptop at the end of each day. (Note to society: make up a euphemism about casually browsing books & comics on the internet that doesn’t sound phenomenally goofy.)

I said to myself, “Well, no matter how bad this comic gets, this is getting 5 stars. If anything bad happens, I’m going to chalk it up to the inertia that all long-running comics fall prey to. ‘Cuz if this comic is anything, it’s pure, unadulterated fun!”

But you know … at one point, I thought I was going to have to eat those words.

Here’s the Second Rule of Girl Genius: double-crossing is a way of life. You just roll with it when someone backstabs you. There’s a whole story about double-crosses, triple-crosses, and (for the special sauce) quadruple crosses. It’s a strong concept, in theory, and it jives with Girl Genius‘ overall theme … that sometimes the bad guys aren’t as evil as you think they are, and the good guys aren’t as heroic as you imagine. However, this particular story arc takes the concept to such extremes that I had to push myself to go forward.

In Volume VI, several factions, including a regional political power and a race of female drow elves, realize that they can use Agatha for their own devious ends. As a result, they will say one thing and do another. (Which makes Gil look like a hero, in comparison; the guy’s all about brutal honesty.) Unfortunately, it’s not easy to follow. There was a scene which I image was The Biggest Reveal of Girl Genius. I won’t link to it due to spoilers. However, it was the sort of event where AGATHA’S LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN. That said, the impact was lost on me, mainly because I was still trying to mentally sort out all the tangled alliances.

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However, MACHIAVELLIAN TRICKERY makes way to the core strengths of ADVENTURE, ROMANCE, and MAD SCIENCE by the next volume, so all was forgiven. Sorry, folks… if I had to choose between Agatha the Canny Political Manipulator and Agatha the Kooky Engineer, I pick the latter every time.

While I’m being a Negative Nelly, I’ve got something to say about the art. Phil Foglio has been nominated for several awards based on his artwork. My guess is that the voters were mainly enamored by his fantasy-infused scenery. He’s quite a master at illustrating pipes and tubing — a must for any comic about steampunk! Illustrations like the 16th Century-style city of Mechanicsburg, a stifling fleet of airships, giant spider machines, and the crackling electricity of a high-tech moat are admittedly gorgeous. The coloring is especially fantastic.

However, I imagine several readers may be turned off by how he renders his characters’ faces. It looks like they’re made of silly putty: round one panel, pear-shaped the next, and angular in the panel right after.
The eyes
have a terrible habit of
migrating closer or farther away, depending on the image. Some people might say this is a stylistic choice. I just think it’s sloppy, and it’s a weakness that can’t be ignored when the surrounding art is better than average.

However, what I said was still true: Girl Genius, from start to finish is pure, unadulterated fun. It may be a cheat to say that it’s a phenomenally fantastic comic if you forgive the plot holes and the occasional lapses in art. But how else to reflect that, with almost every page, I had a blast and a hunger for more ADVENTURE, ROMANCE, and MAD SCIENCE?

Final Grade: 5 stars (out of 5).

Note: Some of the best and funniest Girl Genius stories are the interludes, like the Revenge of the Weasel Queen. Don’t skip it just because it’s filler. If you do skip it, make sure to revisit them when you got the time. If you don’t, you’ll be missing out on some sweet bunny-decapitating action.