Something For The Weekend... Girl Genius
By Craig Lemon
Space: 1889. Skies of Arcadia. Steampunk. If you are familiar with any of these games or terms then you have all the grounding you need to jump straight into Girl Genius and have a riot. Otherwise all you really need to do is to picture the Industrial Revolution leading to all-out war, and the technological advances that war brings leading to huge airships and incredible inventions. All this is driven and ruled by “Sparks”, that’s the polite term for Mad Scientists. If you’ve got the Spark, you’re in much demand – the more powerful the Spark you have, the more demand you’re in.
One of the most powerful Sparks now rules much of Europe – one Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, whose inventions have helped him pretty much unite Europe under his (benevolent? We shall see) rule, and bring peace after the war. What has happened to the Americas is unknown – no exploratory vessel has ever returned. Whether this is because it is now a land of paradise and no-one ever wants to leave, or because of this monstrous unknown entity called The Other instantly destroying each vessel, also remains unknown.
The eponymous Girl Genius is one Agatha Clay – her parentage uncertain, she was taken under the wing of Dr Beetle at Transylvania Polygnostic University for unknown reasons; yet it is obvious she has some talent, some Spark within her, that just needs bringing to the forefront. Through a series of misadventures, Dr Beetle ends up (apparently) dead, Agatha and a soldier (Moloch Von Zinzer) who stole her locket end up captured by the Baron…
Girl Genius #4 sees Agatha and Von Zinzer mistaken for Sparks – or more precisely, it sees Von Zinzer mistaken for a Spark, and Agatha for his assistant. She is introduced to the Baron’s students – aka hostages to ensure the good behaviour of various Sparks and dignitaries – and warned of the threat of Von Pinn, a construct (aka robot, more android) who looks after the children on board. She takes her job seriously, it seems…
Agatha is taken to Gilgamesh, the Baron’s son, who is a bit of a tinkerer himself, and also a bit of a rebel against his father – he takes Agatha out for a spin in a mini-flyer after asking a few pointed and uncomfortable questions, which proceeds to immediately go wrong. Step in Agatha with a few good suggestions, and suddenly it’s working again…hmmm. The upshot of this is we see the Castle is in fact a huge flying dirigible, accompanied by the Baron’s battle fleet – pretty difficult thing to escape from!
The issue ends with Agatha’s triumphant return to the ranks of the hostages being cut short by the arrival of Von Pinn – she’s taken Agatha’s arrival rather too seriously and wants to kill her…
Girl Genius #5 cheats a little, it has to be said, in Von Pinn’s opening speech not matching the level of menace that closed issue four. That said, Von Pinn rapidly asserts her authority over the hostages, leaving most of the young ones in tears until fellow hostage, Theopholous DuMeed calms things down with a story that takes the next 14 pages to tell – it’s part history, part fantasy “The Heterodyne Boys and the Dragon from Mars”, mix one part Hardy Boys with one part Jules Verne and you get the idea. How much of it is actually true remains to be seen, but one suspects that so much time and space would not be devoted to something on the surface totally trivial – there are at least one or two nuggets for the future in there.
Having heard that one of The Other’s machines, a Hive Engine, is aboard, the older hostages decide to sneak off and have a look – it is surprisingly easy to wander around the ship – after all, where can you actually go to escape – and the Hive threatens to be extremely nasty indeed. Especially those eyes on page 137. Page 137? Yes, another nice touch in this book, one that I’ve only seen used two or three times before, is the pages since #1 have been numbered as if these comics were just serialised chapters from a larger graphic novel. Obviously good preparation for the inevitable trade paperback, and it must be said that the numbers are rather understated – small black writing on dark backgrounds predominantly.
After a not entirely expected disaster gives the hostages away, they flee and hide in Gilgamesh’s lab, with the exception of Agatha who storms off in anger at something Gil says without letting him finish – it was a compliment rather than an insult, whoops. What she runs into…well let’s just say that #6 will be answering some very interesting questions.
Girl Genius is written by Phil and Kaja Foglio, and drawn by Phil. Phil Foglio is no stranger to comic strips, having had a comedy one-pager running in Dragon Magazine since time immemorial it seems, and providing the art and comic strip rules to risque CCG Xxxenophile. The backgrounds to his art are very understated, almost minimalistic at times, and occasionally look like they were actually provided by Mark McNabb, the colourist. McNabb does a fantastic job in places, it has to be said – particularly the two-page Castle Wulfenbach shot in #4, and the sepia tones accompanying the story in #5. The inside of the front and back covers is put to good use, with cutouts as these from issue #4:-
Foglio’s art is a little on the cartoony side, which is great for accessibility for new readers, and providing a light atmosphere – this is a fun, frothy comic – but it does mean that you don’t really take the serious undertones with anything more than a pinch of salt. Which is a shame, because there is an underlying plot here that is crying for attention – The Other. The fate of the Americas. The other Sparks. The devastation of Europe. The Hive Engine.
Accessibility is the key, however, and this is a comic you can share with your spouse or significant other, or even teenage progeny, without problem. As a personal example, my wife quickly snaffled my copies of #4 and #5 and devoured them in a sitting, wanting more almost immediately…and she tends to not like comics at all.
This may have been due in part to the excellent presentation afforded this series. Full colour, 40 high quality glossy pages per issue plus cardstock covers, and no ads all contribute to the $3.95 cover price, but nothing is wasted, not even the inside of the covers; you get great value for money. Maybe the Story So Far section is a little long – after all issue four has a page-and-a-half of recap information…and that’s for issue four! What would issue twelve be like??? If they could find some way to make this more concise, certainly some of the information is superfluous, then one could launch into the story more readily rather than facing two pages of text as soon as you open the book. Frankly half a page is enough, with background information at the back of the book for those interested in learning more about the situation and the world; that would suit the bill admirably.
In any event, it’s a book that it well worth your time and money, check it out at your shop, get them to order a trial issue, or contact Studio Foglio direct.
Girl Genius #4, #5 and back issues available from Studio Foglio, 2400 NW 80th St #129, Seattle, WA 98117-4449, USA for $3.95 each for #4 and #5. Check out their website at http://www.studiofoglio.com/ for more information.
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