OTHAR: Jägers love to play games – but they’re fuzzy on the rules. Something you should remember as you fight evil.
AGATHA: I told you. I’m not doing that. You can’t make me.
OTHAR: Make you? Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
OTHAR: Make you? You ran straight at the danger without even thinking. That’s who and what you are.
— “Trouble at the Town Gate,” Volume 4, Page 113 (posted June 22, 2005)
At the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention held in Melbourne, Australia, Phil and Kaja Foglio, creators, writers and pencilers of webcomic Girl Genius, went equipped with a second Hugo nomination for Best Graphic Story and as many copies of their assorted collected works as they could muster. Within two hours of the Dealers’ Room opening on the first day of the Convention, the Girl Genius omnibuses (omnibusi?) had sold out, disappointing many eager fans; two days later, they’d won their second of the coveted awards – beating out Batman written by Neil Gaiman, if you please. In the years since, Girl Genius has won yet another Hugo, and those sales get stronger every year.
Indeed, at any Science Fiction, Fantasy, Comic (or any combination thereof) convention of most of this century, the Foglios’ brainchild has done an exceedingly, and increasingly, brisk trade among the discerning revelers therein. Through the sale of the graphic novels to assorted Girl Genius merchandise – there’s even a card game – this slow build “overnight success” webcomic has roused a lasting passion among its core, and ever-growing, fandom.
First, a little history.
Once upon a time (okay, the mid-80’s), budding comic impresario Phil Foglio decided to parody those Boys Own Adventure tales out of an earlier era and introduced the world — briefly, via a one-shot tale — to The Heterodyne Boys. Cut to the early 90’s. Kaja Foglio, looking over some of husband Phil’s old drawings, was inspired, and the two began discussing a potential story idea, employing the Heterodyne name. (It is, after all, a great name.) But it was not until 2001 that the first Girl Genius comic – Girl Genius: The Secret Blueprints Vol. I – was released by the independent pair, and the title saw fourteen more issues come out over the next five years. Girl Genius was originally published in print only format, with those first issues now much prized among collectors.
Then in 2005, the Foglios made a dramatic change in their publication and promotion strategy, and one that has paid off for them in a big, big way. They shifted their somewhat sporadically-produced, limited number print comic online – mostly because, as Phil Foglio has said: “…your production costs are super low” – promising tri-weekly installments of the ongoing story, and before long had acquired a whole slew of new readers who had not before then chanced upon this hidden gem.
Since the move to webcomic in 2005, sales of the print volumes have skyrocketed, traffic at the site has risen exponentially, and the Foglios’ fame has spread much farther than among the die-hard enthusiasts traditionally associated with comic book fandom. The first Girl Genius novel, Agatha H and the Airship City (detailing the events in the first three volumes of the comic), was released in 2011 by Night Shade Books, and its initial hardcover print run sold out almost immediately. The Girl Genius website proudly bears the badge of an American Mensa Top 50 website, for which the membership of that prestigious society voted (well, it makes sense; they’re geniuses, too). Liaden Universe® author Sharon Lee is an avowed fan, as is Tor.com contributor Brit Mandelo and just about every comic book commentator in all of Christendom. Indeed, the work is so well regarded in the field that Felicia Henderson, a writer at DC Comics, put up her own money to option the comic for film adaptation, and it was even named as “one of the thirty most important comics of the decade” by respected industry and news site, Comic Book Resources.
So what is Girl Genius about, exactly, and why all the geekly love?
It is the story of one Agatha Heterodyne, a young and comely mechanical engineering prodigy living in a world in which mad scientists (called Sparks; as in “bright”, one assumes) rule with an iron (and copper, and bronze) fist. Among the creations of these “madboys” – and vanishingly rare madgirls – are steam powered machines known as “clanks”, android-like beings called constructs, an assortment of genetically-modified beasties (Zombie wasps! A talking cat! Horses that breathe fire!), and various races of tailor-made minions.
With most of the action taking place at various locales in a post-Industrial Revolution Europe – or “Europa” – that is familiar and yet not (Fiefdoms! Airships! Some place called Mechanicsburg! Think Wild Wild West, but more feudal), and with the odd devilish anachronism to mess with you (a Beatles song; that “Yes, We Have No Bananas” ditty that is very difficult to get out of your head), Girl Genius is a delightful blend of the sublime, the zany, the fantastical and the downright insane that is simply irresistible.
Agatha begins the series as an inept student at Transylvania Polygnostic University (motto: “Know enough to be afraid”) with the surname of Clay, and it is only in the third volume of her life story, Agatha Heterodyne and the Monster Engine, that she learns of her true nature and parentage. Soon, she discovers she has inherited a castle full of technical wizardry so extraordinary as to be almost Hogwartsian, the devoted allegiance of sundry retainers, assistants and minions (as she says dismissively, when offered the role of Spunky Girl Sidekick: “Hardly. I’m a Spark, too. I think I get my own sidekicks.”), and an array of enemies determined to either kill her or control her for their own ends.
And, oh, the things she can build!
She and the other Sparks concoct all manner of experimental devices, many of which actually work. We have massive steam-powered engines trundling about the countryside and cities, as well as a bunch of quite the cutest little robots you’ve ever seen (or at least, since the fix-its from *batteries not included). Most of the technology is intricate, unwieldy and not very scientifically sound – and looks like it belongs highly quarantined in Warehouse 13 – and Agatha never seems so happy as when she is putting together or adjusting some new and improbable invention.
If this is all sounding a little Steampunk to you, and you don’t like that, don’t be put off: while Girl Genius does share some similar traits with this specialized, often quite earnest, subgenre, it is most emphatically not Steampunk. The term properly used to describe it is “Gaslamp Fantasy”, and if that’s a new one on you, don’t worry; it was coined for the comic itself by Kaja Foglio.
“I’ve never liked the term Steampunk much for our work,” she wrote, on her well-read blog in 2006. “It’s derived from Cyberpunk (a term which I think actually fits its genre well) but we have no punk, and we have more than just steam, and using a different name seemed appropriate. I mis-remembered a term that I had come across in the forward to an H. Rider Haggard book, where the author was talking about Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Rider Haggard and that sort of pre-pulp adventure material, and came up with ‘Gaslamp Fantasy.’ I felt a bit foolish when I discovered that I had made up my own term, but it works and I like it.”
“Work” it indeed does, immediately conjuring up images of a parallel world in which electricity has yet to be effectively harnessed, the telegraph is unheard of and the transistor a mere pipe dream, and yet the kind of society in which manufactured slave and soldier races – like the warlike, yet endearing, Jägerkin – could easily exist. Indeed, they rather put one in mind of the work of some dread Dark sorcerer in a High Fantasy novel, and yet they have kind of German accents.
Of all the foreign-looking talk displayed in the comic, and there is a fair amount of it, the Jägermonsters’ is given to us in a particularly dense dialect… or should that be diatext? (To illustrate, let us see the next paragraph in Jägerspeak…)
Despite deir frequent inscrotability, however, de Jagermonshters are alzo vun uf de besht tings about Gurl Genius; it iz not only deir dishtinctive, deceptively simple language use, bot alzo deir absolote belief in deir own fightink abilities — as vell as deir blind dedication to de Heterodynes und deir mission — dot makes dem otterly appealink. Ho! Und deir gallows humor iz a true highlight uf de series. Hokay, zo it’s occasionally a leedle obvious, bot it iz never not fonny. (Translation courtesy of this helpful and enterprising application. Our thanks!)
These gleeful soldiers are only one of the best things about this comic, however. With such comprehensive awesomeness, it is very difficult to identify just one thing that makes it so compelling. The Girl Genius tagline is “Adventure, Romance, MAD SCIENCE!” and that is nicely concise, but it is so, so much more. It is a rollicking rollercoaster of mistaken identity, adventure and Alternate History hijinks that is breathtakingly clever, funny and – quite simultaneously – tragic. There are dungeons and instruments of torture and dirigible armadas; political machinations, false accusations, and grand declarations. There’s time travel and murder and mayhem like you wouldn’t believe, and fully-realized characters you come to really care about in a very short time.
There’s loyalty, betrayal, sacrifice and heroism. There’s a green-haired warrior princess of a lost kingdom, a bloodthirsty pirate queen, a high priestess, several hopeful swains vying for our heroine’s attentions and megalomaniacal despots by the score. There’s history and mystery, drama and comedy, suspense, action, and true love, in its many and varied forms. There’s pure evil and complicated evil and misunderstood evil and evil that seems very evil but then turns out to be good (and vice versa). For what is a fairly straightforward Lost Heir story, told in deceptively simple snippets – at least for the past half-decade or so – and interrupted only occasionally by the appearance of a one-shot story, much like a commercial break (but one full of really good commercials: think Superbowl level), it is packed with enough hair-raising thrills, tender relationship moments, heart-pounding action and laugh out loud humor to satisfy even the most demanding and jaded of four color palates.
Some pages are busy, full of dialogue and subtle exposition. Others are taken up by a giant explosion, or a wordless, sinister cliffhanger, or both at the same time. We get such good story-telling that even the method of its slow-torture delivery never gets confusing; such good art that even with an enormous cast of characters, many of whom superficially resemble one another, no one’s identity is ever in doubt. And the jokes are sprinkled throughout so effectively, with even the cliché pie in the face used to devastating comic effect, that you can’t help but smile and smile… at least until the next outing has your eyes moistening with unshed tears.
In a word? Girl Genius is just fun.
Of the many messages Girl Genius delivers unto the reader, perhaps the one warning of the dangers of uncontrolled scientific experimentation is the most blatant, although there’s quite a bit of girl power in here, as well. Other themes include Nature vs. Nurture (the Foglios are apparently big Nature fans), the right to self-determination, the inevitability of revisionist history, and the efficacy of big, big guns. (And the occasional death ray.) Also, the circus. And Victorian underwear.
If you’ve yet to give Girl Genius a go, then what are you waiting for? Whether in gloriously free online form (although, donations are gratefully accepted), in wonderfully produced graphic novel form, in novel form — the audiobook and Kindle editions are available — or even as a Role Playing Game, the Foglios’ delightful medley of wit, fantasy, science fiction, action, historical romance and suspense is a rewarding way to spend your time, immersed in a world that perhaps could never have existed… but oh, wouldn’t have been interesting if it had?
Long live Lady Heterodyne!
All artwork © Studio Foglio. All rights reserved.