Meta-review: Girl Genius

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Comic: Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio, with artistic additions (inking in the black & white chapters) by Brian Snoddy, (coloring) by Cheyenne Wright, Laurie E. Smith, and Mark McNabb.

Girl Genius is an interesting change from the vast majority of comics I’ve reviewed. Most web comics have started and grown on the web. This is their home, their environment. Some are built specifically to take advantage of this environment, while others stick to a more traditional background. And some have evolved in time to take greater advantage of what the Web has to offer. Girl Genius, on the other hand, is a print comic that first started in 2002 and early this year moved over to the Web.

A good part of this is economic. The sad truth is, comic books are a fading genre. It is difficult to get into the existing comics, which have a long and complex lifespan. What’s more, comic books are getting more and more expensive. When I first got addicted to print comics, they cost $1 an issue. Now you’re fortunate to find one under $2.50 an issue, with many running $4 or more. Add to this all the fancy gimmicks and storylines that companies pull to try and draw in more readers, and readers are slowly being pushed out of print comics, for economic and personal reasons.

This is sad, as there are some truly great print comics out there. The independents, which languish (and often are more expensive than the mainstream comics) often are the best stuff out there. “Bone” by Jeff Smith started out as an Independent, as did “A Distant Soil” by Colleen Doran. And Girl Genius is another comic that is truly fantastic and deserves greater attention.

To be honest, Girl Genius has been on-line for quite some time. Issue 1 of the comic, which has been out of print for some time (you can purchase a print compilation instead with the first three issues combined, which works quite well) has been available for reading on their web-site for some time now. When Girl Genius moved on-line, the Foglios decided to have two comics. The first was the continuation of the storyline after Issue #13. The second would show the story as it started, with all of Issue #1 available and with tri-weekly updates of Issue #2 and on.

This review will focus on the early works, so not to completely spoil the story for those who’ve not read the comic before.

Art – Inking: 4.5 ribbons
Art – Backgrounds: 5 ribbons
Art – Coloring: 5 ribbons

You know, I feel a tad guilty now reviewing this comic. I mean, it’s like putting a shark out with the minnows. Phil Foglio is a professional cartoonist. He’s been doing this for years. For decades. I mean, I was a kid when I first was exposed to Phil and Dixie in Dragon Magazine. He’s had all that time to further refine his craft, and he’s done so. While he might not be perfect at what he does, he’s damn far along that path.

So why not 5s across the board? Well, while Phil’s good… there are occasional bits (especially in the black and white sections) which aren’t perfect. Further, the transition from black and white to color did require a reworking of the penciling and inking of the comic, and Phil was still adjusting at this point. (While I won’t go into tremendous detail about what’s happening in the “Advanced” Girl Genius storyline, the artwork has solidified a bit further. This is to be expected though, as Phil had done nine other print comics (each around 30 pages) before going to the Web, and probably another 90 pages with the Advanced strips that were exclusively on the Web when first published.)

Phil is also renowned for his backgrounds, and while some of his backgrounds at times can be less than perfect, he makes up for it with an absolute need for details. Indeed, the very second page of the comic has a crowded street with perhaps 20 people, machinery, shops, a horse and wagon, walls, and more. Nor is this a one-time occasion.

Instead of focusing on just a couple of people and blending out the background, Phil creates a living world in which sometimes our protagonists are playing but bit parts. Further, his environments can sometimes be silly and twisty and quite insane but enjoyable. You want to be a part of this world, with clanks (steam-powered robots), constructs (think Frankenstein’s monster), and just plain weird things.

Indeed, I’d find myself rereading some of the old comics to catch things happening in the background, things I had missed the first time around. Phil loves to add little tidbits to the comic, breathing life into it and making it something greater than what’s been seen before.

What’s more, the coloring (done by Mark McNabb until Issue #9, and then Laurie E. Smith until the end of Issue #13 of the print run as well as part of the Web run; Cheyenne Wright took over for Laurie E. Smith as of the end of Volume 4.) is beautiful and professionally done (literally). There is an excellent use of colors, shading, and the like, giving impression of musculature, lighting, and more.

(As an aside, while the colors for GG are quite beautiful, the black and white work of the original 80 pages are quite striking and beautiful in their own accord. While color tends to attract readers (especially with print comics) quicker than b&w, I feel those early comics were absolutely fantastic, and something I enjoy greatly.)

Perhaps the one real problem within using outside colorists is that you risk that help moving on to other jobs. Still, Studio Foglio has managed to secure some truly talented colorists, and within the scope of this review, Mark McNabb’s work is superbly done.

Of course, if you’re not a long-time fan of Phil’s work, then his artwork can take some getting used to. Character eyes often are enlarged and cartoonish, noses sometimes vanish (depending on the character), and mouths are definitely cartoony as well. If you go into this comic expecting uber-realistic cartoon art, then you’ll be disappointed. Fortunately, being a fan of comics like CRFH, CYS and OotS (to name a few), I enjoy cartoony and exaggerated artwork, and find it a fantastic addition to a superb story. (Besides, I’m not sure if uber-realistic artwork would work with Girl Genius. The clanks at the very least would be problematic.)

Character Development: 4.5 ribbons
Character Chemistry: 4.5 ribbons

It’s difficult to limit my scope to just the currently-available strips for the early comics, as there is a huge assortment of characters who show up as the story evolves. Naturally the heroine of the comic is Agatha Clay, a young student at the Transylvania Polygnostic University. Of course, the readers know she’s something more; she is the daughter of one of the Heterodyne Boys, the greatest heroes the world has ever known. Heroes who vanished 18 years ago, fighting a villain so devastating that it sundered Europe and caused quite a bit of mayhem. A villain known only as The Other.

It’s difficult not to like Agatha. She’s a personable and polite young lady, and has an innocence (indeed, naivety) and enthusiasm that many people would be attracted to. Add to that the fact she’s attractive and buxom, and it seems somewhat natural that many people would find themselves drawn to her. But there’s more to Agatha than meets the eye. She’s a Spark, the strange mystical force that allows the mad scientists of this alternative reality to create things that just shouldn’t exist… and have them work.

The early story of Girl Genius focuses on Agatha’s discovery that she’s a Spark, and the dangers that this brings for her. Indeed, young Agatha doesn’t even know she’s a Heterodyne. This is as much for her protection as not; the current ruler of Europe, Baron Wulfenbach, is not beloved by the former ruling class, and they very easily could rally behind the inexperienced girl in an attempt to oust this tyrant who has stopped their warring. (Indeed, it’s easy enough as a reader of the 101 comics to forget that Agatha is a Heterodyne; clues of her identity will be emerging, however, as time passes.)

Baron Klaus Wulfenbach is one of the more interesting characters in the comic. While he is a tyrant who is expanding his rule throughout most of Europe, he’s not really a villain. Indeed, back when the Heterodyne Boys were around, he traveled and worked with them. (No, Wulfenback as villain would be entirely too boring for the Foglios. I suspect even The Other had reasons – some of them probably legitimate – for his actions.)

He has taken children of the varied Great Houses hostage to ensure that the varied nobles stop fighting each other (and destroying the countryside). He works to educate those children and stop the abuses of power that happened back then. And he constantly tests his son to make sure he’s able to handle any situation. He cares about Europe. This is no villain.

Gilgamesh Wulfenbach is (naturally enough) the Baron’s son, and a talented Spark as well. What’s more, he’s fun. Whether he’s catching a fishbowl as it falls out of a closet, calmly facing down Dr. Beetle when the man thinks he has the upper hand, or distracting a rogue clank, he’s got a charm about him that is almost irresistible.

What’s more, he’s determined to prove his father wrong for a change, thus his interest in Agatha. He suspects her to be the Spark who created the clank he and his father encountered in Beetleburg. What’s more, he suspects Dr. Beetle tried to kill her, not the Baron and himself. (Personally, I think Beetle was after the fish.)

As the comic goes to color, Gil starts to build his relationship with Agatha. In the beginning, I think it was a combination of guilt (about Dr. Beetle and about Agatha being dragged into this entire mess) and his own curiosity about if he was right about Agatha being a Spark. But when you consider that Gil is a young man who hasn’t been out much… and that Agatha is a very attractive young lady… well, things should get sparking (pun intended and delighted in) between them, I’m sure.

While there are other secondary characters whom will no doubt become quite entwined in Agatha’s life soon enough, there is one group I definitely need to mention, and that’s the Jā€°germonsters. Hey, these boys are just soooo fun… taking a delighted glee in destruction and mayhem. They’re constructs, created by the Heterodyne family before the time of the Heterodyne Boys. And they quickly became favorites among fans and the Foglios. What’s more, they can tell Agatha is a Heterodyne. Considering they’re the shock troops of the Baron (hiring themselves out to him as the Heterodyne Boys were missing), this might not bode so well for the Baron….

Story Continuity: 5 ribbons
Story Type: Comedic, Storyline, Mad Science, Adventure
Story Genre: Steampunk Adventure

Girl Genius has its roots in the print comic genre. That has shaped it and will continue to shape it throughout its run (which will probably be for several years at least, if not a decade). Working within the framework of just the 101 strips, we’ve only had a couple of days (in-comic), with everything within four issues; the writing for print comics necessitates a stricter adherence to continuity (and of editing processes). So there will likely be no continuity problems throughout the entire reprinting of the original comics.

While not giving away any specifics, there is also a clue early in the comic which in approximately 24 weeks will be explained further in the 101 classes. The events in Issue #7 suggest that the comic itself has had future storylines mapped out even before the comic began. While some aspects of the comic may meander (especially now that it is updating on the web), the comic as a whole should avoid the continuity flaws that occasionally arise with comics without pre-written storylines.

Also, it seems quite unlikely that we’ll be seeing any crossovers with other comics (though Narbonic would be the perfect choice for such a crossover… or would be at least if Narbonic itself wasn’t ending in a little over a year after a truly epic meta-story). As these crossovers are often what leads the continuity problems (which is a shame, as crossovers tend to help increase the readership of both comics), it seems quite unlikely that continuity errors will creep in from this front.

From a storytelling perspective, the use of Baron Wulfenbach as an antagonist (if currently unknowing on his behalf) does have some risks. As with other extremely-powerful antagonists, there is the problem of disempowering him if he remains clueless or is outwitted at each turn. However, Europe is a large place, and as the story is set during the Industrial Revolution (well, the Industrial Revolution as it would have been if people had the “Spark” and ability to create steampunk robots and golems made of flesh)… it would be very easy to disappear into the background.

Naturally, Agatha being who she is, it wouldn’t be easy to hide. At least not for long. Add into this the fact Agatha makes friends easily and quickly, and has a need to do what’s right even in the face of adversity… well, no doubt if the Baron wants to find her, he just has to look for the chaos that a new Spark brings to the region.

(As an aside, you have no idea how difficult it is writing this and keeping out future knowledge. I’m halfway tempted to pull out the other comics, start scanning in pertinent sections, and review the comic as a whole. But that way leads to madness… and a 10,000 word review.)

Rating: PG (Aww, look. The Kittens have made little clank-driven yarn balls to play with! I’d say it’s cute, but they added weapons to them as well… time to patch the walls again.)

Originally I was going to rate this comic PG-13. I mean, there are scenes of exposed intestines, charred corpses, dead criminals in huge jars… and Agatha running around in her underwear (which is more concealing than half the outfits I’ve seen people wear these days, in cold weather). But to be honest… people see worse on the daily news and in quite a few TV shows. Heck, you can see stuff “as bad” on old Looney Toons cartoons.

Girl Genius is a comic for all ages. It’s something parents and children alike can enjoy, if for different reasons. If there are scenes that some parents feel are unsuitable for their children, then by previewing the comic ahead of time they can ferret out those strips and keep them from their children… or read the strip to their kids and thus not allow them to see scenes they feel are unsuitable.

Or in other words, my ratings are a guide, not a pass on proper parenting.

Punctuality: Updates MWF, no missed updates.

Girl Genius updates every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. There has only been one instance of a problem with an update and even that was a black and white update set up as a placeholder (for the Advanced comics, not the 101 strips) because the Foglios were going to Dreamcon. Technically there was still an update, but through a minor glitch the b&w update remained up instead of the finished product. Outside of that, without fail, Girl Genius updates promptly at midnight, EST, without fail.

Overall: 4.75 ribbons

I first came across Girl Genius at ComicCon in 2002. The Foglios had a booth there, and I picked up issues #2 and #3 for a friend who was a big Phil Foglio fan. Unfortunately, I missed out on seeing Phil (though I might have chatted briefly with Kaja; there was a nice lady at the booth if memory serves me right, but I don’t recall specifics). While I bought them for my friend, I did enjoy the comics themselves and found them most amusing. But then I put them aside (okay, gave them to my friend after devouring them a bit) and forgot them for a couple of years, outside of occasionally looking for the comics in various comic book stores.

A year ago I came across the Studio Foglio website and purchased the collection. It didn’t take long to fall in love with the comic, and with Agatha. I was also quite enthused when Girl Genius came to the Web. While the comic languished in the print comic world (not being the uber-realistic style of some of the “big names” of cartooning), it has picked up and flourished on the Web.

Indeed, Girl Genius may be just the first of many comics to make the transition from print to web. By going on the Web, the Foglios have increased their readership significantly. Many of these readers purchase the Collection books (which reprint several issues of the comic in one tome) or the back issues of the comics themselves. This is an excellent marketing ploy, and one that other comics (such as Alpha Shade and Sluggy Freelance) are also doing.

None of this would be possible, however, if not for the skill of the Foglios storytelling skills and artistic abilities. If Agatha wasn’t as interesting, amusing, and loveable as she is, then no one would care that the comic came to the web. It would languish as yet another comic in the midst of a vast ocean of web comics. But there is a spark of genius here that helps elevate Girl Genius into the field as one of the best web comics out there.

That’s not to say there are not problems. It can be difficult getting into Girl Genius, especially with the Advanced Storyline (the current storyline for those fans who’ve managed to acquire the comic books or borrowed them from friends). The pace of updating is such that we’ve just now finished Issue #4 of the print run. There are 9 more issues to go. If a fan were to wait, it would take almost two years before the 101 class ends and they can read the current storyline.

It is entirely possible to ignore the back story and just jump right into the Advanced comic, but fans who try this end up torturing themselves with curiosity until they finally succumb and purchase the back issues. While this works as a marketing ploy, some potential fans might be upset by what they see as a blatant attempt to get their marketing dollar. Other fans might be unable to afford the back issues, or be unable to use Paypal or own a credit card. Still, I find it most useful to be able to sit down and relax to the comics rather than read them on-line. Add into this the fact many internet users are still using dial-up (and load time for the comic on dial-up is between 20-30 seconds per page), and it’s understandable how having the comics in hand can be preferable to reading them on-line.

Still, if you ignore the lure of the Advanced story and hold off on buying the back issues of the comic, you can easily enjoy the story as a whole. It’s no different than any other web comic out there… except for the fact that you can spend a little money to read a lot more of the story. And to learn a bit more about Agatha and those around her.

And while the storytelling is an important part of what makes Girl Genius so good, watching the development and growth of the characters is what brings me back time and time again. Especially Gil. After all, Beetle did throw a bomb at him… (or was it at the fish? Hmm…).

Robert A. Howard

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