For the last couple of days I’ve been immersing myself in Phil and Kaja Foglio’s “Agatha H and the Airship City,” a print novelization of the first Girl Genius graphic novel. I actually plan on writing up a proper review of the novel at a later time, but when I decided to skim through the comic to refresh my memory on which segments of the novel were direct from the comic, and which were expansions to the existing story, I discovered that the Foglios had replaced the original greyscale comics with colored versions from the talented Cheyenne Wright (who, incidentally, is a new dad – congratulations, Cheyenne and Eli!). Rather than just replace the old greyscale work with colors, the Foglios and Wright injected a bit of style in the inception, with a gradual injection of color into the comic.
The first comics are reminiscent of the start of the Wizard of Oz movie. The first page actually presents us with vibrant color with a storyteller regaling his youthful audience with a tale of the Heterodyne Boys, but this is immediately followed by our first glimpse of Agatha Clay – a young woman who has no idea about her past, or of the strange and surreal adventures that she will become a central part of. Instead, just as much of her life has been up to this point, things are dull and colorless. Initially I assumed that colors were going up piecemeal, but after stumbling across the comic when Agatha’s locket is stolen from her, Dorothy (or Agatha, rather) walks through the doorway and encounters a world of vibrant rich color.
The comics after Agatha’s first encounter with von Zizner and his brother are a fascinating experiment with color slowly leaching from Agatha into the world around her. Initially these colors touch only people. Then they start mixing into the environment itself, and a world of greys becomes a world of muted color. Moments of insight and intense emotion briefly bring richer colors into play before they fade once more. We’re also given a glimpse of a time of color in Agatha’s dreams, when she was remembering a childhood surrounded with color and sound.
Part of the injection of color into the environment seems dependent on Agatha’s awareness of the world around her. A doorway gains new vibrancy as Agatha spies it and realizes how it can be used in a task laid upon her. A twisted machine of a deadly foe from the past slowly gains color for those parts she can observe. But the most striking detail lies with a comic in the second volume of the graphic novels. Girl Genius actually started out as a print comic that transitioned to the Web (after Phil Foglio listened to his wife’s suggestion that they print the comic online), with issue #4 (or Volume #2 of the graphic novel compilations) being the original introduction to full-color comics; it is here when we get one last glimpse of faded color when Agatha, as a young child, first donned the locket her uncle Barry had designed to keep her talent in check.
With a fade to grey, the circle is complete and we learn why the early comics were greyscale. (Sadly, I can’t recall if the comic originally included that fade, or if it was a more recent addition to the existing colors; as my print copies are in storage at the moment, I’m not in a position to look it up.) In doing so, the Foglios and Wright have utilized color in a storytelling role; while it would have undoubtedly been easier to just color the entire chapter, by using greyscale art at the start of the comic and faded colors through much of the first volume, the spots of full-color take on an entirely new meaning, and color itself becomes a subtle means of exploring the mental state of Agatha as she slowly wakes from the fugue state her uncle forced her into, and steps into the wild glorious world around her. Many a gifted artist is able to use their art to enhance storytelling. But it is a select few who effectively and subtly use color to the same effect.