One problem that can arise with epic stories is story bloat, when the varied subplots and tertiary characters threaten to bog down the primary storyline. It can be a more subtle aspect of complexity in storytelling, as it makes sense for the secondary and tertiary characters to have their stories told. Given the length of time it takes to tell a story (especially in a graphic format) these subplots can be important in retaining the cartoonist and writer’s interest in the story they’ve crafted. The problem is that these side-stories can start to dominate the plot itself. This can alienate fans who are likely more interested in the primary protagonists and their central story, than that of characters who didn’t appear until some ways into the story.
Lately the gaslamp fantasy webcomic Girl Genius has shown several signs of this sort of story bloat. When you consider Agatha Heterodyne (nominal star and primary protagonist of the comic) entered into Castle Heterodyne three years ago, it may be understandable that some readers are getting antsy that nothing seems to be getting done; and the recent side-trip to Baron Wulfenbach telling a Storm King story had some readers grousing about another pointless subplot when the comic could be focusing on Agatha and her coterie.
This is not to say it wasn’t an inventive story, for it was. It even fit nicely into the Girl Genius mythos (and that of Agatha’s ancestors, who were not good and decent people on the whole). It would not be until the final panel of Monday’s update that the truth was unveiled… that the Baron has fallen under control of the clank (robotic) copy of the Other, who had devastated Europe before Agatha was born (and who was, in fact, Agatha’s mother). The story itself takes on new meaning. This isn’t a story about the Storm King. Instead, it is a warning… and instructions to his son Gil that he needs to be killed and how to do this.
Naturally the Baron’s fate is not set in stone. For one thing, he’s entirely too noble an antagonist to succumb to the Other’s control without a struggle; already we see he’s sending out warnings that something is awry. While he was infected with a Slaver Wasp and is now an unwilling slave of the Other, he’s not exactly helpless (even confined to a bed with an arm in a cast). He may be forced to obey the letter of the Other’s orders… but it seems he is still able to resist. In his own way he may be the comic’s greatest hero, and given the heroic nature at the heart of Girl Genius I have some hope that he won’t be killed (permanently, at least).
As far as side-stories go, this one is central to the plot as a whole. What’s more, we’re given another glimpse of Phil and Kaja Foglio’s skills as storytellers; the reveal of the clank-Other was presented at the perfect moment, while the segment itself disguised itself as “just” another side-plot until the very end. I must admit some curiosity as to what subtle elements are disguised within some of the other subplots, and what hidden connections they may have to the central plot.