I’ve waxed elegant (and not so elegant) several times about Phil and Kaja Foglio’s superb use of secondary and tertiary characters in their gaslamp fantasy webcomic Girl Genius over the years, so I decided to cut short my inevitable discussion on the love triangle between Moloch von Zizner (who continues to struggle in a vain attempt to escape his destiny as Agatha Heterodyne’s minion) and his fellow female minions Sanaa (sister of Othar Tryggvassen: Gentleman Adventurer!) and Snaug (minion of Professor… just what is his name anyway? It’s getting confusing). What I do want to point out is the Professor’s comment, after von Zizner manages to charm Snaug off her feet, was twenty levels of awesome. Because yes, minion he may be… but von Zizner is a dangerous one… and has easily grown as much as Agatha.
I’ve noticed that many humorous storyline webcomics tend to slowly shed the humor as dramatic tension grows, a term often coined as “Cerebus Syndrome” (though Eric Burns of Websnark considered this to be the successful integration of humor and drama, while the abandonment of humor for drama he called “First and Ten”). While I am a huge fan of dramatic storytelling, I must admit that I feel humor has an important place in comics… especially in contrasting the darker, more dramatic moments with glimpses of humor and light. Fortunately, Phil and Kaja Foglio’s gaslamp fantasy webcomic Girl Genius has managed to successfully integrate both drama and humor within its structure, which has allowed the Foglios to tell an increasingly dark and ominous story without it becoming oppressive… though there have been moments.
The last few updates for Girl Genius have skirted the line between the two poles… with the revelation that Baron Wulfenbach was trying to destroy the very weapon he’d designed to detect and defeat Slaver Wasps (which makes sense, seeing he’s been subverted by the Other). The death of so many Wasp Eater weasels and the attack of Slaver Warriors (that had been held captive on the airship, which suggests that the Baron didn’t kill all of the Slaver Warriors from the attack way back when) helped to counterbalance the humor from when the Jägers were fighting off the attack of the Baron’s minions. Today’s comic with the weasel lovefest shifts the mood back from drama to humor.
This is actually par for the course for Girl Genius; while there are occasional moments in the comic that get dark, it never quite reaches the level of “the dark before the break of dawn” (though when you get down to it, that moment of darkness is most intense because of the light). However, I do have to admit I’m wishing this storyline would wrap up. It’s obvious that Agatha and her friends in Mechanicsburg will need allies to overcome the Baron and the Other. There’s even been a number of hints laid along the way that Agatha will eventually head to England (where no doubt we’ll learn the Queen of England is a rogue Hive Engine that decided not to enslave the English people and to fight the Other).
No doubt it’ll be a while getting to England, however. And perhaps my boredom with Mechanicsburg lies more with the years we spent with Agatha wandering through Europe; I want to see more of the wondrous and detailed world that Phil and Kaja Foglio have crafted. For that matter, the Battle for Mechanicsburg has been going on for over a year now. Even with the interweaving of drama and humor, the pacing is starting to falter. I can only hope that the Foglios have moved all their pieces into position for a grand conclusion for the Battle of Mechanicsburg… and the start of Agatha Heterodyne’s next adventure.
The last few updates for Phil and Kaja Foglio’s award-winning webcomic Girl Genius have admittedly left me conflicted, as one of the main protagonists of the comic, Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, has been captured by his father who is under the control of the comic’s primary villainess, the Other. It’s only natural for readers to dislike it when a favorite protagonist is at the mercy of an antagonist. It’s even worse when a favorite character has been forced into the role of antagonist, even as you hope desperately for that character (Baron Wulfenbach) to somehow subvert the control he’s under and allow his son to escape. But I can’t help but feel quite impressed at how utterly menacing the Baron is as he twists his son’s perceptions to try and convince Gil that he was the one infected with a Slaver Wasp, rather than the Baron.
Admittedly, Gil made some stupid mistakes earlier; I’m not quite sure what his reasoning was for kicking the ex-Jägermonster Vole (tossed out because he was too violent even for the Jägers) out of Castle Wulfenbach (which doesn’t sound too serious until you realize the Castle is a kilometer-long dirigible that is several hundred feet in the air), and thus pissing off the pirate queen Bangladesh DuPree who’d been developing a bit of a crush on the bloodthirsty minion… well, let’s just say that if Gil had tossed her out after Vole, he’d not have been discovered by the Baron (or at least, not as quickly). Gil’s real problem is that he’d grown overconfident. It’s a common failing among most Sparks… and pretty much the only two who tend to (mostly) avoid the excesses of confidence are the Baron and the comic’s primary protagonist, Agatha.
Naturally, the Baron now plans on eliminating Agatha. His reasoning makes sense even if he hadn’t been subverted by the Other; while he may be forced to play the villain, he’s remaining true to who he is. This makes a certain amount of sense when you consider how canny the Other is, and how she’s long played people off against one another. It’s only natural that once she created a means of controlling people that she’d determine the limitations of that control… and how to best minimize the risks. Yet I can’t help but remember how the Baron sent out his first warning, the story of the Storm King that in truth warned Gil that his father had been subverted… and how to kill him.
So while Gil may be in his father’s custody, it’s inevitable the Baron has left loose ends, such as the constructs Punch and Judy (who raised Agatha to be the young woman she has become) who Gil saved and repaired… and his own construct, Zoing. Or even DuPree, for that matter; while the Baron claimed she had been poisoned, I can’t help but suspect we’ve not seen the last of her. While I doubt Gil will be freed as soon as his father’s back is turned, no doubt when things grow dark for Agatha and her friends in Mechanicsburg, Gil will get his chance… and we’ll have another confrontation between son and father. And this time I suspect Gil will get the better of his father.
Today I saw something that I never would have, in a million years, have expected. I saw the Pirate Queen Bangladesh DuPree reduced to tears. And this wasn’t tears of pain, mind you. We got to see the most gleefully homicidal character of the fantasy steampunk webcomic Girl Genius, a woman who giggles when she reads the definition of the word “sociopath” and considers them to be weak sauce, crying in Gilgamesh Wulfenbach’s arms as she explained to Gil how she’d searched for Gil’s father in the wreckage of the hospital… and was unable to find him anywhere. She was unable to save him… and she tried.
Of course we all know it’s likely that Klaus Wulfenbach is still alive, and likely a prisoner of the Other (the antagonist who waged war on Europe 18 years prior, and who had briefly possessed her daughter Agatha). Phil and Kaja Foglio have played this close to their vests… but in all likelihood the reveal on Klaus’s location (and condition) will happen at the end of Volume 11. In a way it’s disappointing; I know that Klaus won’t take his domination by the Other lying down. He’s already shown the ability to subvert the Other’s control, if only in small ways. It would be amusing to watch how else he thwarts the slaver wasp nestled in his gut.
(If I can indulge in a brief aside, the Foglios actually foreshadowed this years back in a made-up Heterodyne story. Not only did they have Klaus infected by a Slaver Wasp… but they also showed Klaus being freed of its influence. Of course, back then we didn’t know that the Wasps (or normal Slaver Wasps at least) couldn’t infect Sparks… but that doesn’t limit the foreshadowing aspect of this tale. And it gives me some hope at least that Klaus can ultimately be saved. He’s entirely too fascinating a character to be sacrificed as the right-hand man of the Other – or, to use a TV Tropes term, the Other’s Dragon.)
DuPree’s reaction to Gil (and to the loss of Klaus) is rather telling of Klaus himself. This man managed to win the loyalty of a bloodthirsty maniac… to the point that she follows Klaus’s orders without thinking. But what’s more, she ran back to the hospital to save Klaus. It tears her up that she failed him. When you consider how self-centered she is, the fact he managed to earn such loyalty in her says something about the physical charisma of the Baron. Oh, he wasn’t one for big speeches or the like. He was a rather quiet man when given the chance. But he led. He inspired. And somehow he captured DuPree’s loyalty. And that’s no small thing.
What’s more, her breakdown was well depicted… as was Gil’s reaction. I mean, he’s shocked to see DuPree break into tears this like. This is a woman who has no moral compass, no sense of wrong. Part of this may be the sense of helplessness here (and indeed, her threat to kill Gil in the final panel for having made her cry is quite indicative of her hatred of being helpless. This is a position she never wanted anyone to see her in, and Gil caused it. He’s a dead man, alright). What’s more… the final panel says so much. It’s not just the others calling him Herr Baron. When Gil takes DuPree into his arms and absolves her of blame… he becomes Baron Wulfenbach. At least until DuPree kills him, that is.
I wanted to give a quick shout-out to Girl Genius and the Foglios. A little over ten-and-a-half years ago (when the comic first came out in print) we were introduced to a shy unpresuming young lady named Agatha Clay, who wanted nothing more than to be able to build just one working Clank (a gear- and steam-driven machine in the GG universe). Since that time she’s faced many dangers… and learned of her heritage as the daughter of Barry Heterodyne (and his wife Lucrezia Mongfish). And now? Now Agatha’s come home, claiming her family Castle and town while kicking ass and taking names. While I’m sure Agatha won’t stay in Mechanicsburg for long, it’s good to see that after all these years she’s finally found her home… and been accepted in return.
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.
Of the regular cast of characters for Girl Genius, I must admit Zeetha is one of my favorites, partly due to the exuberance and confidence she often exudes. The latest update shows a more vulnerable side to her; given she had been badly hurt trying to protect Agatha from her newest antagonist, Zola, that is probably to be expected. One thing that struck me was just how fragile Zeetha looked in the fifth panel, as Airman Higgs brushed her hair from her brow. That’s when it hit me; I think this might be the first time we’ve seen Zola without her headband… and how young and exposed she looks without it.
As for Higgs, I’m still trying to figure him out. Given his brief lapse into a Jägerkin accent (and his later use of one of their trademark phrases), I half wondered if he might be some form of Jäger himself. (That, and he was also drinking with the Jägers.) Given we did learn that humans occasionally ride with the Jägerkin, I suspect this is a more likely scenario even given Higg’s extreme resistance to mortal wounds. I mean, he was able to keep fighting after taking a wound much like the one that took Zeetha out. And note that he’s still wearing his hat while stitching his own wounds up. Clues concerning Airman Higgs have been accumulating, and are painting quite the fascinating picture here.
While it’s taken second fiddle to the primary story with Agatha and Castle Heterodyne, I’ve rather had fun watching the growing relationship between Higgs and Zeetha (especially given their first meeting when the sparks began to fly). Part of this is undoubtedly due to Higgs’ backstory and its initial portrayal of him. But there’s also genuine chemistry between them, as shown with not only how concerned he was when she was hurt, but how he deliberately infuriated her to get her to stop beating herself up over being unable to protect Agatha. Given the subtlety of Higgs’ character, it’ll be fun watching the sparks continue to fly between these two.