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Girl Genius: Now That’s How Steampunk Ought to be Done

September 23, 2009

Why is it that all the webcomics I’ve been reading lately have been better than the books? I haven’t written any book reviews lately because the last couple of books I read were lackluster. And the disappointing thing is that they sounded like they would be really good. Good Omens, a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, is about an angel and a demon who manage to bungle up the apocalypse. If you’ve ever wanted to know how an angel behaves when drunk, this is the book for you, but otherwise it didn’t light me on fire. And Seventh Son, well, Orson Scott Card is the kind of sf/f author where everybody takes their hats off when you mention his name, and the book had a way cool premise: what would happen to the American colonies … if magic worked? Unfortunately the book read like a big long prequel. Alvin, who goes on to do actually exciting things later in the series, is only ten years old by the time the book closes.

Girl Genius, on the other hand, is another one of those gems you happen to stumble across by word of mouth. It’s a webcomic by Phil & Kaja Foglio that’s been running for many years now. It’s an alternate history where most of Europe is at the mercy of dueling mad scientists. (They call it Europa, but you’re not fooling me, Foglios.) Imagine a Jules Verne book that has been left in the back of the refrigerator for too long and gotten completely out of hand. It’s gotten to the point where, when a crab monster with laser eyes crashes out of the forest, the peasantry rolls its eyes and groans.

Young Agatha Clay, a hapless student at Transylvania Polygnostic University, discovers she’s the sole surviving heir of the Heterodyne dynasty, a family of mad scientists with a particularly strong and checkered reputation. Now, everyone in Europe wants a piece of her. Her madcap quest to assume her rightful place as a heterodyne and keep from getting killed involves blob monsters, airships, robots, talking cats, wasps that will turn you into zombies, and lots and lots of explosions. And did I mention that her house is insane?

If you’re going to try Girl Genius out, please wait until you’re partway through Volume 2 before you decide whether you like it or not. The Foglios took a while to figure out what they wanted their comic to be. Early on, characters’ reactions to things are kind of cartoony and flat, and the Jägermonsters resemble nothing so much as rotting pumpkins. It really hits its stride once Agatha gets on the airship and we get some character interactions going. By the time you meet the robot princess you’ll need to start keeping a scorecard.

The graphic novel format means they can do some really neat things you can’t do in a novel, like subtle visual humor. Oh, look, Agatha’s guardians just happen to have bolts in their necks. That guy driving the wagon in the background has a cybernetic hand. That mouse in the cellar is actually a tiny, tiny wooly mammoth – an escaped experiment.

One of the things I particularly like about the story is that Agatha’s a strong female character (with glasses!) who relies mainly on her intelligence to get things done. A few well-made death rays never hurt, either. There are certain limits on what Agatha and Gilgamesh (he’s the romantic lead) can do because they’re the main characters, and they’ve got a heroic job to do. The side characters really make the story shine, and there are a lot of them – it is a sweeping, epic plot. And each one of them gets motivations, even if they’re only there for a few episodes, so you get the feeling that if you looked closer there’d be even more to them.

I love, love the Jägermonsters, though I can’t figure out what the dickens they are. They’re humanoids who come in various shades of purple or green and have fangs and claws, and they’re really hard to kill. And they don’t seem to mind eating glue for supper at all. My running hypothesis is that they’re some sort of highly intelligent breed of Orc. And by highly intelligent I mean about as intelligent as a human, because for an Orc that would be an accomplishment. The cool thing is that at first they look like they’re just stormtroopers, but then they get lines, and some of them even get names, and it turns out that they’re a lot more important to Agatha’s destiny than originally anticipated.

I’m far from the only person who thinks this webcomic is awesome, considering its nomination for 2 Hugo awards, its five Web Cartoonist’s Choice Awards and 8 more nominations, and nomination for 2 Eisner awards. These guys mean serious business. And it looks like Agatha’s going to be gearing up for a final showdown soon, so you’ll want to save your seats.

What can I learn from this, from a literary point of view?

  • More explosions always help.
  • Make your minor characters shine, not just your protags.
  • Always keep the following in mind: how can I make my heroine’s life even more complicated?
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