Saturday, August 30, 2008

Review: Girl Genius

Gush warning.

Girl Genius, written by Phil and Kaja Foglio. Illustrated by Phil Foglio. Vol. 1 inked by Brian Snoddy. Vols. 2-3 colored by Mark McNabb. Vol. 4 colored by Laurie E. Smith. Vols. 5-7 colored by Cheyenne Wright. 7 vols. Studio Foglio: 2002-2008. Full color. Approx. 120 pages each.

Available online as a web comic.

Everybody knows negative reviews are the most entertaining to read. Positive reviews are much less so. Gushing reviews can be downright disgusting, so I must warn you, I'm about to gush. When it comes to reviewing comics, I've built my reputation, if I have one, on criticizing comic book creators for the way they dress their women: I have always shown disdain for scantily clad cartoon characters, but maybe that's just because I hadn't met the right scantily clad cartoon character. Today, I'm going to ruin my cred.

Click to enlarge.
The Girl Genius in all her glory.

We've all seen stories that imagine not just superheroes, but worlds positively overrun with superheroes. Shows like The Tick, or some episodes of Darkwing Duck, poke fun at DC and Marvel's overstuffed comic book universes. In Kingdom Come, Mark Waid and Alex Ross treat the idea of heroic overcrowding more seriously. Girl Genius works on a similar idea, but instead of imagining a world overrun with supermen, it imagines one overrun with mad scientists.

Girl Genius is set in a steampunkish nineteenth (?) century in which high-tech devices can only be created by a chosen few, those who have an innate quality known as the "Spark," which enables them, even compels them, to understand and construct death rays, airships, killer robots (called "clanks"), and Frankensteinian monsters (called "constructs"). In addition to making them geniuses, the Spark apparently grants charisma and fighting prowess, but it also drives them bonkers: they can only create in a fit of amoral madness, and sooner or later most go over the edge completely.

Twenty years or so before the story begins, the Industrial Revolution embroiled Europe (inconsistently called Europa in the comic) in a massive war between various mad scientists competing for power. Peace finally came, temporarily, when the two Heterodyne brothers--mad scientists themselves--trotted around Europa defeating evil overlords. It didn't last, however, as a new, mysterious, and especially powerful mad scientist, known simply as the Other, began transforming entire towns full of people into zombie-like Revenants. The Heterodynes set forth to stop the Other and disappeared in the process. But peace came again when yet another mad scientist, Baron Wulfenbach, built a massive fleet of airships, gained the allegiance of an army of humanoid creatures called Jägermonsters, and took over the continent. With his mobile fleet, superior firepower, and a policy of hostage-taking, he lives as a troubled overlord but keeps the mad scientists and royal families in check.

The first volume, appropriately labeled the "Prologue," opens in black-and-white, introducing eighteen-year-old Agatha Clay, a bumbling student at Transylvania Polygnostic University. Wearing gigantic glasses and built like an especially robust barmaid, Agatha spends most of her time tripping over things, getting yelled at, and building devices that don't work. But all of that changes (of course) when a couple of rowdy soldiers steal her locket, setting in motion a series of events that will prove Agatha to be not only a great mad scientist, but in some way connected to the Heterodyne legacy. After Agatha is abducted by Baron Wulfenbach, then, like Dorothy stepping into Oz, the comic moves into full-color and the plot really gets going. Agatha will have to maneuver through a lengthy series of harrowing adventures, make friends and enemies, and hone both her inventing and fighting skills in order to claim her birthright, uncover the identity of the Other, become a major player in European politics, and maybe save the world. She does it all, and she has a curious habit of doing a fair amount of it in her underwear (it is still a comic book). In sum, Girl Genius is probably the world's most elaborate and best-written indulgence of a meganekko fetish.

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Big girl with big gun.

Conventional though the story arc may sound at first, this is easily one of the best comics I have ever read, and depending on how it goes from here, it may very well be the best. It has a gigantic cast of intriguing characters, a complex plot, a fascinating backstory meted out at exactly the right pace, innumerable twists and turns, and exciting action sequences. It's also gut-bustingly funny. Some of the subplots are quite complex; in particular, volumes 5 and 6 together are easily the strongest part of the series so far, giving numerous revelations while Agatha tries to deal with separate sides in a mad science-enhanced political power play.

Drawing its inspiration from comic book villains, Victorian fiction, and B movies, Girl Genius subverts all the familiar tropes, usually by giving its characters unexpected qualities. For example, Baron Wulfenbach, expected to be a cackling evil overlord, is actually a thoughtful man with a number of redeeming traits, though he also has a bad habit of performing hideous experiments on people's brains. Wulfenbach's son Gilgamesh, a humorously genre-savvy character, knows that people expect him to be a sniveling weakling of a villain, but being compassionate, intelligent, and physically tough, he's consistently peeved at the fact. A minor character, Othar Tryggvassen, talks like an especially bombastic comic book hero and tries to stop Wulfenbach's nefarious schemes--but it soon turns out his own motives are less than pure. Then there's Lars, a typical rough-edged, lovable scallywag--who gets panic attacks. As for Agatha herself, she perhaps follows more conventional lines, transitioning smoothly from downtrodden loser to tough and independent heroine with a moral center, but as a mad scientist, she's also capable of totally flipping out, sometimes violently. All of this has served so far to give the comic a complex yet palatable moral universe.

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Agatha and Lars re-enact a steamy scene from a Heterodyne legend.

The artwork in this series is fantastic and keeps getting better. The black-and white first volume looks great, with the complex machines walking down the crowded streets as the big highlights. Things only improve when the series moves to color, and the work of the latest colorist, Cheyenne Wright, is especially good. Complementing the complex, outsized machinery that fills the backgrounds are the highly expressive characters. One of the greatest joys of reading Girl Genius is simply watching the various contortions that the protagonist's face can go through.

If the comic can be said to have a flaw, it would probably be a case of character glut. The cast is so huge, even major players can disappear for hundreds of pages. Although the story never really veers off target, the staccato disappearance and reappearance of a few characters can be confusing, and has done damage to the romantic subplot promised in the tagline. The romance itself is perhaps too conventional when compared to the innovations the story shows elsewhere, and too predictable.

Because the series is both complex and unfinished, it has innumerable loose plot threads. It's unclear when, if ever, it's all going to wrap up. Presumably, Agatha is eventually going to save the day and get the guy, but since she's clearly not going to save the day any time soon, the authors have probably played their hand too early in revealing which guy she's going to get, though it's possible that yet another plot twist or the reappearance of a rival may change that.

To our readers here, the most interesting aspect of the comic may be the messianic theme that's always lurking in the background. After the disappearance of the Heterodyne brothers, their exploits were quickly exaggerated and expanded into a cycle of adventure stories, many of which made it into penny dreadfuls, and many of which made it into cheap theatrical shows. Many in Europa, and especially in the Heterodynes' hometown of Mechanicsburg, are awaiting either their return or the appearance of their heir. This messianic furor builds through the comic until it takes on definite religious tones. To spice things up, it is eventually revealed that the Heterodyne brothers, heroes though they were, descended from a long line of brigands and murderers, a legacy the family has never completely escaped. At the present point in the story (the web comic is now in the midst of volume 8), it remains to be seen whether this messianism will ultimately prove a destructive force, a beneficial one, or as is likely considering what has happened in the story already, something in between.

In addition to the occasional underwear, the comic contains a sizable helping of risqué humor (including some joke about a tea cozy that I really don't get) and, to date, two implied premarital sexual relationships and one "naughty flashback scene." It also has some of the expected action violence and occasional torture, some of which is serious but a large amount of which is played for laughs, sort of like the violence in Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. As in Twain's novel, the humor works consistently well, but the effect is more uneven when things turn serious. There is some blood, but the imagery is never particularly graphic. The creators deserve credit for giving a content advisory on their FAQ page, which recommends Girl Genius for "teens and up" (a group equivalent to adults in my vocabulary).

So that's it. I recommend it. Now can someone explain the tea cozy?