Author: Phil and Kaja Foglio
Genre: Comics, Steampunk, Comedy, Adventure, Romance, Speculative Fiction
Publisher: Studio Foglio
Publication Date: November 2006 (omnibus edition)
Softcover: 312 pages
Stand alone or series: Collects volumes 1-3 of the ongoing Girl Genius webcomic (updated every Monday, Wednesday and Friday online)
Agatha Clay is a student at Transylvania Polygnostic University and a complete klutz. But when the University is overthrown and a mechanical monster stalks the streets, it begins to look as though Agatha may carry a spark of Mad Science after all! This convenient backpack-sized, black and white edition contains the first three volumes of the Girl Genius collection and is a perfect gift for anyone new to the series.
How did we get this book: Bought (although you can read the series for free in its entirety online)
Why did we read this book: We have heard NOTHING but praise for Girl Genius. By multiple accounts, this is the definitive steampunk comic. And given that neither of us had read or even heard of the webcomic before, we were eager to jump in.
Thea: Holy crap, Girl Genius is freaking fun. This is a manic, hilarious, adventure-filled gem of a comic, and I cannot believe I have only just heard of it now. Basically, from the opening frame, I was hooked. From the zany writing (lots of extreme emotions) to the crisp artwork, I loved this book. And you can bet your Agatha-style Victorian undergarments that I’ll be back for more.
Ana: Oh dear lord, I can’t express how much I loved Girl Genius.Oh wait, I CAN: I loved this collection like you wouldn’t believe. Firstly, it is as Steampunk as it can be in every sense of the word (or genre). Secondly, it is SO much fun to read. Not only because it is actually a pretty funny book but also because of all the adventure and manic plot and the awesome characters. I have to say, I did not see this one coming. Loved it.
On the Plot:
Thea: This omnibus edition collects the first three “issues” of the Girl Genius series. In the first issue, titled “Agatha Heterodyne & The Beetleburg Clank” introduces us to a pretty, frazzled young student named Agatha – who, despite her imagination and ability to visualize complex mechanical designs, cannot build anything that works. Her life is turned upside down when she’s first accosted by two soldiers, who steal her beloved beetle-locket (the only remaining keepsake she has from her deceased parents). Then the despotic tyrant ruler, Baron Wulfenbach, his son Gilgamesh, and their armed guard of clanks (automatons) and Jagermonsters (hilarious, fierce “monsters” that speak with over-the-top accents) drop by Beetleburg and visit the university laboratory where Agatha is working as an assistant…and, inadvertently, they end up blowing up Dr. Beetle (Agatha’s mentor). Enraged, depressed, and kicked out of the university, Agatha returns home to relay the events of the day to her surrogate parents…who seem disproportionately concerned about Agatha’s loss of her locket. Soon, more chaos ensues as a rogue clank is unleashed on the town by an unknown maker – and Baron Wulfenbach believes it must be the work of a new Spark; that is, one gifted with the ability to create intricate machinery. The search is on for the new Spark – and it leads to Agatha’s home.
The second and third issues, “Agatha Heterodyne & The Airship City” and “Agatha Heterodyne & The Monster Engine,” follow Agatha as she is whisked aboard the Baron’s secret airship city, and the ordeals she goes through as she discovers that she, indeed, is a Spark. And not just any spark – she’s got a whole legacy to her name, and now everyone wants to kill her, or follow her.
What can I say about the writing of this fantastic comic? That it’s uproariously funny? It’s surprisingly intricate? That Agatha’s journey of self-discover is hilarious, touching, and empowering at the same time? Girl Genius is all of these things, and more besides. The universe the Foglios have created here is deceptively complex – there’s a tyrant who really doesn’t want to be a tyrant, an empire at peace but at the high cost of fear and enforced servitude, a whole magical hierarchy of Sparks, monsters that have peculiar tastes and mannerisms, science experiments gone amok, cities in the sky, legendary tales of the Heterodyne boys…the list goes on. Suffice to say that there is a lot going on in this comic – in a good way. Although it’s a little strange at the beginning (seriously, this book moves at a manic pace), I was quickly, hopelessly immersed in Agatha’s universe.
I should also say that the art in this book is fantastic. I’m not much of an artist by any stretch of the imagination, but I loved the contrast between the first issue and the second and third (different shading techniques), as well as the crisp, clean strokes the Foglios employ. These first three issues were originally published in black and white (though they are fully colored online now), and the omnibus stays true to that, which is cool. I also quite like how curvy Agatha is and I luuuuuuuuuuuurve her oversize glasses.
Ana: What Thea said. Every word of it. I think the most important thing to say is how the story at first, comes across as deceptively light and simple read when in fact it is not. With every single page, details of the world-building were being added, details of the character’s history were being revealed and what started as the story of a girl caught in something she is not prepared for ended up being a LOT more than that: full of complex comes and goings, relationships, mysteries and plot twists. I am completely, utterly enamoured with this book.
The amount of detail is staggering: because the story deals not only with Agatha but with the entire world as well. There are repercussions about everything and the more the particulars were being revealed to the reader, the more glued to the pages I was. These details also appear in the art where every single thing in each panel is beautifully drawn – I too love the art here.
On the Characters:
Thea: Ahhh, Agatha. Agatha, Agatha, Agatha. She really grows on you. Upon first meeting, she gets beat up by a soldier (seriously! smacked around!), and she’s prone to bouts of frustration and headaches, which are pretty hilarious. As the comic progresses, we learn that she’s always felt like a moron, however, on account that nothing she builds works. And then, she’s forced to confront the truth that she is, indeed, a spark. It’s a cool progression, and I loved this zany, sleepwalk-in-her-underwear-prone character. What’s coolest about Agatha is how she stands up for others AND for herself – when she’s made offers of marriage or seen as the ‘damsel’ in distress, she’s able to hold her own.
The other main characters are similarly – surprisingly – well developed, too. I love how there’s this ambiguity throughout. We readers are told who the “good” and “bad” guys are – but there are extenuating circumstances. A “hero” character, for example, turns out to be a ridiculous Zapp Brannigan type of dude, meanwhile the tyrant Baron is shown as having no patience for politics and gives off the air that he’s tyrant just to keep the peace…because no one else will.
And then, of course, there’s young Gilgamesh and what appears to be the budding romance between him and Agatha. Hilarious. Awesome. Did I mention, hilarious? Yeah. It’s like that.
Ana: At the risk of sounding like a fan-girl (but what the heck, that’s exactly what I became after reading it): the characters are completely awesome. They have depth, they have flair, including the villains. All of them, the Baron and Von Pinn (I am not going there as to not spoil but Von Pin is seriously, seriously made of win) for example actually have shades of grey which makes them way believable and relatable.
The awesomeness of Von Pinn
Agatha, our protagonist is as Thea says: she grows on you as she grows on page. Her arc is an interesting one – even if not especially original.
Finally: Gilgamesh and the romantic developments. I am so totally on board of THAT ship.
Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:
Thea: If you couldn’t tell, I loved Girl Genius – and I cannot wait to finish reading the series online, and follow along with the droves of other dedicated fans each week for more Agatha Heterodyne! Absolutely recommended – this is a comic appropriate for all ages, and for all readers.
Ana:The series is made of win and I have only one regret: that I didn’t know about it sooner. Do yourself a favour and go read it now, NOW.
BUT IS IT STEAMPUNK?!
Thea: Yup. The technology is central to the plot, and the world is undoubtedly steampunky in style and substance. I say, yay.
Ana: Oh yes, most definitely. However, the author doesn’t seem to think so, preferring to call it Gaslamp Fantasy. I am completely amused by the fact that as soon as I find something that I DO consider Steampunk, I am told it is not. Oh, well: I still consider it Steampunk. I will go as far as to say it is one of the most Steampunk reads I’ve ever seen.
Notable Quotes/Parts: Take this exchange, “The Falling Machine” (here are the first two pages, you can read the full chapter in its entirety online):
Additional Thoughts: We’ve recently received another steampunk webcomic recommendation that warrants mention. If you like Girl Genius, you might want to try out 2D Goggles, the ongoing Lovelace and Babbage saga. Take, for instance, the origin:
Thea: 8 – Excellent
Ana: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekateria Sedia