Book Review: Girl Genius, Omnibus Edition, Volume 1

Book Review of Girl Genius, Omnibus Edition, Volume 1, by Phil and Kaja Foglio.

This volume contains the first three Girl Genius stories: The Beetleburg Clank, The Airship City, and The Monster Engine.  Online there are 11 stories in the series, 10 complete, and the 11th one in progress.  Online, each story is called a volume.

Sparks and Clanks and Constructs, Oh My!

These stories are zany tales set in a steampunk world (Kaja’s own term for the stories is Gaslamp Fantasies) where everyone is obsessed with building machines, but only those possessing the magical quality of the “spark” can create any that work.  A person who has the spark can also be referred to as a Spark.  In this particular universe, Sparks are very rare.

Probably my favorite thing about the book is the alternate language developed for this world, Sparks being one example, clank being another, which means an automaton.   In this universe, clanks often have a sort of spirit of their own, an almost independent will.

I also love the names for things and people.  For example, there are fierce, human-ish mercenaries called Jagermonsters.  They have rows of pointy fangs for teeth and a strong attraction to action, violence, and pain.  A “construct” is a human-like creature that has been constructed (much like Frankenstein’s monster), but lives and acts like a human being.

There is a fabled clan, the Heterodynes, who had many adventures, but have disappeared, and now are merely the stuff of legend and children’s stories.

Agatha Clay, heroine extraordinaire!

In these stories, our young heroine is  Agatha Clay, who attends Transylvania Polygnostic University (motto: “Know enough to be afraid”) and desperately wants to build machines, but can never seem to get anything to work.  At first she’s under the protection of the mayor of Beetleburg, but after an unfortunate accident, she’s on her own and gets swept away to the giant airship castle of Baron Wulfenbach, who rules the land and obsessively studies anything “sparky.”  There Agatha is stowed with some other youngsters being held as diplomatic hostages.  Agatha develops a friendship with the Baron’s son, Gilgamesh Wulfenbach (again with the fun names).  General wackiness (salted with danger) ensues.

Fun facts about Agatha: She seems to sleep-build machines in her underwear.  She’s quite brilliant at working with machinery, as when she fixes Gilgamesh’s flying machine while it plummets to Earth, improving the engine design and pulling them out of a crash path with the planet (potentially ouchy).

Extra! Extra!  Read it for free online!

The entire Girl Genius series is available online for free at Girl Genius Online.com.  Hard copy versions are also available (along with lots of other nifty stuff) at their store.

The Art of the Madcap Adventure.

Overall, I would describe the art style as toward the comic book end of the spectrum, with a simplified and exaggerated style.    Not hyper-realistic, like some super hero comics, but also not simplified and caricatured to the point of many newspaper comic strips.  My experience in this whole field is very limited, so I hope you’ll be patient with my developing knowledge.

The entire book is in black and white, but the style shifts after the first story, The Beetleburg Clank, which is drawn in plain, solid black on white.  The next two stories are shaded and more three-dimensional, as if they were done with some computer rendering program.  I found the 3-D pictures much easier to grasp.  Online, the whole thing has been colored, and is much easier for me to comprehend quickly.  Plus the color is very vivid, very fun.

In studying this artform, I’m studying various ways to signal different modes of consciousness, such as memory and dream.

Agatha’s first dream (found in The Beetleburg Clank) is simply introduced with a caption: Elsewhere, Agatha Dreams.  It is only one page, and the drawing style seems to be the same as for depicting waking consciousness.  There is one panel that has a strange, unreal, geometric pattern as the background.  At the lower right edge of the page is a large head of Agatha, waking up.

Agatha’s second dream (found in The Airship City and described as a flashback {even though she clearly goes to sleep before it happens}) is introduced with another caption: Long ago and far away.  The first and last panels of the dream have a cumulus-like rounded edge on one corner, and they’re the only ones in the book that have that.  The drawing style within the dream seems slightly simplified.  The texture of the backgrounds is not as detailed as it is in the waking reality of the story.  Online, the last panel of Agatha’s first dream seems to lose color on its right half, becoming a sepia-ish gray on gray, quite unlike the normally intense colors of the series.

Agatha’s third dream (found in The Monster Engine) is also signaled by a a caption: Agatha is dreaming…  It is a single page depicting Agatha standing in front of and gazing at a gigantic, vivid clockwork (shaped like a skeleton-key hole)  integrated with the moon and sun and stars.  I don’t perceive any particular difference in the drawing style, except perhaps that the surfaces of the clockwork are mostly solid color, and not textured like a lot of the other objects and backgrounds in the rest of the stories.

Glancing through the book, I can see that it adheres to Eric Shanower’s assessment that 7 panels is usually the maximum for an American graphic novel.  Several pages have 1-5 panels, but generally the maximum is 7.  When there are more than 7 panels on a page, usually there are several smaller panels or some insets, or both.  The shapes and proportions of the panels vary nicely for great impact, from horizontal to vertical, predominantly rectangular, with just a couple of curves thrown in.  There’s very nice use of smaller inset panels for close-ups and transitional moments between larger panels.

I find that the panel shapes that are square or rectangular lend an over-all settled feeling to my experience.  Panels shaped with diagonal borders tend to set me on edge a bit.  I can use that when designing my own work.

Frequent use of diagonals in the panel shapes also adds to the energy conveyed on the pages.  And there is a lot of energy in the stories.  Things and people zing about from here to there.  Strange creatures and machines appear almost out of nowhere.  Partly because of the varied panel shapes, the art really has a lot of verve, which matches so well the dialogue and characters, who seem to shout a lot.  There’s just a frenetic, over-the-top feeling about the whole enterprise, which befits their catchphrase: “Adventure, Romance and Mad Science.”

Disclosure, and props to Kaja Foglio!

Thanks so much to Phil and Kaja Foglio for having Girl Genius online.  It’s great to be able to illustrate what I’m describing.

For disclosure purposes: I got to speak with Kaja Foglio at WonderCon, and she was super-helpful, taking a lot of time to talk with me and share information.  In fact, it is due to her that I figured out how to insert links into my blog posts, because she mentioned that links were always most welcome, and I wanted to oblige.

And now, as your prize for getting to the end of this review: Here are some fun pix in a  Girl Genius Costumes group on Flickr.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: My shifting perceptions of Graphic Novels « graphicnoveladventure

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