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.

Book Review: Mouse Guard Fall 1152

I love it.  I’ve read it twice, and I really love it.

I promised to loan it to my roommate after I do this review, and I love it so much, I’m going to have a hard time without it for those few days.  Just now I glanced through it, and I love it even more.

David Petersen has created a world where a small band of intrepid mice guard a territory for their fellow mice, protecting their lives and villages.    The world is pre-industrial, with technology about matching that of humans in Europe in 1152.  The Mouse Guard starts by investigating hints of problems and discovers a plot that threatens the very existence of the Guard itself.  I could detail the entire plot, but that would in no way convey the incredible charm of this delightful volume.

The mice make great protagonists.  Not only do I identify with them because they’re furry and cute and mammalian, they have many admirable qualities.  The Guard are loyal and bold, devoted to their purpose and to each other.  We know how incredibly small they are, but they don’t seem to.  They are large of spirit.

Early in the first chapter, there’s a fabulous close-up of one very determined and feisty Mouse Guard as he faces a large and fearsome predator, armed only with his courage and a short sword.  Perhaps that was the exact moment I fell in love with the book; I’m not sure.   But I love the close-up of that undauntable little mouse face.

The art and layout of the book are magnificent, too.

The volume is square, 8 1/4 by 8 1/4″.  All the panels are rectangular or square.  There are no angles or odd-shaped panels, and a crisp white border separates all the panels.  This solid-ness seems to mirror the mind set of the Mouse Guard: they have strict codes of honor.  The borders between right and wrong are clear to them.  On this meta level, the form of the book supports its content extremely well.

Harmony, balance, and symmetry reign over the proportion and sizing of the panels.  Very thoughtfully laid out, facing pages often mirror each other or flip the orientation of the same shapes of panels, such as 3 vertical strips on one page, and facing that 3 horizontal strips.  David Petersen obviously took great care in pacing his story into these harmonious visual rhythms.  Also very well-balanced is the mix of close-ups, medium-shots,  long shots, stable angles and strange angles, all beautifully employed in telling the story succinctly.

The storytelling is compact.  To a much greater extent than I have seen in other graphic novels so far, each scene in this book has only the minimum dialogue necessary.  The pictures really carry a great deal of the action.  There is so much feeling conveyed in these drawings, especially in the mouse faces.  The drawing style does not look at all to my (inexperienced) eye like “comic book art,” much more like lovely illustrations from a picture book.

The color palette is beautifully controlled as well, but never boring.  Over all, the Fall tones are used the most, rich oranges and browns, but there are gentle greens and deep purples as well.   Varying  from scene to scene, the lush color expresses its own rhythm in support of  the story.

Everything about Mouse Guard fall 1152 is so thoughtful, so gorgeous, so rich.  I love the storytelling.  I love the art.

I love this book.  And I look forward to the others in the series, Winter 1152, The Black Axe,  and Legends of the Guard, which won the Gem Award for Best 2010 Anthology.

Off-topic coincidence:  Because I am a fan of history, and an especial fan of hers, I mention that 1152 was the year that Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II, Duke of the Normans, who became King Henry II of England in 1154.  Eleanor was the only woman to be queen of both France  and England (at separate times – first France, then England).

Mouse Guard Fall 1152 is available from the publisher, Archaia, and at many bookstores as well.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am planning to submit a proposal for my graphic novel to Archaia, in hopes that they will publish it.  I think we’re a good fit (I hope they will think so, too), and their volumes are lush and gorgeous.  (Of course, if they don’t want mine, I will continue, looking for other publishers or self-publishing. )

You can read more about their aims in publishing and see what else they offer in their catalog.  (This is a big pdf file, so it may take time to load.)

You can read their submission policy here:   Archaia submission policy.