Worthwhile Webcomics: Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Mama Fisi
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I first encountered the cartoons of Phil Foglio in a small anthology book titled "Startoons" back in the early 1980's.  I was so charmed by his haplessly cute characters that I started trying to emulate his drawing style (after having emulated Charles Schulz from the time I could hold a pencil) and so I credit Mr. Foglio with being my inspiration, and the reason why I'm a web cartoonist today.

I was presented with a slim, uncolored edition of his "gaslamp fantasy story," Girl Genius, back around 1999 or so.  It was really hard to follow, and the story hasn't gotten much better as far as coherent plot goes, but with the help of colorist Cheyenne Wright (among others), "Girl Genius" has won a double armload of prestigious awards, including a couple of Hugos and a citation from Mensa.  So it's very highly regarded among "schmott peepul."  It runs, usually, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

You don't have to have ADD to enjoy "Girl Genius," but it helps.  However, I've discovered that it's far more enjoyable in the dead-tree book format, because you don't have to try to retain what happened two days ago, four days ago, six weeks ago, in your head, in order to understand the current strip.  You can read them page after page, and refer back to whatever you might have missed, and the artwork does not suffer at all in the transfer from web page to paper.

The tale has had more twists and turns than the intestines of a blue whale, and has even gone off on extra-canon tangents from time to time.  As a storyteller myself, I realize you sometimes need to take a break and go vamp with something simple until you can come up with "what happens next," but in a tale as complex and ongoing as Girl Genius, this can get to be a terrible distraction, especially when it happens at a critical point in the narrative.

The story, at its core, revolves around young Agatha Clay, a clumsy student at Transylvania Polygnostic, in a version of 19th Century Europa where the Industrial Revolution has become a shooting war, spurred on by rival mad scientists known as "Sparks."  Unbeknownst to Agatha, she is really the daughter of two extremely powerful Sparks, left at the University incognito by her uncle to keep her safe from those who would try to exploit her.

But the inexorable sweep of fate catches up with Agatha, when she attracts the attention of Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, the tyrant of Europa, who maintains an uneasy peace between the rival factions by keeping their children hostage on his giant dirigible.  Agatha also attracts the attention of the Baron's son, Gil, who decides he wants to marry Agatha, whether she approves of the plan or not.

Managing to elude The Baron, Agatha hides for a while with a group of wandering circus performers, and discovers a little more of her history.  She determines to go to her family's base city, Mechanicsburg, to present herself to its artificially-intelligent but insane Castle as the Heir to the House of Heterodyne.

She has a number of adventures along the way, picking up several loyal friends (or as some would call them, minions) as she tries to reach Mechanicsburg without being recaptured by Baron Klaus.  Klaus is not actually a bad man--he was once a compatriot of Agatha's parents, and knows that she has inherited both the capacity for great good from her father, and great evil from her mother.  He fears what Agatha might be capable of doing, if she is able to repair the Castle, which had been severely damaged in a mysterious blast the night her parents vanished, eighteen years earlier, shortly before Agatha was born.

Agatha also has to deal with the machinations of the Sturmvoraus family of Sturmhalten, who are themselves plotting to take over Mechanicsburg--and Europa--by putting in place a false Heterodyne Princess, in order to make an old prophesy come true, regarding peace coming to Europa when the Heterodyne Princess marries the Storm King of Sturmhalten.  Agatha has to try to discredit the actress that the Knights of Jove have been carefully grooming, and it helps immensely that the Castle recognizes Agatha as a true Heterodyne after sampling some of her blood.

With the help of her minions, and the puckish advice of the Castle itself, Agatha is able to repair all the broken circuits and restore the Castle's hydroelectric power supply, bringing it back to full strength just as Baron Wulfenbach launches a massive assault against Mechanicsburg.  The Castle's defenses are able to repel attacks by everything Klaus can throw at it--but just as victory seems assured, one of the Sturmvoraus heirs kidnaps Agatha through some sort of teleportation device, which takes them to a Knights of Jove fortress in the mountains far from Mechanicsburg...oh, and somehow the teleporter gets damaged along the way, so they end up having skipped ahead two and a half years, appearing at a time when the Wulfenbach Empire has collapsed, and the Baron's son Gil is actively hunting down and destroying the Knights of Jove.

And that is the story so far...or at least as much of the story as you really need to know.  If you read "Girl Genius," you'll find out for yourself about the warrior girl with the green hair, and the talking cat, and the fun-sized tiger clanks, and the minmoths, and the Weasle Queen, and the roller-skating giraffe, and the slaver wasps, and the revnants, and the constructs, and the Jagermonsters, and the clockwork princess, and the boodthirsty sky pirate captain, and the super coffee maker, and the unstoppable Bosun Higgs, and the mechanical squid, and the Chromatic Death, and of OTHAR TRYGGVASSEN, Gentleman Adventurer.