The Girl Genius Omnibus, Volume One: Agatha Awakens by Phil and Kaja Foglio
Published by Tor, February 2012
Review by Mark Yon
This is a handsome looking graphic novel, with the tone and feel of a steampunk (though the authors prefer ‘Gaslamp Fantasy’) tale. Husband and wife team Phil and Kaja tell an account with such enthusiasm and boundless gusto that it is hard to be unimpressed by their efforts.
Set in a steampunk Europe, the tale is about Agatha Clay, in a world where scientific innovation is achieved by those gifted with the Spark. In an atmosphere of unbridled improvement, Agatha’s world is one of academic study at Transylvania Polygnostic University. She is a student with dreams of becoming a scientist, though her absentmindedness seems to lead her into nothing but trouble.
It is a time of political change as well as scientific revolution. The Heterodyne family have monopolised science, though the last of the dynasty disappeared about twenty years ago in mysterious circumstances. Now Europe is governed by Baron Wulfenbach, who maintains control from his airship home, Castle Wulfenbach, with his large fleet of airships, robots, and bioengineered constructs.
There are three issues in this omnibus edition. Issue One introduces us to the main characters and shows us the world Agatha lives in. When Agatha is mugged and has a brooch (that she must not lose) stolen, she comes to the attention of Baron Wulfenbach, and also gains the attentions of the Baron’s son, Gilgamesh (Gil). When banned from the University, Agatha ends up at the Airship City in Issue Two. Issue Three is where Agatha discovers her secret past and true identity.
The story here is great fun, and clearly plays on the traditional steampunk tropes with a great deal of humour and panache. There’s lots of big machines and strange laboratories, with masses of arcane power at work. The characters are imaginative and memorable, from the evil villain to the many mad scientists to Krosp, the bio-constructed talking cat. The drawing is fluid and detailed, and adeptly combines black and white drawings and shades of copper in its initial pages with vivid, vibrant colour, when Agatha is in the Airship City (in Issues Two and Three.)
You could do a lot worse than be entertained by the charm and energy of this tale. I was most reminded of the work of Studio Ghibli, which is not a bad thing to be compared to.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the comic has won five Web Cartoonist’s Choice Awards (WCCA) including 2008 Outstanding Comic, and been nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist, an Eagle Award and twice for an Eisner Award; in 2009, 2010, and 2011 it won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story.
You may also want to have a look online, though I personally find it reads much better as a novel. The story first appeared on line nearly a decade or so ago, (see http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php?date=20021104 .) There are, at the time of writing, over fourteen issues of the series.
Mark Yon, April 2012.