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Girl Genius Omnibus Edition Volume 1

Written and illustrated by Phil and Kaja Foglio
Airship Entertainment
320 pages, $14.95
ISBN: 9781890856403

 

Agatha's day goes bad against a fascinating backdrop. Panel from Girl Genius Omnibus Edition Volume 1, ©2001-2006 Studio Foglio.

 

Agatha Clay doesn't know it, but she's a Spark — which is to say, she has the "mad scientist" gene, and is capable of inventing wild and dangerous devices (generally referred to as "clanks") as casually as you might fix a cup of coffee. Hidden from society by her aunt and uncle, she works as a lab assistant for a university professor... until one day, her amulet is stolen, Baron Wulfenbach arrives on the scene in a gigantic blimp, and Agatha Clay's life turns upside-down in a way she never expected...

As you might possibly have guessed, we're in steampunk territory here, "steampunk" being a somewhat clunky term for science fiction set in the 19th century and possessing a distinctly Jules Verne-esque air. Girl Genius is a rollicking, well-constructed example of the genre. Co-creator Phil Foglio has been drawing genre comics for decades, from his first big break (the strip What's New with Phil and Dixie in Dragon Magazine) through various fantasy and science-fiction comics, even a side-trip through porn. As Girl Genius handily demonstrates, he's learned a great deal about telling an entertaining story, and can shape and manipulate genre trappings to serve his purposes. This story finds Foglio at the height of his craft, mixing comedy, adventure and character interaction with an almost casual grace and skill.

 

Agatha finds herself knee-deep in intrigue. Panel from Girl Genius Omnibus Edition Volume 1, ©2001-2006 Studio Foglio.

 

Phil Foglio and wife/co-writer Kaja have fashioned a humorous, adventure-filled tale fit for teenage readers, which by default makes it more fit for bookstores and libraries than comics shops — and this volume, digest-sized and thick enough to catch the eye even when racked spine-out, is clearly meant as a grab for the former markets. Given the right push, it could do well there, too. The Foglios have created in Agatha Clay a plucky, resourceful heroine with enough potential to serve admirably as an action/adventure lead, but still inexperienced enough to keep her tribulations from being too easy. Supporting characters are plentiful and colorful; Agatha is forever running into people who not only keep the story moving, but also keep the reader entertained as they galavant across the page.

The attention paid to backstory is also impressive. The Foglios have crafted a habitable and fascinating world, a faux 19th-century Europe where the peculiar mechanics of Spark innovation have warped history: Its historical figures have pursued feats of great derring-do (and great villiany) with repercussions that stretch to the present day, and yet there's still enough of the familiar that readers can essentially be dropped into the middle of things and pick it all up organically as the story unfolds.

Indeed, the only real defect in this volume isn't in storytelling but in publishing. Note the following two images:

 

Two versions of a panel from Girl Genius Omnibus Edition Volume 1, ©2001-2006 Studio Foglio.

 

The panel on the left is presented in full color, as it was originally created to be seen and taken from the series' website. The book, however, is in black-and-white — a full-color, 320-page book would have been prohibitively expensive to produce, it seems, and would have cost considerably more than a consumer-friendly fifteen bucks. Unfortunately, the art appears to have simply been changed from color to greyscale without much further in the way of touch-up. As you can see by comparing the above images, the results don't always work, and many of the pages, while comprehensible, nonetheless suffer from a muddy lack of clear light and shadow, making the reading experience more difficult than it should.

Thankfully, the damage done to storytelling flow by the transition from color to greyscale isn't too great; what Girl Genius Omnibus Edition Vol. 1 lacks in polished presentation it more than makes up for in wit and intrigue, as Agatha digs deeper into the world around her and discovers herself to be far more important in the sceme of things than she ever imagined. It's a breezy, entertaining book that will leave readers, especially younger readers, looking forward to more. Provided they can get their work in front of its intended audience, Phil and Kaja Foglio should have very little difficulty in building and maintaining a devoted readership.

 

This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.

 

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