Hello Old Friend: Some Thoughts on Girl Genius Omnibus Vol 1 by the Foglios

Written and Illustrated by Phil and Kaja Foglio (with Brian Snoddy, Cheyenne Wright, Mark McNabb, and Laurie E. Smith)
Collection Published by Tor, originally a webcomic

Agatha is a young woman who wants to build things, but her brain won't cooperate. Living in the shadow of a world where the best leaders have disappeared and machines loom over all, Agatha makes the best of her situation at the University. When the ruler shows up and things go very wrong, she's spun into current events, whether she likes it or not, and learns a very important secret about herself--she's a Spark.

And that's when the trouble *really* begins...

Weirdly enough, I first came across Girl Genius as a card game, one I loved so much we wore out the cards, and I don't think even sleeves could help. I think the game is lost to time, but I still come back to the comics now and again, and since I grabbed this from the library recently, I thought it wouldn't hurt to give it a retrospective. This is less a strict review and more a series of thoughts on the series in its early going.

By this time, given the longevity of the series, most Panel Patter readers will either know this series extremely well or have discovered it's not for them. I have a bit of a complicated relationship with the Steampunk genre, because it often glorifies an era that has a lot of terrible things to answer for, without acknowledging those problems. One of the things I think makes Girl Genius a bit different is that the world contains those same problems, expressed differently--women being discriminated against, the plight of the common people, constant wars for power among the elite, etc. Sure it's couched in a lot of humor and creatures (both mechanical and otherwise), but you can tell that the Foglios understand that the world they're basing the series from wasn't perfect, and displaying those imperfections is a lot more interesting than ignoring them. Or maybe I'm reading into the text because I like the creators and the characters? Others may know better than me.

The other thing I like is that the characters aren't all based on white Europeans. That's another Steampunk problem that's eliminated here, and given the Foglio's strong artistic skills, we see all kinds of people and creatures represented here. The idea that most everyone has an agenda, too, really adds to the depth. Agatha is still a blank slate to some degree, but she's learning fast after being shielded for so long. A good example of this is her wanting to free an adventurer, only to learn he's basically just as bad as those he wants to fight, and hypocritical to boot. (Also sexist, but that's pretty much every man in these early issues.)

Despite moving at a very brisk pace, we learn a lot in these early issues. Re-reading for the second or third time (I tend to come back to these characters every so often), the world building really impressed me. By having the ruler and his son appear at Agatha's university and interacting (badly) with her boss, who manages the town, there's a great opportunity to give readers a sense of the danger Agatha is in and the treacherous politics of her world--that her foster parents are trying to shield her from--while also creating a lot of adventure, action, and humor.

That's the other thing I really noticed: This series is hilarious! So many little jokes, slipped in here and there among the minor characters, who are better fleshed out than you'd expect, allowing them to take on more of the asides and visual gags than you'd expect, like the soldier who keeps getting trounced by the dominatrix-style matron clank, seeing it as a sign of love because of the aggression of his species. There are of course a ton of pratfalls and jokes with Agatha and the others, but I like that we get a full world, not just "Here's your STARS! Focus only on THEM!"

Unsurprisingly, Girl Genius is extremely pretty. The colors, once we get out of the prologue, really pop out at the reader, especially in this edition from Tor, who've done a great job re-packaging the material. The characters wear outfits of bright blue, red, green, black, and other shades, so that those who are clothed in more neutral shades, such as Agatha's foster parents, don't blend into the background of a scene. Their colors may not be as flashy, but since they aren't competing with those in spectacular garb, it works for them. The ship itself also has a nice shading that sits in the background, but changes from room to room. Little touches like that show the artistic flare of Kaja, who illustrated really cool Magic Cards when I was playing. (Maybe she still does, but I "retired" from that a long time ago.)

If there's one complaint I do have, it's that the linework is a bit too loose at times. There's definitely a use of cartoon exaggeration for effect, but there are times where things don't feel as tight as they could be, with the characters feeling more like sketches than a fully developed work. It doesn't hurt the overall flow of the story, but I definitely noticed that in this early going, there's some battles with character consistency and quality. On the other hand, some of the panels are constructed so amazingly well that they're worth stopping and staring at. Overall, I really do like the way the characters show their emotions, and I guess to pull that off well, you have to be willing to forgo some of the consistency. One of the great things about Foglio art is how much you can tell just from the characters. No matter how much they talk, you still feel a lot of what's going on by how they lean in or out of a panel, where their eyes are going, or how they set their teeth. It's a clinic at times, and I wish people who had prominent comics jobs would pay attention to this. It's such a joy to see an angry character *look angry.*

Overall, I really enjoyed my time re-reading this one, and I hope Tor continues to reprint them, as the individual trades are a bit hard to find. If you haven't experienced Girl Genius, I think it's worth looking at. There's some great art, a solid, fast-moving plot, good humor, and a young woman who doesn't take crap from anyone, years before that was something everyone started doing (to various degrees of success). I'm hoping to snag more volumes to catch up, and if I get time, will continue reflecting on them in a free-form, semi-review format.