Girl Genius Book 4 by the Foglios

Written and Illustrated by Phil and Kaja Foglio (with Laurie E. Smith, Shaenon E Garrity and Cheyenne Wright)
Self-Published, Originally a Webcomic

Agatha has escaped the Baron, alongside her talking cat friend Krosp, but they soon run into trouble when their airship crashes in the wastelands--an area in which danger lurks at every turn. They run into a peculiar circus, mechanical menaces, and of course, the Baron's men--making things even more complicated as they try to keep one step ahead in this next collection of adventures.

After really enjoying my re-read of the first three books, I decided to grab the rest from the library, which is going to take time, because they have to be library-loaned. I really had no memory of this book, and I'm wondering if maybe I had to skip over it before. The biggest impression I have is that the art continues to get sketchier. The head of the circus in particular feels like he's not as defined in terms of linework as, say, the Baron. Re-reading it, I really noticed that the scenes featuring the Baron and his crew feel better rendered than the circus and its crew. I don't have an answer for why, as they are interspersed so it's not like it's a sequential issue. Weird.

This volume does a lot to open Agatha's world while still telling a story. We get characters from all over the world, discover that the life of anyone with a hint of mechanical ability is basically hell on Earth, and that the family tree from which Agatha spawns is...quite possibly not as heroic as we'd initially been led to believe.

In other words, the Foglios are doing an awesome job of building this long-form creation without skimping on making this an enjoyable romp as we go along. I was especially impressed by the fact that we probably could read this as the first book and not be too confused, thanks to a brief explanation page (hint to creators: Do NOT be afraid of recaps, even in your trades/graphic novels!) and little details that come out across the page, either from a direct reveal or inference, such as how we can see Agatha still has feelings for the Baron's son.

Though I did feel like there were some moments when the book's art didn't feel quite finished, the layouts themselves are extremely strong. There's some playing with panels here that works to keep the reader's eye varied, including a really cool moment where we see exactly what a character is looking at, even though it breaks the usual flow of the panels. Neat trick.

The best part of the art, however, is the comedic expressions. Krosp in particular gets a visual workout, as he still acts like a cat even though his form is humanoid, leading to some really cool poses. He also serves as a questioning figure, challenging Agatha's perceptions. These characters chew visual scenery at every opportunity, and it's so much fun to see them do it. Despite the seriousness of what's going on, the art still feels like a farce. Even when characters are in danger, there's still a humorous aspect to what we see. Much of Girl Genius is a dark comedy, and that's hard to pull off, but between the great scripting and the expressive body language, the Foglios pull it off, aided and abetted by Laurie E. Smith's colors. This may be a world of gears and grease, but it's a colorful one, between the costumes and the shades used on the machines themselves. This could easily have become a rather dark series in the hands of a different colorist, but Smith goes garish, ramping it to 11, just like the text and lines she's working with.

I'm still enjoying this return to Agatha's World, and I look forward to reading more whenever I can snag the next book. If you haven't checked out this series, it's worth getting into. It's aged extremely well, I think.