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Girl Genius: Adventure with a 50% chance of blowing itself up

I'll learn the organ! Then they'll see! THEY'LL ALL SEE.

Whoever said ignorance is bliss probably wasn’t standing on the edge of a crater that used to be a small village, nuked into oblivion by a mad scientist’s botched experiment, but you know what?  They should have.  Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio of Studio Foglio, is one of the most  immersive webcomics you can find on the net, complete with believable characters, bizarre situations, impossible science, and a massive world that gives you the feeling that you’re only seeing a fragment of the madness.  It’s what the 1800s would have been like if people in the 1800s knew how to create gigantic death robots and society was filled with mad scientists.

Girl Genius has one of the biggest, in-depth worlds I’ve seen in a comic, without ever really touching on the bigger picture.  Years before the start of the story, two brothers famously known as the Heterodyne boys, were roused from their sleep to find that their castle in Mechanicsburg was under attack.  A being only known as The Other had launched a bit of a war against humanity, using small nasty bugs known as slaver wasps to either kill or control the populace.  The Heterodynes took it on themselves to fight off The Other and embarked on a quest to save the world.

The Heterodyne boys are pretty cool! (probably)

They were never seen again.  They presumably won, though, since shortly after they vanished, the hordes of slaver wasps receded, and life started to get back to normal.  As normal as it ever gets, mind you.  As for the Heterodyne boys, no one is even sure about the truth behind their many adventures, and they quickly passed into legend.  New stories were created.  They became folk legends, icons, and heroes to tales that they probably never actually participated in.  The only people who actually know what happened were the people who they befriended and journeyed with along the way, like Klaus Wulfenbach and the constructs Punch and Judy.  But we’ll get to them in a bit.

But, with The Other gone, the world still had one major, longstanding problem.  Some people are born with the Spark.  In other words, they’re born as mad scientists.  They have what it takes to create new breakthroughs in machinery, biology, robotics, fuels, genetics and more.  The only problem?  For the most part they are mad as pants.  A Spark usually doesn’t last long, especially the weaker ones.  They tend to either blow themselves up (taking most of their community with them), accidentally set off doomsday devices, or get run out of town by the locals in true Dr. Frankenstein style.  Being a spark is not safe.  They can be hunted, killed or exploited for no reason other than the fact that they’re sparks.

As a result, the world is in pretty bad shape.  There’s a lot of cities still around, which serve as a hub for mankind, but the rest of the world is a vast wilderness, where forgotten clanks run free and every now and then you’ll come across some nasty failed experiment that wants to eat your face.

See what I mean?  Explaining this all concisely is getting to be a problem.  To make a long story short, Klaus Wulfenbach comes back suddenly years later and “recruits” the world into his empire.  He’s a strict leader, and at times unfair or homicidal, but hey, the world’s a lot safer so you shouldn’t knock it.

Anyway, the story picks up eighteen years after the Heterodyne boys vanished, with a befuddled young lady named Agatha Gray.  Agatha is a lab assistant at a university in Beetleburg, named for the town’s governor Dr. Beetle, and she can’t seem to create anything without having it explode or fall apart.  An electrical anomaly, a mugging, and a routine visit from Wulfenbach himself quickly turn an average day for Agatha into a long adventure that may someday even trump a Heterodyne legend.

Where are the giant robots? Everywhere.

Okay, there.  That’s all the story you’re going to get from me.  Now on to some of the more technical parts of the comic:  Pros and cons.

First, I’ll get this out of the way.  The only major thing I have against this comic is that is has a bit of character lag.  There are tons, absolutely tons of interesting characters in this story, but at times it seems like the Foglios have either forgotten about them, have no current use for them in the story, or seem at a loss of what to do.  As a result, and you get this a lot during the current chapter, you have several sections where the current “main” group of characters get interrupted by a wandering, secondary group of characters.  Sometimes these characters contribute to the current action in some way, but most of the time it feels a bit more like “oh hey, these guys are here now.  Remember them?  They’re still here.”

But like I said, there are a lot of characters, and I give the Foglios a lot of credit for keeping track of as many of them as they do.

Okay, on to the positives.  Agatha is one of the few believable female leads I’ve read in a comic.  I was a little uncertain when I first picked up Girl Genius, because usually attempts to write a female character are either smack in the realm of fan service or are unbelievably attracted to the comic’s token violent-but-hilarious sociopath character.  The Foglios hit the nail on the head with the characters here.  Agatha is a driven lead, bails out her male counterparts more often than not, and still comes across as a little girly despite her crazy Sparkish tendencies.  Each character has their own set of motives, their own goals and hopes and dreams, from Tarvek the “storm king” to Krosp, emperor of all cats.

The artwork in this is a little on the cartoony side, but has tons of details in the background and environment.  I think it works well for the piece, and gives the characters a way to express emotions without falling into that standard manga format.

A sample of Jagerspeak. Read it out loud for the full effect!

Oh, and then there’s the jagermonsters.  Humanoid, pointy toothed, and mostly all violent, the jagers are foot soldiers for the Baron’s army.  They love breaking things and hurting people, and they’re fiercely loyal.  They have the best accent ever and it’s all spelled out phonetically.  I find myself reading the jagers lines out loud for the full experience, and man, it’s a lot of fun.

By far one of my favorite parts of the comic is the Heterodyne boys legends.  The comic takes several breaks from the main plot where other characters in the world will tell a “true” Heterodyne story.  Or at least, they hope its true.  These segments feel like just another chapter in a long string of adventures, a cross between Sherlock Homes, Indiana Jones, the Hardy Boys, and a bizarre sci-fi tale.  It helps to get a feel for just how legendary the Heterodyne Boys were without ever really hearing the truth about where they went or what actually happened.  Only one man really knows the truth, and honestly he doesn’t seem to be the talking type.

Anyway, Girl Genius updates every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and is about as regular as comics come.  Just be warned, it’s one of those comics with a pretty extensive archive at this point, and you’re not going to be able to put it down after you’ve started reading.  Check it out at http://www.girlgeniusonline.com or Studio Foglio at http://www.studiofoglio.com.

Girl Genius has also won a couple of  Hugo awards, including a 2010 award in the category of Best Graphic Story for 2009.  Just sayin’.

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