From the stack: GIRL GENIUS Vol. 4

April 8, 2006

Is it too late to make another recommendation for the American Library Association’s list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens? Because Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius (Airship Entertainment) really belongs on that list.

To be honest, I think it belongs on a list of Great Graphic Novels for Just About Anyone, but its combination of high and low comedy, adventure and invention make it especially perfect for that category.

A new Girl Genius trade paperback came out on Wednesday, Agatha Heterodyne and the Circus of Dreams, and it has all the virtues of the three installments that preceded it. It’s funny, action-packed and features an ever-expanding cast of memorable characters.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Girl Genius, it stars Agatha Clay. She’s a “spark,” a person with an almost magical gift for invention and engineering. Over the course of a series of mishaps, she’s learned that she’s a member of the Heterodyne clan, a family of sparks whose adventures have become legend. They concealed Angela’s identity and abilities to protect her, but now the secret is out, and a variety of competing forces are trying to track her down for their own purposes.

But Agatha’s on the loose with a talking cat and a great big gun, and she isn’t very interested in being used. She finally has full reign of her inventive abilities, but circumstances demand that she keep a low profile until she can get a handle on the situation. Her family’s predisposition for leaping into danger runs as strongly through her as its mad engineering genius, though, so a low profile often goes out the window.

Things happen fast in Girl Genius. No sooner has Agatha escaped the city-sized dirigible of Baron Wulfenbach than she runs across a traveling circus filled with appealing oddballs. She and her companion, Krosp, an irascible feline destined to be the King of Cats, fit right in, but the circus has its own secrets to keep and is reluctant to compromise its safety. As is customary in this charming book, circumstances conspire to keep Agatha on the road with the group.

In the process, Agatha finds friends, an outlet for her abilities, and a mentor in the form of Zeetha, a warrior woman who’s been separated from her homeland. As Zeetha takes a tough-love approach to bringing Agatha’s adventuring skills up to scratch, the last Heterodyne learns some of her family history. (The circus specializes in retellings of various Heterodyne adventures.) It’s a fun and inventive way for Agatha to embrace her legacy.

I’m constantly impressed by the steady stream of appealing new characters the Foglios introduce to the narrative. The cast is absolutely sprawling, but each character is distinct and appealing in his or her way, even the antagonists. Even better, each cast member makes his or her own unique contribution to the world that the Foglios are building.

It’s an eye-popping world, too. Phil Foglio’s illustrations are always appealing, whether the scene in question is comic, reflective, or gruesome. It’s a flexible style that suits the material perfectly. In the fun creator bios, Laurie E. Smith is described as conducting “experiments with blasphemous color theory,” which is exactly correct. Her palette helps give Folgio’s drawings bright, rich life.

The Foglios describe Girl Genius as “A Gaslamp Fantasy with Adventure, Romance & Mad Sciences,” which is also exactly correct. This book is great fun, a modern myth in the making that seems to get better with each new chapter.

(The fourth volume also includes a charming back-up story, “Fan Fiction,” written by Shaenon Garrity in which a young woman inserts herself into the Heterodyne adventures as she retells them to her younger siblings. Garrity does a very nice job capturing the appeal of taking ownership of legends, making a gentle case for the Mary Sue even as she pokes fun. Garrity’s story can be viewed here, and you can also sample Girl Genius from the beginning.)