By Phil & Kaja Foglio
A 319 pg graphic novel.
One of the things I bemoan as a professional reviewer is the lack of graphic novels I’m sent to look at. Note I did say, “look at.” The fun of such material is that, when well done, it becomes both a literary and visual feast; a narrative told with both words and art.
The problem is that, even in our supposed enlightened times, most major publishers still do not appreciate or acknowledge graphic novels as legitimate and thus are not receptive to publishing them. Those pioneer publishers who do are few and far apart. Happily Tor Books is one of the leading pioneers in this acknowledgement and they deserve credit for not only publishing books such as the Foglios’ “Girl Genius” but also promoting them so heavily.
Since its inception as a webstrip many years ago, this manga inspired sci-fi steampunk comic about airships, monsters, half-humanoid beings and a magical talent called “the Spark,” has won three Hugo Awards and been nominated for both the Eisner & Eagle Awards; the best for American and British strips respectively. It is a grand, over-the-top tale that showcases a world where machines are looked upon with fear by the average citizen and those scientist who can master them considered heroes of mythic proportions.
Agatha Clay, an orphan college student in Transylvania, is being raised by her aunt and uncle and has no knowledge that she possesses the Spark. Her only clue being that she often awakens from deep sleeps in her uncle’s workshop surrounded by tools and bizarre, unfinished, “cranks.” These are robot-like inventions that come in all sizes and shapes with a variety of functions. Eventually, her secret ability begins to assert itself and she comes under the scrutiny of Baron Wulfenbach, one of the most powerful political scientist in all the world. He ultimately brings her aboard his city-size airship and there she meets an assortment of characters, both human and half-human, along with a talking cat with attitude and the Baron’s handsome young son, Gilgamesh.
The boy is keen enough to realize Agatha has the Spark and suspects her talents are greater than most others known to his father. At the same time, the great ship is coming other attack by an alien entity from another dimension and in the end, there is a climatic battle wherein Agatha, using her gifts consciously for the first time, helps Gilgamesh save the day. But not before she uncovers other mysteries of her past and her parents. In the end she is forced to steal an airship and along with her pal, the feisty talking cat, makes good her escape, thus ending the first part of her saga.
At 319 pages, “Agatha Awakens” is a whopping chunk of madcap, graphic fun and action galore. Although the first hundred pages display a roughness to the depiction of the characters, it is easy to reconcile this was the first year’s worth of pages and the artists were gradually beginning to know their characters. By the second hundred pages, the art settles into an easy, cartoony style that is part manga, without being overly exaggerated, and typical Saturday morning fare. I particularly liked the use of coloring, which has been redone for this collection. It shifts from the duotone and sepia when detailing earthbound city scenes and then explodes with a vibrant rainbow palette upon arriving at the giant airships that cruise majestically through the sky.
Agatha and her supporting cast of characters are fresh, original and fun. This beautifully produced hardcover is like nothing else I’ve read in graphic form and it truly impressed me a great deal. If you are a fan of American manga, sci-fi or steampunk, you are going to love “Girl Genius – Agatha Awakens.” Take my advice; get two copies, one for yourself and another for your pre-teen kids or grand kids. They’ll eat it up.