Girl Geniuses

Mixing the sublime and the outlandish

September 8th 2011

Time to take a break from Politics. Ron Paul is the leading GOP candidate this week, Obama is giving a speech on labor that has unions ready to bolt the Democratic Party, it doesn’t get much crazier than that, so let’s take a break.

Have you ever had a situation where you encounter two new things in your life that both strike your fancy, and even though they have little or nothing to do with one another, they become inescapably wedded in your mind, so that you can’t enjoy one without thinking of the other?

In my instance, the two items are a folk album by a Danish artist virtually unknown in the United States, and a comic book. About the only thing they have in common is that the central person involved in each is female.

The reason they got conjoined in my mind was because for several days, I was playing the album while reading the comic book. It normally doesn’t take me several days to read a comic book – it’s not like I’m a member of the Tea Party, after all. It’s just that this particular comic book is over a thousand pages long, and still being written and drawn. And I do have other things to occupy my time, too.

First, the music album. It caught my ear a few weeks back on the wonderful on-line streaming audio site, Radio Paradise (it, along with the CBC’s “Vinyl Cafe,” have introduced me to an entire galaxy of great music). I’ve gotten in the habit, if a song catches my ear, of jotting down the artist and title. If I look at the list and see the same song more than once, or the same album more than once, I go looking further with an eye to getting the album.

There were three cuts from this one album that were on my list for one day: Riverside, Philharmonics, and On Powdered Ground. Hmmm.

The album is Philharmonics by Agnes Obel. She’s a 30-something Danish woman and this was her first major release. It’s an incredibly powerful first effort.

One critic described her music as being “too negative for American audiences” which stuck me as strange, because the songs are flat-out happy compared to such American hits as Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (which includes such positive and sunny sentiments as “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I ever had”) or gangsta rap.

But Agnes Obel’s music is sad, rather than grim. Maybe that makes a difference.

The main instrumental accompaniment is a piano, played in a sprightly, upbeat manner, but in a minor key. It complements her voice, which is soaring, lilting, a combination of sweetness and pain. The songs get in your head and stay there, and you don’t mind. The entire album is rich and deep.

It may not be the best album I’ve heard this year. That almost certainly will be another extraordinary first effort, Native Speaker by the Montreal group Braids. But in most years it would be. It’s a fine album, and if you’re interested, you can get it from her website,, and there are sample tracks you can stream.

That takes us to Girl Genius. That’s the comic book.

Imagine a world run by mad scientists. I’m talking short, bald-headed guys with coke-bottle lenses in white lab coats who stand among beakers and Jacob’s ladders and shout such things as “It lives! It lives!” or “I have perverted science in the name of love!” or “The jury is still out on climate change!” The type that, in our world, tend to attract lynch mobs with pitchforks and Peter Lorre.

In the world of Girl Genius, which is sort-of Europe sort-of 120 years ago, mad scientists rule the world. They are called “Sparks” by those who know and admire them (which would be other mad scientists) and “madboys” by those who don’t (everybody else).

The population isn’t all human. Along with people, there are “clanks” which are mechanical devices, large, cumbersome, and well beyond our technology. They can be robots, dirigibles, mechanical fortune tellers or little pocketwatches who can problem-solve. There are attack clangs called Devil Dogs, which are technically known as “Fun-sized mobile agony and death dispensers.” There’s also jägrmonsters, who combine the sensibilities of pro wrestling and Charlie Manson. They are former humans who had a draught of a liquid known as “Slightly better than death.” Because they enjoy rough language and indiscriminate slaughter, they aren’t particularly liked by the humans, but some Sparks find them useful.

This makes for a spectacularly unstable world filled with intrigue, general chaos, and hilarity.

The science isn’t our science, and operates in glorious disregard for well-known principles of engineering, physics, biology, or even astrology.

Girl Genius is different enough that it requires its own genre classification. It isn’t steampunk because the sensibilities aren’t punk, and the technology isn’t just a parody of Victorian science fiction. The authors refer to it as “gaslight fantasy.”

The art is strongly reminiscent of Judd Winnick’s early work, when he was doing Frumpy the Clown and Pedro and Me – and one, Barry Ween, subtitled “Boy Genius.” Girl Genius artwork is far more detailed, and the coloring is sublime. The writing is harder to describe. It has the cheerful chaos and absurdity of L’il Abner or Pogo, combined with the elements of a really engaging ongoing serial. Which, in fact, is what it is. The plotting for this story began in 1991, and the first pages came out in black and white in 2001. That’s right: the plotline alone took 10 years to develop before the first page came out. It’s been coming out at the rate of a page every couple of days ever since. Now in Volume 11 (known to the rest of us as “2011”, it’s well over a thousand pages.

The central character is Agatha Heterodyne. She’s a Spark, out of a very important family, but she doesn’t know that until she’s in her late teens, since Sparks tend to be unstable and self destructive and few live to adulthood. They get lynched, or turn themselves into lab rats, or another Spark gets them. She meets and is attracted to the son of the Baron, who is sort of the Big Spark who has imposed a Pax on a seething and uneasy Europe. There’s some others, such as Lucrezia Mongfish and The Other, to provide dramatic tension, along with England, which is a vaguely threatening Borg enterprise that so far has remained on the periphery of the story. And of course there is the Castle, which is insane. The characters are nuanced and it isn’t a simple good vs. evil story.

A good example is Gilgamesh, the Baron’s son. The Baron is ruthless, and the son’s life has consisted of one test after another to ensure that he is worthy to rule as the successor. A sotto voce conversation among two humans and a jägrmonster (distinguished by an accent) explains his situation: “Gilgamesh Wulfenbach is the Baron’s only heir. I’ve heard rumors that the Baron is testing him, trying to determine if the Spark burns as brightly in him as it does in his sire.” “And if it does not?” “Dis is Baron Wulfenbach, sveethot! He vill break him down for parts and try again!” “Mon Dieu!” “Yes, rather comforting to know there’s someone whose life sucks more than yours, eh?” The bold font is theirs; they are, after all, a comic book.

Needless to say, this does have an effect on Gil, who, years later, explodes while beating the crap out of an eight-foot tall jägrmonster: “What do I have to do? I just took down an entire army of war clanks, and still I get treated like a halfwit child! […] Always I try to be reasonable. To be fair. I try to talk to people. And no one ever takes it as anything other than weakness. You listen to me try to be civilized, and you think – ‘Oh, he’s nothing. Him we can ignore. Him we can push around. We can do whatever we want—he won’t stop us! ‘ Because nobody ever takes me seriously—unless I shout and threaten like a cut-rate stage villain. Well, you know what? I can do crazy. I really can. And it looks like I’m going to have to.[…]I’ll have to give up all this ‘being reasonable‘ garbage—and show you idiots what kind of a madboy you’re really dealing with!” He throws the jägrmonster through a wall, and an expression of dawning realization crosses his face. “Oh. Oh, no. This must be how my father feels—all the time!” A bit later he mentions to a chastened witness to his outburst, “My father once wrote a monograph on how to communicate in the workplace. All seven popes ordered it burned.”

The characters evolve, supported by some surprisingly sophisticated writing.

Writing a vast episodic saga like this is difficult. It has to remain unpredictable and with lots of action, without becoming contrived or sliding into endless fights. With a large cast of important characters, it has to be easy for the reader to keep track of who’s who, and the writers manage this well.

Writing comedy is far more difficult. Especially if it’s raucous, slapstick comedy. And Girl Genius has lots of that. It’s pretty safe to say that every page has something that will at least make you chuckle.

And given the length and complexity of the work, that’s an extraordinary accomplishment.

How did this come to my attention? I saw a mention in the Washington Post that it had won the Hugo Prize for Best Graphic Fiction three years running, 2009-2011. Winning it once is a major accomplishment. Three times in a row? And it wasn’t a case of it being the Next New Thing: it had already been running nine years when it won the first Hugo.

According to their website: “Girl Genius is written by Professors Phil & Kaja Foglio of TPU, with drawings by Prof. P. Foglio. Volume One was inked by Brian Snoddy. Volumes Two and Three were colored by Mark McNabb. Volume Four was colored by Laurie E. Smith. Cheyenne Wright is our current colorist. His work begins with Volume Five.”

The entire thing, all eleven years (and counting) is available online FOR FREE at You can also order trade paperbacks at the same site. Not surprisingly, it has it’s own wiki,, and there is a large Fanfic community on the web.

I understand why I like Girl Genius and Philharmonics so much. I remain mystified as to why they dovetail so nicely, but they do: perhaps it’s the sophisticated blend of light and dark they exhibit.

Try them both, and see for yourself.

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