Wednesday, July 7, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, graphic fiction: Girl Genius, Volume 9: "Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm" by Kaja and Phil Foglio

As I mentioned before, the Hugo voters seem to differ somewhat in their views from the voters of the big comics awards like the Eisners. This is only the second year that the graphic fiction category has existed, but based on these two sets of nominees, it looks like the Hugo pool leans heavily on high profile Vertigo series (Fables), properties from creators already well-known in the sf community (Cornell and Gaiman), and webcomics. I think the high profile of the latter category actually speaks in favor of Hugo nominators, as webcomics have huge circulation but often seem to be undervalued by comics tastemakers.

Phil Foglio has a couple of fan-art Hugos under his belt from way back in the ‘70s, and Girl Genius, by he and his wife Kaja, was one of the first self-published comics to embrace the webcomics model with great success. So, it’s not a surprise that Girl Genius is a mainstay in this category (it won the first year). It’s also very easy to see why Girl Genius has a huge following and active sf fanbase from the content itself: the character cartooning is lively and expressive with strong storytelling, the designs are fantastic, and the setting is very interesting. Girl Genius is set in an alternate nineteenth-century Europe where certain people have a “spark” that enables them to become mad scientists and create giant destructive machines. This has turned the Europe of this super-industrial revolution into a shattered war-zone full of giant robots. The titular “girl genius,” Agatha Heterodyne eventually discovers that she has a hidden “spark” and a special destiny. It’s all very steampunk, though the Foglios prefer the much cooler term “Gaslamp fantasy.”

This volume and the previous Hugo-winning volume both take place in a sentient castle that Agatha has inherited. Both volumes involve a lot of traipsing around the huge building while disarming of boobytraps, discovering secrets, and repelling invasions. The innovation of this volume in particular is that it puts both of Agatha’s love interests in the castle with her, which creates lots of comic and character opportunities, and, when a chromatic illness is introduced, adds a race-against-time element with some added drama. For these reasons, I liked this volume better than the previous one.

That said, I don’t think volume 8 should have won last year (I probably would have voted for Fables), and I’m not sure this superior volume should win this year either. The plot has stalled out a bit in the castle, after a series of very fast-paced entries through the first seven volumes. Also, as much as I can see why the series is so beloved, I’ve never been as big a fan. There’s a lot to admire here, and Phil and Kaja Foglio have great ideas and a lot of experience. It’s purely a matter of personal taste, but the mix of comedy and drama has never quite worked for me. I want the series to either be sillier or more serious. Still, I don’t think there’s any question that it’s the best “gaslamp fantasy” comic that America has produced in the past few years, and, in a year when Steampunk reigns supreme, that counts for a lot.

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