Friday, January 28, 2011

Great Escape from the Castle in the Sky

For most things, there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to do them. 
Whether it’s sorting lights from darks in the laundry hamper (oddly, not as self-explanatory to some people as one might think or hope), loading the dishwasher (and yes, there is a “correct” way if you want to get more than one meal’s worth of dishes in there), writing an effective business letter (please, for the love of Thoth*, pay attention in your high school English classes), or dealing with an unsolicited caller/salesman/annoying neighbor (a firm “No”, followed by a click/slam/walk away rarely fails), most of us have a pattern we follow to complete each task... the “right” way of accomplishing whatever.
The same holds true for books. We start at the beginning and read until we get to the end (unless you’re one of those people who--for some unfathomable-to-me reason--peeks at the ending first). We expect a book labeled as a “mystery” to contain a puzzling whodunit and a “romance” to be full of lusty bodice-ripping... but in neither case would we consider a tedious discourse on economics or the inner workings of combustion engines to be appropriate. (See? The right way, versus the wrong way.)  
We look forward with equal parts anticipation and trepidation to movie versions of our favorite stories... but rarely (never?) leave the theater thinking to ourselves, “Wow, I hope they make a book out of that!”. (That would just be all sorts of wrong.)
And now, we have the increasingly-common practice of subjecting popular books to the graphic novel treatment, in which either an entire book is summarized (sort of like a Cliffs Notes version with the addition of cool artwork), or one thrilling episode is pulled from the larger story and recreated in visual form. So, to take something from the graphic medium and then make a book out of it would surely be kind of wrong, right?
Normally, I'd agree. In the (happy) case of Agatha H. and the Airship City, however, that backwards approach works almost smashingly well.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Phil and Kaja Foglio’s popular “Girl Genius” web-comic, here’s a little background... Set sometime during the Industrial Revolution--with an “alternate history” in effect--Europe has become a strange and fractured new place, ruled by a kind of weird science in the form of the “Sparks” (genius mad scientists who crank out one bizarre fighting contraption or weapon of war after another, keeping the populace in check through fear). These nefarious Sparks came to power on the heels of the (highly-fortuitous) disappearance of the last of the brilliant-and-good scientists, the beloved Heterodyne Boys (whose legend lives on some sixteen years later, in the hearts of the beleaguered townsfolk). 
Agatha H. and the Airship City concerns the earliest days of "GG", introducing us to our heroine and setting up the rest of the series. It follows the adventures of a rather hapless student attending the esteemed Transylvania Polygnostic University--one sweet and innocent Miss Agatha Clay, a budding scientist who singlehandedly builds scores of nifty little contraptions in the lab at the university... none of which work, to her immense chagrin. (Never fear, though; failure isn’t about to stop our intrepid Victorian Miss.) When the ruthless Baron Klaus Wulfenbach orchestrates a hostile takeover of TPU, poor Agatha becomes part of the spoils of war, and finds herself put into service aboard Wulfenbach’s gigantic airship (the new, floating home of Castle Wulfenbach, by the way). And, as Agatha learns the ropes--meeting many young Sparks, some ordinary scientists, and a lot of bizarre... erm, “others”--while plotting ways to escape the airship (in hope of reuniting with her missing parents), she gradually comes to the unexpected realization that she, too, seems to have more than a bit of the Spark in her... and that her destiny just might end up being way bigger than she could have ever dreamed.
Agatha H. actually begins prior to where the web-comic does; we get a scene featuring the Heterodyne Boys, before they disappeared, and it’s a very nice addition to the story. The rest of the book more or less follows the same timeline and action as the early “GG”, though: Agatha’s home life and time at the University, the takeover at TPU, and her escapades once she finds herself part of the strange new world of Castle Wulfenbach.
“GG” is a delightful, inventive series, and the writing duo (the Foglios) deserve every award for which they’ve been nominated and have won. The artwork is gorgeous, bringing all the myriad characters to stunning life on your monitor, and the story is richly-layered, taking unexpected twists and thrilling turns along the way. Going into the smart, clever Steampunkian (note that author Kaja prefers to call it “gaslamp fantasy”, as their work adds science to the “steam”, but leaves out the “punk” aspect) world of “Girl Genius” is an immersion exercise; once you start, you get hooked, and you don't want to stop.
Conversely, therein also lies my one-and-only problem with it. New episodes appear thrice weekly, meaning--since the Foglios have been working on this since 2001, and publishing online since 2005--there’s a LOT of comics to go through. Online. Which not only takes a lot of time, but really fatigues my eyes (leading to progressively-inattentive reading, headaches of epic proportions, and tired, twitchy peepers, yay). Bottom line? I’m not even remotely caught up to the present in the series, which is incredibly frustrating, because I long to be. (Yep, the story really is that good.)
For me, then, the advent of this first “GG” webcomic-to-book is cause for celebration. Sure, I already knew the story (or most of it--there are little additions and tweaks here and there, as I mentioned), but it’s a completely different experience reading everything without benefit of all that glorious artwork. I now understand things that I hadn’t quite caught onto--or maybe hadn’t paid enough attention to--when I first read/viewed it online last spring/summer. Reading the story in book format has filled in some of the gaps, and the chance to immerse myself (after a ridiculously-long absence) in that world once again--in a different and new way--is nothing short of awesome.

By now you're probably wondering if you need to read the web-comic. Absolutely, if you enjoy fabulously-creative sci-fi/fantasy complete with uber-cool world-building, witty dialog, some ripping-good action/adventure, and a little romance thrown in... not to mention those gorgeous illustrations. (Wait... did I mention that there's also a cat--a bipedal, talking one? Yes, well, just chalk that up in the lengthy "why you should read GG" column, okay?)
But, I highly recommend that you follow your reading/viewing of the first year or so of the online series with Agatha H. and the Airship City, because it really finishes the job of fleshing everything out. (Unless, of course, you’re a genius of Spark proportions, yourself, and grasp every little nuance instantly--in which case I can only assume you’re only reading the series to try to gank a few dastardly ideas to carry out your own Plot to Overthrow the World... in which case, good luck with that.) For the rest of us mere mortals, though, it’s just another way to enjoy the ride.       
(Note that the serial web-comic is periodically assembled into volumes of graphic novels--good to know if your budget allows for them, or if you’re lucky enough to have a library that stocks them. There are now, I believe, nine volumes of “Girl Genius”, so Agatha H. clearly just covers a fraction of the story, to date... paving the way in future, I hope, for many more of these graphic-novels-to-books.)

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4 mousies  
*Thoth is the Egyptian god of writing, wisdom, and speech. (Good to know, right? ;)) 

2 comments:

  1. Squeaks! I'm hoping to read it this weekend as a break from the bone-chilling non-fiction I've been reading.

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  2. I really enjoyed it--even more than I expected to!--and found it really cool to notice new things about the story. :)

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