Soldier: Herr Baron! We need you! All the experiments have either been let loose or turned on!
And everything's on FIRE!
Baron Wulfenbach(facepalming): Unbelievable.
Agatha Clay is having a bad day. In the steampunk city of Beetleburg, where she's a not-very-good student at Transylvania Polygnostic Institute, she encounters a strange electrical anomaly, runs from that, is robbed by two out-of-work soldiers who steal the locket that's her only memento of her parents, and arrives – late – to discover that Baron Wulfenbach, ruler of all Europe, is making a surprise inspection.
To cap it off, her own project, a little watch-sized automaton or "clank", once more fails to work and self-destructs… and now she's getting these sudden, terrible headaches…
Girl Genius, a webcomic (originally print!) by Phil and Kaja Foglio, is one of the archetypal works of the subgenre called "steampunk", with its own unique twist. The world of Girl Genius is dominated by the existence of "Sparks" – people blessed or cursed with a strange ability to understand the workings of the universe at a level most people will never even approach, and create devices that appear to violate the known laws of physics. A strong Spark is capable of inventing weapons of mass destruction – and unfortunately the "Spark" within them carries with it a tendency to megalomania, a strange ability to draw ordinary non-Sparks to obey or serve them, and a greater or lesser set of superhuman capabilities both mental and physical.
Because of this, for many years Europe (and presumably the rest of the world) suffered as Sparks of various levels of capability battled each other for recognition and supremacy; even those with ostensibly benign motives originally seemed to go not-so-slowly mad. Their battles laid waste to miles of landscape, unleashed monsters, bizarre radiation-like phenomena, rifts in reality, and seemed likely to eventually leave all Europe uninhabited.
And then came the Heterodyne Boys, and their friend Klaus Wulfenbach.
The Heterodynes – Bill and Barry – were tremendously powerful Sparks, brothers, who – along with their nearly equally talented friend Klaus – proved the exception to the rule. Though the Spark burned strongly within them, and their ancestry as Heterodynes carried a very dark and terrifying weight, the two brothers proved to be heroes, and won over a large proportion of the population. It seemed that they alone might bring peace to the lands by uniting everyone under a common banner, based on nothing more than their optimism, powerful personalities, and charisma.
And then they disappeared, due (it was said) to the action of the powerful Spark (or maybe something worse) called "The Other". Few knew exactly who or what the Other might have been – indeed, many people did not even hear of the Other – but the end result was that the Heterodyne Boys vanished and so did their friend.
When Klaus found his way back to civilization, only a relatively short time later, all the work the Boys had done had fallen apart. So he decided he would save Europe… his way.
It is against this background that Agatha Clay – who is, in truth, Agatha Heterodyne – begins to awaken to her true powers as a Spark, and finds herself the most hunted woman on the continent.
Girl Genius walks the line between serious adventure and comedy, the Foglios demonstrating a fine sense of the absurd while maintaining dramatic tension and a complexly interwoven set of plots that are only slowly revealed to the reader through Agatha's adventures.
While there's a lot of adventure – both comedic and deadly serious – in Girl Genius, the characters are what make it all work. Agatha herself starts out as a somewhat clueless innocent, for whom the Spark is a not-entirely-welcome change and who knows nothing of her background or the problems it brings to her, and evolves into a woman whose core innocence remains but who is fiercely devoted to her friends and more than willing to take up the mantle of the Heterodynes – but do it in the tradition of the Heterodyne Brothers, no matter what others – or The Other – may think.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach is the dominant figure in the early story; he has imposed his own Pax Transylvania upon all of Europe through the Spark-mechanized might of his own empire. Despite often being demonized by his opponents, Klaus is actually a pragmatic ruler with a preference for peace and reasonable negotiation, who – when possible – allows the various divisions of his empire to run themselves, rather than just crushing everything beneath his iron heel. One often feels sorry for Klaus, because he really is trying his best, but the insanity of the world around him just doesn't allow him any peace.
The Other – named as "Lucrezia Mongfish" by Klaus, but in honestly with her true origin unknown for sure – is a hellishly strong Spark (or possibly something else) which has mastered the ability to transfer her consciousness to different bodies (and apparently despite the Other's goal of conquest and control, the Other's duplicates don't work against each other). She, in the form of Lucrezia, also apparently is Agatha's mother. Agatha's voice is close enough to the Other's that Agatha is capable of controlling the Other's creations if she tries.
Two powerful Sparks – Gilgamesh Wulfenbach and Tarvek Sturmvoros – are the romantic leads making a triangle with Agatha. Gil, the son of Klaus, falls for Agatha almost on sight and she seems to reciprocate. Despite some bad coincidences messing up his initial relationship with her, Gil is clearly a hero in the mold of his father on his father's best days, and is the heir apparent to the Wulfenbach empire; a marriage between Gil and Agatha could be a powerful political tool, if the Other wasn't interfering.
Tarvek comes from a family of scheming, plotting bastards that make the legendary Borgias look like amateurs. While our initial encounters with Tarvek make him seem a treacherous soul indeed, as we learn more about him it becomes clear that somehow he's managed to maintain a core of idealism even within that nest of snakes, and Agatha is a shining symbol to him of what could be.
A host of other characters accompany these through the story – the Jaegermonsters, Spark-created warrior guardians of the Heterodynes, a sort of overly-cheerful warrior race that combines barbarism with a sense of strange style ("Eny plen dot makes you lose het iz…?" "… a bad plen."); Zeetha of Skifander, a green-haired swordmaster supreme who adopts Agatha as her apprentice in combat; Krosp, King of the Cats, fastidious, arrogant, grouchy, yet ultimately loyal to a fault; Higgs, "Airman Third Class" who is vastly more than he seems; and dozens of others.
The insane inventions of the Sparks, of course, dominate the action, and span the gamut from the "Wow, that's neat" (a coffee maker that makes coffee that taste like it smells, to the point of sending the drinker into a Nirvana-like state) to the horrific (a living castle that enjoys making itself into a series of deathtraps). You can't throw a baseball anywhere in Europa without hitting SOMETHING a Spark built. Better hope it doesn't turn on and puree you!
The lush, colorful artwork of the Foglios – colored currently by Cheyenne Wright – draws you into the world of Girl Genius. An immense amount of work and thought is evident in every panel; details in the background can range from plot-relevant to silly in-jokes, but in major splash pages can be found in the dozens in either case. The different locations – Sturmhalten, Mechanicsburg, Paris, Beetleburg – all have widely varied and distinctive appearances, allowing the reader to identify where they are just from the appearance of the local houses, streets, and people.
I highly recommend Girl Genius for anyone looking for magic-steampunk action-adventure-romance!