Girl Genius Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones
by Kaja and Phil Foglio
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Graphic Story
At this moment there are five webcomics that I follow regularly and Girl Genius is one of those. Besides entertaining me one of the big attractions of the series is that is created by the Foglios who have been doing nerd humor far longer than is healthy for any human being. Phil won a pair Hugos for best fan artist in 1977 and 1978 but then he moved into the area of professional artist where a cartoonist can't compete with someone who paints rockets. So in some ways it is appropriate that they have received some recognition by winning the first Hugo for best graphic story. I just wish that it had been for a better portion of that story than Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones.
The webcomic Girl Genius features a steampunk world of mad scientists whose inventions run rampant. In the past the greatest of these mad scientists were the Heterodyne family. Twenty years ago they attempted to bring order to the madness but vanished shortly after an attack destroyed their castle. Their friend stepped into the vacuum and set himself up as a tyrant ruling all of Europe for the sake of ending the non-stop wars. Now the lost heir to the Heterodyne family has resurfaced and become entangled in the plots of both the ruler of Europe and the mysterious "other" who drove the chaos before.
That brings us roughly to volume eight in which our titular heroine has returned to her ancestral home; an intelligent castle filled with deathtraps that is badly in need of repair. Agatha needs the castle in order to stand against all those who would use her. And as she progresses alone into the castle her would be lover, and heir to the European throne, tries to follow her in. Complicating things is a woman claiming to be the Heterodyne heir who entered the castle first and has a scheme of her own that doesn't involve getting the castle functional again.
My biggest problem with Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones is pacing. There's two core plots in the book: Agatha getting to the center of the castle in order to repair it and her not-willing-to-admit-it boyfriend trying to get into the castle. The first should be a madcap adventure given that it takes place in a castle full of deathtraps and features the only direct villain in the book. The second should be effectively an afterthought. And yet the first is cut short while the second is dragged out. Agatha enters the castle, bumps into the villain, and runs for her life. Then it jumps to her boyfriend who spends a lot of time talking with the supporting cast about helping her and making some false starts before finally getting on with it. When the story cuts back to Agatha she's already at her goal and the villain has vanished from the book.
It comes down to this particular set of strips are a bridge. They connect the dramatic confrontations of the previous book with what promises to be an action packed climax to the castle storyline in the next. But a bridge doesn't stand very well on its own. The characters are isolated in this book and the plot is thin. It's a book that only works in the context of the entire webcomic.
On the other hand Phil's artwork is always a delight. His character designs are so distinctive that you would never mistake a Foglio drawing for anyone else. Their sketchy, swirled figures are lively and make them almost leap from the page. Phil's comic timing is a lot of fun as well and that ties into his impressive ability at page design. He has a classic sense of storytelling in his artwork that prevents Girl Genius from descending into just a set of fan pandering glory shots.
In general the story reads better in a book format than one page every few days. There's an inherent break when you read the story on the web that vanishes in the published format. Also the oversized artwork in the printed books looks better. The volume is oversized even for comic collections and it makes the artwork even more enjoyable.
While I may not recommend Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones specifically since it is a terrible starting point and does not work as a book on its own I do recommend reading Girl Genius. Kaja and Phil Foglio have put together a series that is a lot of fun even if this particular volume isn't their best. And I recommend getting the printed collections because they look even better than the pages on the web. Just start at the beginning rather than with this book.