by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Comics”

Victorian Fantasy with Mad Scientists: What Could Be Bad?

Posted 20 August 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been uninspired lately, or tired, or still fighting off this cold that I seem to have passed on to everyone else, or secretly eaten up with remorse that I didn’t kill more kobolds at last week’s D&D session, or something.

I don’t know quote what, as the list above indicates. But I haven’t been my usual effervescent self (oh, yes: I am humble. I’m famous for it). I haven’t thought of anything interesting enough to blog about and I haven’t been reading as much, either.

That, though, I blame on the avalanche of marking that’s descended.

But I have been re-reading, recently. Re-reading is something of a divisive issue in this household: Nick doesn’t do it, much, whereas I don’t see any reason to deny myself the pleasure of, for example, Pride and Prejudice just because I happen to have read it before. (Re-watching television and movies is an even more divisive issue and, since those are common activities, I’ve had to resign myself to a period of inactivity before Nick will agree to re-watch something.) But re-reading I can do on my own.

And, sometimes, you’re just not in the mood for a new book, no matter how good at looks, or how fond you are of the author, or how long you’ve been waiting for it to be published.

Sometimes, you want familiarity. You want characters whom you’ve met before, situations that are familiar, nuances that you missed the first or second time around.

Or, at least, I do.

So lately I’ve been re-reading the Girl Genius series of graphic novels. The seventh trade came in from Amazon last week—many, many weeks after we originally ordered it—and the complex plot of the last couple had largely escaped me in the months since volume six came out. A refresher course seemed appropriate.

Girl Genius comes from Studio Foglio, although it doesn’t look as though their website’s been updated for a while. I’m not terribly familiar with Phil and Kaja Foglio’s other work, though I gather their other well-known series is XXXenophile, described on the Wikipedia page as whimsical alien erotica—and, no, I’m not linking to the Wikipedia page. You can search for it if you like, but bear in mind that the cover they offer is not suitable for work. It’s not tentacle porn (thank heavens!) but it’s not suitable for work. Or for young children.

Girl Genius, on the other hand, has its own website, given its existence as a web comic. I’ve not read the web version, because I find sequential web comics a little annoying, and prefer to wait for the trades.

So far, I’ve read the first seven trades, and don’t like to contemplate how long I have to wait for the eighth volume.

What I really enjoy about it, though, is the fact that the mad scientists, the “Sparks,” are completely and utterly insane. They can’t help it: it’s just the way Sparks work. At one point, the townspeople are uncertain whether or not to accept a new Spark—said to be the heir to a famous, long-lost dynasty—and are convinced not by her ability to create extraordinary machines, but by her tendency to blow things up and then shout, “I meant to do that!”

And Agatha Heterodyne herself, the Girl Genius of the title—well, okay: she spends a lot of time running around in her bloomers and is about as pneumatic as you’d expect of the heroine of vaguely Victorian melodrama. But she’s also tough—physically, emotionally, and intellectually—and talented in a number of fields that female characters still don’t often explore, especially not the science-fiction and fantasy narratives: she’s a scientist, a mechanic, an inventor, even a resurrectionist when she needs to be.

I’d written earlier in this post that it was rather odd that I enjoyed this series so much when steampunk isn’t really my cup of tea.

But I went back and deleted it when I remembered that the books are sub-titled “Gaslamp Fantasies”: according to the Wikipedia page, Kaja Foglio coined the term as more appropriate to the work than the usual “steampunk.” And it’s true that the Sparks are concerned with far more machinery, though the “clanks” are fabulous: the wicked Heterodynes of old, about whom we have only received tantalising snippets, also created the Jagerkin, fanatically loyal but vicious monsters with heavy Romanian accents and an obsession with hats, and there are also the constructs, Frankenstein’s-monster-style humanoids, some convincingly human and some nightmarish.

There are also miniature mammoths.

I don’t know why, but they seem to be sold as a tasty treat. On a stick.

And a cat created to be Emperor of All Cats, so that he could mobilise his people as silent spies and saboteurs: it works brilliantly, apparently, until they fall asleep or see something move.

But, honestly, you saw my point once I mentioned the miniature mammoths, didn’t you? Or maybe the bloomers?

But there’s so much more to this series, which ensures I couldn’t not read it.

Like the fact that the Heterodyne boys have become the stuff of legends in the eighteen years since they disappeared, so the world is full of dime novels inconsistently recounting their adventures and travelling Heterodyne shows that specialise in melodramas ranging from the violent to the raunchy, depending on the audience. In fact, the whole series plays with the mutability of narrative, including short pieces at the end of the trades that range from Agatha’s adventures as a full-blown Heterodyne—before she herself is even aware of her heritage—to the James Bondian adventures of Trelawney Thorpe, Spark of the Realm, to the fan-fiction of a young girl supposedly telling Heterodyne stories to her brothers but unable to resist putting herself into the narratives.

There are shades here of the great celebration of imagination that is Alan Moore’s third League of Extraordinary Gentlemen trade.

Really, I can’t resist anything that has at its heart a passion for melodrama and the mutability of imaginative story-telling.

And when you throw in vaguely Victorian robots, imaginary European cities, sentient castles, and fanged monsters who insist that any plan that involves killing anyone who sees you killing people and then losing your hat is a bad plan?

Well, I don’t know how anyone could resist.

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