I bought myself a Kindle last month. I love it. I don’t have to cart around the books that I finished on the plane the first day of a business trip, it’s pretty intuitive to use, and is easy on the eyes, since it’s not backlit. It weighs more than a mass market paperback, but less than most hardcover books. And I can store hundreds of books on it.
For Hannukah, Neil bought me a book: Agatha H and the Airship City. It didn’t actually arrive until the release date of January 1st, but he told me to expect it. (The Kindle automatically downloads the book as soon as it legally can.)
Girl Genius is a comic book about the adventures of a girl named Agatha in a world in which mad scientists (known as Sparks) really exist. It’s an alternate history, since there have been Sparks reviving dead people and fighting with death rays for hundreds of years. Agatha is a student at Transylvania Polygnostic University who can’t seem to create anything. The book starts as Baron Wulfenbach, the tyrant ruler of most of Europe, is visiting the ruler of Beetleburg, where T.P.U. is located.
Neil and I have been fans of Girl Genius since before it got put online (where it is all available now for free). We own all the collections of the comic that have been printed, and I was excited to read a new story in the same world. I was disappointed, however, as I started to read the book, since it retells the story of the first three books of the comic. However, as I read, I became more and more intrigued.
The comic is humorous, and some of the characters, particularly the Jägers (beast-like constructs who work for the Baron) come off as clownish. Although there are hints of how the world is scary to the inhabitants, we don’t really feel that as readers. We’re enjoying the story of Agatha dealing with all the crazy people around her.
But think about it: If we lived in a world with mad scientists, we’d constantly be in danger. Frankenstein’s monster was one-of-a-kind. But what if there were thousands of them. And robots and giant bugs and evil creatures of all sorts roaming the countryside. Imagine a world where you can’t be sure that you’ll wake up in the same form each day. Or where any visitor to your town could be a mad scientist who might want to experiment on your family or who might be bringing armies of robots to conquer you.
One of the limits of comics is that the world is described in visual terms. There is very little concern with other senses unless it’s relevant to the story. (For example, the Jägers speak in a phonetic accent in their word balloons.) What caught my imagination right from the beginning of this book was the wealth of sensory data that is described.
For example, here’s a description of Agatha’s walk to T.P.U. at the beginning of the first chapter:
Carts piled high with everything from produce to machine parts were pulled by horses, oxen and the occasional mechanical construct as they rumbled through the center of the street. On either side, the shops had opened and exposed their wares. The small fried pastries of several different cultures were hawked next to dried fruit and vegetables. Ovens unloaded aromatic platters of fresh bread. Several hundred different types of sausage and an equal number of cheeses were grabbed from hooks and shelves and consumed before the purchaser had gone three meters. Schools of smoked fish and eels hung next to sellers of hot beverages, and everywhere there was a bewildering variety of unclassifiable foodstuffs that were served on sticks.
This is so much richer than can be described in even the best picture, since you get a feel of a market that’s at a crossroads of trade routes, and of a population that’s used to dealing with all of this.
In addition, much of the sinister undertones of the comics are drawn out in the book. The clownish Jägers from the comics are shown to have chosen their clownish demeanor purposely in order to cause any potential enemies to underestimate them.
There was something different about him. About them both. With a chill she realized what it was. Nothing she could actually point a finger to, but they weren’t . . . funny anymore.
In addition, the Foglios were able to add in much of the background information that they weren’t able to include in the main comic. For example, there’s an assistant to the Baron who has four arms. His story is told here, along with details about how the Jägermonsters have a time limit for how long they are allowed to argue with him to avoid problems such as happened when he ordered a Jäger who was on fire to put himself out. (The Jäger required orders on paper — in triplicate — before obeying.)
We also get to see some of the thoughts behind the actions of the main characters, adding to our understanding of them and why they act as they do. I’d been on the fence about whether Baron Wulfenbach was a good guy or a bad guy, and now I believe that he’s . . . well . . . pretty much on the side of order and not killing most people. But he’s still darn scary!
All in all, I really enjoyed reading this book. It gave me new insight into the comics, and I promptly followed reading the book by a re-read of the comics. (I found lots of extra information that was there all along, even if I hadn’t understood it in advance.) The book, in many ways, made the world of Girl Genius more real and more understandable to me. I don’t know how much you’d enjoy it if you weren’t interested in the comic, but it’s a great addition to the story so far.