Rating - 3.5: worth reading, parts worth re-reading (borrow or buy it)
I have been a fan of Phil Foglio's work for most of my life, but I have rarely sought it out. I think Girl Genius launched around the time I stopped buying many comics, so I never got into it. I still think of him as the guy who does "What's New."
We once again have one of those books where the early plot twist is given away by the premise of the book, if not the title. So I am going to say it. If you want to remain pristinely unspoiled, just start reading the web comic now.
Agatha Clay's inventions never worked, until today. She is a Spark, a genius who can create wonderful devices in fits of inspiration. Better, she is the lost heir of the Heterodynes, legendary mad scientists. Of course, her awakening is coming on Castle Wolfenbach, flying fortress of the land's Spark dictator...
This Omnibus Edition collects the first three volumes of Girl Genius, in black and white. The first volume seems to have been black and white anyway. Since this was my first exposure to Girl Genius, I found the colors a bit garish upon first exposure to the original versions, but I have mostly warmed to them. I still find the overuse of purples a bit off-putting, but the colors do good things with yellow, orange, and green. The Omnibus stands on its own in black and white.
A bit more about the art? This being Phil Foglio, I expected more round female parts to be visiting. The art is surprisingly restrained in that respect, for which I should perhaps credit Mrs. Foglio. Agatha is given the tendency of inventing in her sleep, though, which leaves her in her undergarments for entire scenes.
The drawing style is ... Foglio. If you do not know it, you will pick it up in a few pages. The faces carry do a lot of the work, well drawn with small noses and expressive eyes. It is a classic comic style that is easy on the eyes. Until meeting Mr. Foglio, I had not realized how many of his male characters have variations on his face. Agatha pretty much is Kaja, so the Omnibus cover looks a family portrait. Okay, a bit younger and thinner.
The backgrounds are what boost the book to a 3.5. They are very busy with lots of little touches like decorating a room with prime numbers. You could spend a long while looking at the details. The book format beats the web in being easier to scrutinize at length. Complex backgrounds are notable because they are a huge bear to draw. No sane artist wants to repeat that overly complex laboratory background in every panel, while trying to keep straight whether the vat was to the left or the right of the whirling clicky thing. When you do a crowd scene with dozens of people and robots, you must draw every one of them. That is why manga has simple backgrounds and you rarely see a comic with every major character in the world on the same page. The complex backgrounds are so good and prevalent that you do not notice the times when he cheats past them.
The story is set in a steam-powered tech/fantasy world. "Gaslamp" is the term, since "steampunk" seems inappropriate. It is not punk. There are tiny and giant robots, powered by gears, and a small variety of humanoids like the jagermonsters. It's medieval Europe with unlikely tech and a few oddities. We spend volume one in a city, two and three on an airship.
Characters are relatively flat. We are not seeing a lot of development, nor is the story particularly character-driven. Everyone seems caught up in events that are not fully in anyone's control. Antics and wacky hijinx ensue. Agatha may get to be the master of her destiny at some point.
Oddly, the comic relief characters are worth noting in what is already a comedic adventure. Everyone gets to be a comic character, but the jagermonsters stand out for silliness. They're fun.
The plot arcs are simple and straightforward. We are moving from one place to another. It moves quickly. It is not an earth-shatteringly great story at this point, but it does not take long to read, either. Give them more pages, and this should continue to be amusing, perhaps with greater depth. These are still introductory adventures, not bad ones, but the story will obviously grow. We are not yet deep into it.
The adventures continue online, and more volumes are available for order. If you buy and read all the volumes, "The Advanced Class" is all new stuff. Otherwise, the free online version will catch up with the dead tree version sometime.
I will leave you with one of my favorites from Girl Genius: "Agatha is Given the Locket (Flashback)." It may not work out of context, but the art is great: little Agatha is adorable, and Uncle Barry is, well, Phil. Lots of work being done with expressions. Agatha's dialogue on the second page is excellent characterization, demonstrating intelligence and naivete. It is a good vignette in two pages. Also, the color work on that last frame is not something you get in the black and white version.
Girl Genius, the web comic and everything else