The third nominee of choice is Girl Genius 9: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm. The print volume is pre-orderable but not yet buyable—however! It too is available online for free. I won’t recommend starting in the middle with this comic, though. The story is a too dense to just dive in headfirst, especially with the variety of players and factions working behind the scenes. You could try, but I suspect it would result in deep confusion. The first page of volume nine is here for quick reference, as it is the collection eligible this round. Speaking of which, Girl Genius is also on its second nomination for the Best Graphic Story Award. Last year, it won, beating out five other nominees including other webcomics. I’m interested in seeing if it performs equally this year. I think it has a strong chance—fan loyalty is worth a great deal in a semi-public vote for any award.
As for the basics, Girl Genius is an alternate history story with mad science and a European continent ruled by various Sparks (the mad scientists). The mechanics of the Spark and how it affects the characters in question is one of the interesting parts of the story. Agatha, the lead character, is in some ways the typical lead: clumsy and goofy at first, discovers legacy of great power, etc. However, she’s a bit violent and she’s definitely tough, especially at this point in the story. She’s a character with depth that moves far past the stereotype. And it also has humorous undertones, so it’ll keep you fairly well amused, too.
The ninth book covers Agatha’s explorations of the Castle Heterodyne and the huge amount of perils therein, not limited to the other people in the castle with her. It also (re)unites Gilgamesh and Tarvek, who apparently knew each other in Paris when Gil was busy with the nightclubs and the women—they are not what one would call pleased with the situation, or the fact that both of them are attempting to woo Agatha. In fact, this is one of the more humorous bits of story in a while. There’s still danger aplenty and deadly diseases and the Castle, but there’s also character tension and some semi-romantic comedy. (Though, some of my favorite Agatha lines are in this volume. The screaming fit about everyone leaving her alone about her suitors because she’s too busy trying to keep everyone alive to worry about boys and parties and dresses. Ahem. I like Agatha.) The background story still running here is Zola’s faction, which has apparently split off from Tarvek’s original plan and so probably isn’t his faction anymore, trying to take over/destroy the Castle. Then there’s the Baron, who’s trying to keep the empire from falling apart and descending into civil war the only way he knows how—get rid of Agatha and her mother/the Other’s spirit inside of her. His son is making this notably difficult.
Perhaps the only thing that might count against this volume for the award is that it’s very much a middle-of-the-story book. It’s still great, and continues a very engaging story, but doesn’t have the same level of “oomph” that volume 8 did. Then again, how does one decide what to vote on? The volume alone, or the series as a whole? I think it’s difficult to separate feelings for the series as a whole and pare them down to how I felt about just this one collection. I loved it, and it has great ups and downs, but it’s pretty solidly building the story for more down the road instead of having that more right there.
Art-wise, I think the comic accomplishes a lot for its reasonably tight schedule. A few times a week, the reader gets a new page of comic, fully shaded and colored. (This equals out to be about as tough as previously-discussed Schlock Mercenary’s schedule, because instead of one strip a day, you get one whole page made of several strips and blocks every couple of days.) The expressions on the characters and mechanical creations are always spot-on to convey emotion and the backgrounds are frequently gorgeous. No detail is ignored. I also like the way the many of the women are built: stocky and thick, with curves. While Agatha spends more time in trousers, it pleases me that the heroine is not stick-thin and stereotypically “pretty.” There are thin girls and big girls in Girl Genius, but they’re treated with equal beauty, and I love that. The men, too, have a variety of appearances. It’s got depth.
The series as a whole is quirky, fun, and often complex. The moral ambiguities make me smile. Really, the only true “evil” character so far seems to be Lucrezia/the Other, and I wouldn’t put it past the Foglios to have something deeper planned there, too. The Baron is a sympathetic character who I’m very fond of, despite my usual lack of tolerance for rule-by-force. Everyone is doing what they think is the right thing. Not to mention the intricate and ridiculously interesting universe that’s constructed around these characters, from the Spark to the various species/variant creatures and people running around. The Jagers are absolutely awesome in a goofy, violent way, and Agatha’s little clanks (especially in volume 9) are show-stealers.
It’s no secret at this point that I like Girl Genius, but I will confess, it’s not my pick this year. The “why” of that isn’t a lack of quality or something—it’s just that it won last year already, and I like variety. Plus, as I pointed out above, this volume is a lot of adventurous fun but isn’t the big plot-mover that last year’s winner was. I heartily recommend buying the volumes for this comic, but even if you don’t want to do that, read it online. I promise you won’t be disappointed. (But you should probably start now if you want to catch up soon and decide your vote.)
Tomorrow: Captain Britain and the MI13: Vampire State!