Agatha Heterodyne and the Airship City
The Girl Genius series is one of my favorites for good reason. Even in a filler chapter or volume, it is never less than funny or interesting. The second volume of Phil and Kaja Foglio's gaslamp fantasy webcomic opens with Agatha awakening in a strange bed in a strange room. Standing over her is Moloch von Zinzer, whose brother stole her locket in the first volume. Things go downhill from there as Agatha learns she is a prisoner of Klaus Wulfenbach because she is Moloch's presumed mistress. Neither she nor Moloch is happy about it. Agatha tries to adjust to her new role as guest/prisoner on Castle Wulfenbach, but she riles up the formidable and scary Mistress von Pinn, encounters the self-proclaimed gentleman adventurer Othar Tryggvassen, and has a tea party with the Jager generals -- all on her first day in the castle.
After awakening to Moloch and making a memorable first impression on the other youths (or students) held as hostage on Castle Wulfenbach, Gigamesh's butler asks her to come with him. She finds Gigamesh working on a flying machine. Gil tells Agatha that the bomb Dr Beetle threw at him in the first volume may have been meant for her instead. Gil then shows off his new flying machine by opening the doors and dropping them out a hatch, the first clue Agatha has that Castle Wulfenbach is an airship. The flight ends with a crash in the sitting room of a Jager general. Back at the main hall, Agatha runs into a very upset Madame von Pinn, who nearly strangles her. Dumedd tells a story about a dragon from Mars. Afterwards, Agatha joins the older youths as they sneak into the lab to look at the hive engine brought on board from the first volume. Klaus and his scientists arrive. The youngest kid, frightened by a shadow, accidently frees the hive engine from its mount, sending everyone running. After Agatha separates from the others, she stumbles into the holding cell for Othar Tryggvassen. The Jagers who find her later bring her to the Jager generals. A few days later, she tosses out Moloch von Zinzer, much to Gil's amuesment. Gil complements her on the suggestions she made to improve his flying machine. Feeling happy that Gil listened to her, she tells the cat she took in, "I'm finally going to do some real science!" The cat replies, "I think that you'd better be very, very careful".
The story in the second volume is relatively straightforward, mostly setup for when the real fun begins in the third volume, although this one has some very nice moments. The artwork is great. The color panels, courtesy of Mark McNabb, are excellent. The comic timing is superb, with hardly a missed beat. It's all deliciously arch, genre-savvy, over the top, and very tongue-in-cheek. Castle Wulfenbach? A giant airship castle. The grand gestures do scale down to small moments of laughter. When Othar complains that no one ever takes him to parties, a Jaeger remarks, "Hokay, ve haff our own. You ken be de pinata." Every page, every panel have little details rewarding rereading. For example, you see this on display when Theopholous Dumedd tells the kids a story to calm them down after Agatha crosses von Pinn:
A younger Klaus riding to the rescue to a giant mechanical clockwork duck. That is pretty much the flavor of most of the volume. An ocean in a bottle...what Bill calls "truth in advertising". Par for the course with this graphic novel. It's the whimsy that makes the series so endearing, that plus never taking itself seriously. So it's always a fun ride.
Despite all the antics, it's the characters who sell the story. Agatha remains a thoroughly likeable and relatable heroine, one willing to speak her mind. Not a pushover, she even stands up to von Pinn, much to everyone's horror. The first glimmer of romance between her and Gilgamesh adds spark to what appears to be a filler volume. Gil comes across as more human and likeable than in the first volume, and little bit more calculating. Small touches illuminate even the minor characters, such as Dumedd or Andre. At first glance, the book may seem light on substance, though in later volumes it becomes clear that a lot of detail and foreshadowing got packed in a surprisingly small amount of space. A lot of it is given as offhand comments or throwaway lines that come back to haunt the reader countless pages later. This is a good entry in the Agatha Heterodyne series and forms an important stepping stone for the developing story, which currently runs to eleven volumes. Worth reading by any steampunk or fantasy fan.