Agatha Heterodyne and the Monster Engine
For my money, volume three is the point in the series where Girl Genius gathers full steam and blasts off. This volume, and the next three, are among the highlights of the series so far. This is the volume that turned me into a fan, impressing me on several levels.
The volume opens where the last one ended, with Agatha holding the talking white cat, who introduces himself as Krosp, the King of Cats. In the next scene, the Baron has Othar strapped to a table, about to perform a procedure. In the dialogue, the Baron mentions his wife, an important plot point late in the series. After several interruptions, Bangladesh DuPree, everyone's favorite maniacal psychopath, arrives with information about a mysterious apparition appearing in midair, which looks just like the blue window from the first volume, only featuring Agatha, Gil, and von Zinzer. This window, assumed by many fans to be a time window, remains an unsolved mystery as of the current volume. Sometimes the Foglios set something up and wait several volumes or more before paying it off, often to good effect.
After DuPree's report, which deeply troubles the Baron, the volume switches to a very nice scene between Gil and Agatha. When they dance to a mechanical music orchestra, you know romance is in the air.
Gil's demonstration with a fencing training robot ends with Othar crashing through a window, thrown by the Baron. In a key scene that sets the action for the rest of the volume in motion, one of the mad scientists working for the Baron gropes Agatha, causing her anger to flare, inadvertently triggering an internal command left by the Other, a figure who twenty years before had turned all Europa on its ear. The scientist activates the Hive Engine found in lab in volume one.
Gil and Agatha are in the workshop looking at the little clanks (or palm-sized robots) Agatha built while asleep or in a fugue state when the alarm goes off. Agatha and Gil try to fight their way out, but find themselves face to face with the Hive Queen just as it is about to release a swarm of slaver wasps.
Agatha and Gil manage to kill the queen, trap the wasps, and gas them. They kiss for the first time.
Othar appears again to “rescue” Agatha. Gils throws Othar out the window and then proposes to Agatha, but Agatha's foster parents knock him out before he gets a reply. Unfortunately, they run into the Baron, who realizes Agatha is the daughter of Bill Heterodyne and Lucrezia. Punch knocks out everyone but Madame von Pinn, giving Agatha time to run, though at the cost of von Pinn killing both of Agatha's foster parents. Krosp and the other students help Agatha escape. Agatha, Krosp, and Othar sail away in a little airship.
Where to begin? The volume does an excellent job setting up all the things that drive the remainder of the series as well as adding a few mysteries fans still puzzle over. One hopes that once the current Mechanicsburg arc is over, the Foglios will finally answer some of the questions raised in this volume such as who is the Baron's wife (though there are some good guesses about that), what did Barry tell Agatha's foster parents, Punch and Judy, to cause them to distrust the Baron, and what is the deal with those time windows with Agatha? What I like best about the volume is the way it weaves the story in a smooth, near flawless fashion. It gives a great deal of background and characterization but never once turns slow or clunky. It nicely balances the need for exposition with the need for pacing and flow, managing to preserve both. As a writer, I'm impressed by the technical skill on display. Even though the Foglios throw a lot at the reader, much of it with little or no explanation, they decided (correctly) to show instead of explain. Fortunately, that choice doesn't hurt the story. For example, showing the mad scientist working to release the Hive Engine and having the dying Dr. Vg declare the scientist a revenant, clues in the reader a great deal.
There is still a fair bit of comedy, with lots of great one-liners, despite the mayhem towards the end, especially with Othar, who seems made for the role of clown, though he sees himself as a hero. It is not until the end of the volume does the reader see why the Baron and Gil consider Othar such a threat: he plans to kill all sparks to rid the world of their evil. Little wonder Agatha throws him over the side of the airship when she learns this, adding “I really owe Gil an apology”. Little comic flourishes are scattered throughout the volume. For example, the signs in the background can be amusing such as one that reads “No Alchemy – unless it works” or “017 Days Without a Major Explosion”. One fine addition to the cast is Krosp. He not only becomes Agatha's friend, but a trusted aide and advisor, though he still thinks she is his first subject.
The artwork remains excellent. Once one adjusts to the idiosyncrasies of the art style, it stops being distracting and starts being fun. Every panel is jam packed with detail and has a cinematic scale and grasp. Reading volume three for the first time, I remember how the thought struck me this could be made into a TV series with almost no change in dialogue or plot. Just film the comic exactly as it appears on the page and it would work beautifully. In all, this is an excellent graphic novel and well worth reading by any fan of comics or good stories.
Readers interested in the series can read it online for free at www.girlgeniusonline.com.