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Annotations to the Girl Genius Comic

This page is in tribute to one of the most entertaining webcomics currently available.

The story is set in an alternate history in which mad scientists not only are real, but the foremost of them are the rulers of the cities and countries of the world. The action largely takes place in a portion of Europe corresponding geographically and in terms of architecture and fashion to the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A young woman named Agatha, who discovers herself to be a Spark, that is, an individual gifted with the mental abilities that allow one to become a mad scientist, is the central character of the story. (Although this does not happen immediately in the first issue, given the title of the series, this one datum can scarcely be called a spoiler.) She has blond hair and glasses with large round lenses.

Personal Recollections

I noticed the comic during its original run, but was only mildly interested at the time; noting discussion about it on USENET, I looked at it on the web site somewhat later, but it was later when I decided to purchase some of the trade paperback versions that I was able to relax and read an extensive enough portion of the series at one sitting to come to appreciate its intricate plotting and become genuinely enthusiastic about it.


What follows is going to be a bit on the dry side...

General Historical and Bibliographical Information

The Girl Genius comic began as a comic book published by Studio Foglio, and was later published by Airship Entertainment. The cover of the first issue was an image of Agatha, the Girl Genius of the title, drawn by Kaja Foglio.

In general, the pencils of this comic have always been drawn by Phil Foglio. The inks were done by Brian Snoddy for the early black-and-white issues. Marc McNabb, Laurie E. Smith, and Cheyenne Wright have colored the series. Cartoon fonts available from Comicraft were used for the lettering.

Both Kaja Foglio and her husband Phil are credited with the writing of the series. It is generally believed that Kaja is primarily responsible for the overall plot of the series, and Phil is primarily responsible for its humorous elements.

As noted, Phil Foglio has What's New with Phil and Dixie and Buck Godot, Zap Gun for Hire among his previous credits. Kaja Foglio, among other things, is renowned for her artwork on several cards in the collectable card game Magic: the Gathering, and has some published novels as well. Phil Foglio also did the artwork for a number of cards in that game, and so did Brian Snoddy.

Girl Genius began publication with an issue zero, the Secret Blueprints, which became available in February 2001, and issue one was published very shortly thereafter. It was initially published on a bimonthly schedule, which changed to quarterly after delays with some issues.

Only the first thirteen issues were published as conventional individual comic books,

These comic books had covers printed on card stock, rather than merely on glossy paper, and included various types of cut-out featuring drawings of the characters. A decoder wheel was included with the Secret Blueprints issue, and following issues included coded messages which often guided people to images on the comic's web site. (Typically, coded messages with radio serials, and as briefly appeared with DC's Action Comics, were brief plot synopses of the next installment.)

This generated attention for the comic, displaying an obvious intention to "make comics fun again" (a phrase others have used, if not the Foglios, in so many words: in fact, it was used as an advertising slogan by DC during part of the 1980s). While this appealed to nostalgic adults, there was also some potential for conflict with the fact that the comic, with its later issues, characterized itself for an audience of teens and older.

After Issue 13 was published, and the decision was made not to publish Issue 14 individually on paper, the pages of the comic were made available on the World-Wide Web. Currently, this is done at the site

http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/

but it was originally done at another web address; the Studio Foglio domain is still being used for the online store, while the Airship Entertainment domain is used for two of Phil Foglio's earlier projects, now being republished on the web, Buck Godot, a comical series in a science-fiction setting, and What's New, a comic feature which began publication within TSR's Dragon magazine, dealing with RPGs and later collectible card games.

The first of the online pages appeared on April 18, 2005.

My copy of the second issue of Girl Genius says "First Printing, April 2001", and my copy of the final issue, issue 13, says "First Printing, November 2004". Both were also printed in Canada. For a comic to be printed in Canada for the Canadian market, rather than being imported in paper form, at least used to be something done only by major publishers, but I have been informed that this was not what was done; rather, the copies for both the U.S. and Canadian market of that comic were printed in Canada.

On the original web site, the current pages from the April 18, 2005 page onwards were termed the "Advanced Class", and the pages that had already appeared in individual comic book issues, which were also placed on the site gradually, were termed "Girl Genius 101". On the current web site, for ease of display, the pages prior to the April 4, 2005 page have been given fictive dates in uniform sequence up to April 1, 2005: the last few pages of Issue 13 were also included in the "Advanced Class", and thus the dates from April 4, 2005 to April 17, 2005 (the date of the what would have been the cover of Issue 14) are presumably actual dates of posting, although USENET discussions of the time refer to the presentation of Girl Genius pages online as starting from April 18.

Annotations

These annotations are concerned with in-jokes and popular culture references, including many that are quite obvious. While annotations are also possible concerning subtleties related to the plot, these have been avoided here due to the risk of spoilers. However, at least one of the earlier annotations does necessarily involve a plot spoiler for the earliest part of the series, because the information bears on the true nature of two of the characters which is not immediately revealed.

There are also comments here that might be taken as placeholders for future annotations.

It should also be noted that in some cases, despite being otherwise uncredited, the facts and references given here are things which I learned from USENET posts, and posts to the Girl Genius discussion group on Yahoo!, of others, rather than things I was able to spot for myself.

Volume 1

Issue 1

2002/11/04

The seated figure, speaking, appears to be Phil Foglio, the artist, as he depicted himself in the feature "What's New with Phil and Dixie". What appears to be merely a plush animal beside his left foot, and which may be a strange creature produced by a mad scientist, resembles The Winslow, a MacGuffin from "Buck Godot, Zap Gun for Hire", as depicted on the Foglio's web site.

On this first page, the Heterodyne Boys are mentioned. Although they are historical figures in the world here depicted, in that world they are also the subjects of a series of novels analogous to those featuring the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Katy Keene, or even Frank Reade in our world.

As they are the two chief mad scientists in a world dominated by mad scientists, that their very surname is of a technical nature is apt.

The word Heterodyne comes from two Greek words meaning 'other' and 'force'. A superheterodyne radio, the usual type of consumer radio with analogue circuitry, applies the superheterodyne principle throughthe addition of an 'other' force at a frequency offset to the carrier of an incoming radio signal, so as to create an intermediate frequency signal that can be more conveniently amplified in the IF stages of the radio prior to detection and audio amplification. The major benefit of this is a radio that is good at rejecting interference from stations that are close to the station to which one is listening on the dial. A somewhat longer explanation of this is available here.

2002/11/06

In the upper left of the page, we see a wooden sign with a heart in a circle followed by "Kaja". As it happens, Kaja Foglio is the wife of the artist, Phil Foglio.

On the bottom left of the page, there is a man wearing a funnel on his head, reminiscent of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. On the bottom right, we see the number 57 on the foot of a clank; this number is familiar from the slogan "57 Varieties" appearing on Heinz products.

2002/12/13

Gilgamesh was a legendary Babylonian king, who featured as a character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which exists in both a Sumerian version and an Akkadian version. It speaks of his friendship with the wildman Enkidu, and of his quest for immortality. The epic was rediscovered by Austin Henry Layard in 1849. At the time of its discovery, the fact that it made reference to a worldwide Flood, presumably the same one recounted in the Bible, commanded a great deal of attention.

Gilgamesh was said to be of one-third human and two-thirds divine descent, rather than comprehensible proportions like three-eighths and five-eighths.

2002/12/25

On the lower right of the page - a present? And how appropriate, given the date of the page, although that would seem to have to be a coincidence.

Issue 2

2003/2/7, 2003/2/10

On these two pages, we are introduced to the names of two characters, Adam and Lilith. Earlier, on the page for 2002/11/25 from the first issue, the surname which Agatha shares with them is mentioned: Clay. A Jewish legend tells of Lilith as being Adam's first wife, before Eve was created. And another Jewish legend speaks of the Golem, an artificial man made from clay.

2003/2/17

On the top of the page, the row of numbers does not represent an astronomical calendar, as it might appear; those are the prime numbers from 2 to 79.

2003/2/26

I haven't tracked this reference down yet, but I suspect that a room 7B may play an important role in a famous movie. There is a recent young adult novel entitled "Home Room 7B", but I don't believe that to be the reference.

Issue 3

2003/3/26

Final panel: You've heard of "Hearts and Flowers", why not hearts and flours? Note also that the students taking "Honk Lessons" at one location have apparently become an annoyance to its neighbors.

2003/4/2

Bottom panel: prices are indicated by two numbers, with a slash between them, in several places. At one time, other countries besides Britain had non-decimal systems of currency.

2003/4/16

The extensive use of deductive reasoning here, on the preceding page, as well as on the page for 2003/3/31, is somewhat reminiscent of the stories of Sherlock Holmes, as would be difficult to avoid, those adventures having put their stamp so indelibly on this mode of reasoning.

2003/5/9

The last page of the third issue is identified as the "End of Prologue".

The short story "Agatha Heterodyne and the Electric Coffin" appeared as part of the trade paperback of Volume 1. It is also available on the Girl Genius web site, but only from the short stories page; its pages are not part of the main page sequence.

Volume 2

Issue 4

2003/5/26

Sleipnir is the swift eight-legged stallion upon which Odin rode, by Svadilfari out of (a magically transformed) Loki.

2003/6/2

There was a famous author in our world by the name of Lord Dunsany. Could his fate have been different in the alternate reality of these adventures?

2003/6/4

A character introduced on this page, Zulenna, has hair which reminds me of that of a character in Ned Sonntag's Glittering Skyline of Marsport in Creative Computing.

2003/6/11

It may be noted that P. G. Wodehouse wrote a series of stories about a British aristocrat, Bertie Wooster, who kept being rescued from scrapes by his butler, Jeeves.

Issue 5

2003/8/11

A name like T'Otheron brings to mind the form of the names of most female Vulcans in the Star Trek television series and its sequels. One of those sequels featured a human, but unemotional, character introduced in the second season who brought to (my, apparently flawed) mind an old phrase in a slightly different form: Six of One... and Half a Dozen of the Other, but that is quite unlikely to have anything to do with this page.

Also, for comparison one may cite "The Snake Mother" as drawn by Virgil Finlay. This was also saluted in the second Magnus: Robot Fighter series by Valiant, in the introduction of the new Malev-6.

2003/10/01

Between the original single-issue comic on the one hand, and the webcomic and TPB on the other, the dialogue in one of the word balloons in the panel in the middle of this page is significantly changed.

Issue 6

2003/11/10

The character collecting spirits for an impromptu get-together indicates the presence in Continental Europe of an important ethnic - and religious - group, through his first name and his headgear. His surname is Polish, and Poland was the home of a great many members of that group due, among other things, to the policy of toleration of Boleslaus III, Duke of Poland, who reigned from 1102 to 1138 (in the real world: note that in the Girl Genius universe, the history of the Heterodynes extends back into at least the eleventh century, and thus divergence between its history and ours precedes his reign). Other aspects of his career, however, would tend to characterize him as what the Jägermonsters refer to as "One of the fun vuns", at least if you ask in Pomerania.

2003/12/10

Alchemists occasionally used ground mummies (often mummified cats, rather than human remains) in their formulas. Also, ether does sound a bit like Easter. Also, a possible alternate explanation for the buoyancy of Castle Wulfenbach may be present in this panel; could that be Cavorite (from H. G. Wells' From the Earth to the Moon) which is in those compartments?

2003/12/15

The last line of dialogue on this page is, presumably intentionally for humorous effect, a cliché; perhaps it is a deliberate homage as well.

At the end of the trade paperback edition of Volume 2, there appears a short story The Crown of the Sleeping King featuring the character Trelawney Thorpe, Spark of the Realm. This short story, as it was drawn by Cheyenne Wright, later the colorist for other volumes in this series, appears on his web site (http://www.arcanetimes.com/) starting as the 44th installment of the comic featured there, rather than on the main Girl Genius site.

As I have been noting even the most trifling and obvious of references to popular culture, I suppose that I might note that while fiction has been written about the secret agents of many countries, the works of one Ian Fleming have led to a particular fondness for the British intelligence services in fiction.

Volume 3

Issue 7

2003/12/31

Bottom left: a reference, of course, to the children's story Puss in Boots, which also has the alternate title of The Master Cat.

2004/1/19

The last item of dialogue on this page, while appropriate to the situation and to the character, recalls the title of Aleksander Isaevitch Solzhenitsyn's 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, One Word of Truth Outweighs the Whole World.

2004/2/16

The fencing clank illustrated here is somewhat reminiscent of a maintenance robot which appeared in issue 24 of Magnus, Robot Fighter: 4,000 A.D., in a post-Russ Manning adventure where Magnus fights Malev-6 with the assistance of former villain Laszlo Noel.

Issue 8

2004/3/29

This image appears as a two-page spread in the printed comic. The design on the pendulum is reminiscent of the old Procter and Gamble trademark, familiar to many.

2004/5/10

This page was added to Volume 3 of the reprint collections, and to the online version of the comic, subsequent to the publication of of Issue 8 of the comic. As a result, it was colored by Laurie E. Smith, who had otherwise taken over coloring duties with issue 9, instead of Mark McNabb.

Issue 10

2004/7/28

Punch and Judy were the main characters in a series of traditional English hand puppet plays which shared a common origin with similar characters throughout Europe.

2004/8/4

While the monkfish is not poisonous, puffer fish, which are poisonous, have been mistaken for monkfish with fatal results. Lucrezia Borgia was long reputed to be the most infamous poisoner in history, although the current consensus is that the extent of her involvement, if any, in the crimes of the Borgias is unknown.

2004/8/6

The top image on this page is reminiscent of both the famous recruiting poster and of other things I cannot quite recall at this time.

2004/9/8

This page was added to Volume 3 of the reprint collections, and to the online version of the comic, subsequent to the publication of issue 10 of the comic.

Volume 4

Issue 12

2004/12/22

The word balloon showing "Yes! We Have no Bananas!" being sung was not part of the original printed comic.

2005/01/24

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"

- Maud Muller, John Greenleaf Whittier

Issue 13

2005/2/16

The statement by the character addressing Agatha in the last panel of this page seems familiar to me, but I cannot recall where I might have read a similar one.

2005/3/7

In the original comic, "Viola" appeared, an unfortunately common mistake, which was, fortunately, corrected to "Voilà" for both the webcomic and the TPB.

2005/4/11

Aut vincere aut mori: literally, "Either conquer or die"; it can also be more loosely translated as "Victory or Death", although other Latin phrases are usually considered to be the equivalent of that.

Issue 14

2005/5/23

In the TPB, the word "fertility" was replaced by an emphatic "looove!".

2005/5/25

René Descartes' dictum, Cogito ergo sum, usually translated as "I think, therefore I am", is, of course, referenced here.

2005/6/6

The character introduced here is a tribute to one from a collectible card game, I believe.

Volume 5

2005/6/27

The designs and graffiti on this bridge remind me not merely of art which appeared in the earlier MAD magazine which was a comic book, but of something even older: the political cartoons of Thomas Nast.

2005/8/10

Again, I haven't fully researched this, but try and tell me that the last panel on this page isn't a homage to Krazy Kat by George Herriman!

2005/8/22

Automata were made from the Renaissance to the Nineteenth Century. It is only in the age of the computer that a machine could play chess, but a chess playing automaton actually operated by a person hidden inside, The Turk, was exhibited for many years starting in 1770. It inspired a short story by Ambrose Bierce entitled "Moxon's Master", which is reflected in the name Moxana.

2005/8/26

Given that some of Krosp's mannerisms are reminiscent of Napoleon Buonaparte, and according to sources external to the comic itself, the human brain transplanted to Krosp's body was actually that of Napoleon Buonaparte, as, in this world dominated by Sparks, he was unable to achieve the degree of success he had in our world...

In this case, there is a particular irony in his offering to play chess from within Moxana, as, in our world, Napoleon did on one occasion play chess with "The Turk", and this is the score of one of the games they played:

    Napoleon    "Automaton"
 1. P-K4         P-K4
 2. Q-B3         N-QB3
 3. B-B4         N-B3
 4. N-K2         B-B4
 5. P-QR3        P-Q3
 6. O-O          B-KN5
 7. Q-Q3         N-R4
 8. P-R3         BxN
 9. QxB          N-B5
10. Q-K1         N-Q5
11. B-N3         NxP+
12. K-R2         Q-R5
13. P-N3         N-B6+
14. K-N2         NxQ+
15. RxN          Q-N5
16. P-Q3         BxP
17. R-R1         QxP+
18. K-B1         B-Q5
19. K-K2

following which, in four additional moves, the automaton checkmated Napoleon.

2005/9/7

The Yeti is, of course, the Abominable Snowman of Tibet.

2005/9/26

Rembrant van Rijn was, of course, one of the world's most celebrated painters.

2005/9/28

The nine Muses of ancient Greek legend, who appeared in the Gene Kelly and Olivia Newton-John movie Xanadu, were:

2005/10/26

On this page reference is made to a famous line by Mae West uttered in the film She Done Him Wrong.

2006/12/4

Fructivorous, or frugivorus, means fruit-eating, of course.

2005/12/7

Here, we discover the names of two characters: Eotain and Shurdlu. The sequence of letters "etaoin shrdlu" is that of the two leftmost rows of the Linotype keyboard, which is arranged in order of English letter frequency.

2005/12/12

The short story that begins here, Fan Fiction, appears at the end of Volume 4 in the TPB version; that is, immediately after the page for 2005/6/24.

Volume 6

2006/3/24

The two characters walking to the right in the final panel remind me of something which I have yet to locate.

2006/5/1

The final panel of this page raises a point discussed more fully in the famous essay Why Large Fierce Monsters are Rare, which may be taken as a criticism of Edgar Rice Burroughs' stories of adventure set on Mars and Venus, in addition to similar stories by many other authors.

2006/5/15

The four-page story which appears here, within the pages for Volume 6, appears in the TPB series at the end of Volume 7.

2006/7/26

Another cameo appearance by Phil Foglio. As well, a song of a very famous musical group of recent times is referenced that needs no annotation.

2006/11/17

Plumbers: could this be an oblique reference to the Watergate scandal?

2007/2/14

I can call spirits from the vasty deep!

Why, so can I, and so can any man. But will they come when you do call them?

Henry IV, Part I


At the end of the TPB of volume 6, the Agatha Heterodyne One-Minute Mystery, included on the site as a separate short story, was added. This originally appeared as part of Issue 11 of the original comic.

Volume 7

2007/2/26

Another cameo appearance by Phil Foglio.

2007/2/28

Poiled slurgs are also mentioned as a culinary delight (if not for human palates) in Buck Godot, but the ones there are larger.

2007/3/19 et. seq.

Bob, the Angry Flower is a comic strip by Steve Notley which was originally published in The Gateway, the student newspaper of the University of Alberta, and which later became published in numerous weekly publications throughout North America.

Questionable Content is a webcomic by J. Jacques.

Buck Godot, Zap Gun for Hire was, as noted before, an earlier project of Phil Foglio. And the name of that, of course, was inspired in part by the famous play Waiting for Godot.

The Devil's Panties is a webcomic by Jennie Breeden.

2007/4/30

The line "Yonder lies the castle of my father" is often attributed to Tony Curtis in the movie The Black Shield of Falworth, but in fact it did not occur in the movie; perhaps a comment using this phrase as an illustration of the problems his accent was felt to pose for a movie of that genre in one review led to the misapprehension that those actual words were spoken in the movie.

2007/5/16

Second panel: from The Valley of Fear, by Arthur Conan Doyle:

"I am inclined to think-", said I.

"I should do so," Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.

2007/5/21

A character whose name is Vanamonde is introduced. An entity with that name appears in the Arthur C. Clarke novel The City and the Stars; that character's destiny is to "battle the Mad Mind at the end of Time", which may be appropriate given the subject matter of the Girl Genius comic.

2007/5/23

There is no single literary source for the occasional humorous notion among children that one can get "cooties" from the opposite sex.

2007/7/9

The long name of the medication noted on the bottle contains references to two famous long words:

Floccinaucinihilipilification (or floccipaucinihilipilification), the longest word in the Oxford English dictionary, and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, from Mary Poppins.

2007/8/29

The memorable slogan "Lose Weight Now; Ask Me How" was due to Herbalife, which distributed its line of weight-loss products through the technique of multi-level marketing.

Although the pages of Revenge of the Weasel Queen, Part I occur within the sequence of pages for Volume 7 in the webcomic, they are not part of the TPB version of Volume 7, and have yet to appear in print.

2007/10/15

The posters of Alphonse Mucha, Henri Privat-Livemont, and the other greats of the Art Nouveau era come to mind here.

2007/11/21

The kings of France from 1328 to 1589 belonged to the house of Valois.

2007/12/12

The movie The Valley of Gwangi was a Hollywood monster movie of the 1960s about an Allosaurus living in a hidden valley... in California. Appropriately, its protagonist was a woman able to fight her own battles against ruthless enemies.

2007/12/28

The sixth panel, or the second panel in the second row, is clearly a reference to a scene from the movie The Return of the Jedi.

The printed version of Volume 7 did not include Part 2 of Revenge of the Weasel Queen at its end; instead, it ended with the Personal Trainer short story, which appeared online at a different point in the sequence.

Volume 8

2008/2/4

The building in the first panel resembles the real-life Vienna National Opera.

The Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland are where Sherlock Holmes had been believed for a time to have fallen to his death.

Titus Andronicus is the title of an early play by Shakespeare.

Euphrosyne is one of the Three Graces, representing Joy or Mirth. There is also a St. Euphrosynia recognized by the Orthodox Church.

2008/2/6

The Irish Elk, Megalocerus giganteus, is actually a type of deer which is distinguished by its extremely large antlers, and which has been extinct for the last few thousand years.

2008/3/7

From 1305 to 1418, there was a Pope in Avignon in addition to one in Rome, and from 1408 to 1418, there was also a third Pope in Pisa. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli, was written somewhere around the year 1505, and all Machiavelli's works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559.

2008/6/20

It appears that in the first panel, the characters present are singing to the tune of the Beer Barrel Polka, and in the second, they are singing to the tune of the Too Fat Polka.

2008/7/21

The rip panel was a component of a lighter-than-air craft first employed in practice by John Wise on April 27, 1839 with a hot-air balloon. Its purpose is to permit rapid descent in an emergency by being torn away to expose a hole in tha balloon, letting out the hot air.

2008/8/1

A league is a unit of distance which amounted to three miles in the English system of measures. Before the general adoption of the metric system outside the English-speaking world, other countries also had their own versions of this unit, with sizes ranging over nearly a factor of two.

2008/8/27

Dagon is the name of a god worshipped in ancient Mesopotamia and Phoenicia. Reference was made to this ancient god by H. P. Lovecraft in the novel The Shadow over Innsmouth as well as in a short story entitled Dagon.

2014/3/31

Poictesme is the name given by James Branch Cabell to the fictional land which was the setting for a series of fantasy novels, the most famous of which is Jurgen.


This site is not approved by, sponsored by or affiliated with either Studio Foglio LLC, Airship Entertainment, Phil and Kaja Foglio, or any other present or future assignee of the rights to the creative works of Phil and Kaja Foglio.


Copyright (c) 2008, 2012 John J. G. Savard


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