Have you ever tried and tried to like something because so many people, including those you trust, rave about it? Sushi maybe, or a kind of wine (or just wine in general), Judd Apatow movies, David Sedaris, etc.? But no matter how many times you give it a shot, it still seems like raw fish or bitter grape juice? (Actually, I like sushi; it’s the Apatow that feels like bitter raw fish to me.) That’s sort of how I feel about graphic stories (I suppose it’s telling I still can’t bring myself to call them graphic novels). I’ll pick one up based on a reference in Time or The New Yorker or because someone I trust told me how “great” it was, and my reaction is always the same: “Meh.” And that’s my best reaction. In general, I find them lacking in depth and richness and startlement factors, of language, plot, character, and the like. All of which is an admittedly long-winded way of saying maybe you should just ignore this review of the first GIRL GENIUS omnnibus, because it seems I’m just not built for graphic stories. But the folks at Tor/Forge were nice enough to send me a review copy, and though perhaps it would be nicer to not review it, I feel sort of obligated. You’ve been warned.
The omnibus version, according to my Tor literature, collects the first three chapters of the story: The Beetleburg Clank, The Airship City, and The Monster Engine. As you might tell, this is steampunk work (or “gaslamp” as the authors call it), set in a vaguely Post-Industrial-Revolution Europe in a world where a gifted few have a “spark” — a near-magical mechanical ability allowing them to create wild machines. Unfortunately, both the sparks and the machines often go literally “wild,” unleashing havoc on those around them. The famed Heterodyne family kept the peace for generations but mysteriously disappeared a few years ago, and now an uneasy peace is kept by the iron-fisted (reluctantly, so he will tell you) Baron Wulfenbach. A new spark with a mysterious and dangerous past — Agatha Clay — is the titled “girl genius” and it is her arrival on the scene as a newly awakened Spark that precipitates the mostly frantic events of the story.
And thus my first complaint about the tale — its almost non-stop frantic nature. I prefer a bit more pacing in my stories, more variety of speed and tone, and this one is pretty pell-mell from start to finish. Many will see that as a plus; for me it was a negative. It doesn’t take too many exclamation points, gaping eyes and mouths, and “Acks!” to turn me off and GIRL GENIUS has them all in spades. Scenes come and go without enough time to enjoy them fully, or rather, to present them in a fashion so they could be enjoyed fully.
I couldn’t really get into the characters much. The side characters were pretty nondescript in my mind; I never felt any of them as an individual. The Baron and his son Gilgamesh are more individualized and have some complexity in terms of not knowing if they’re good or bad or both depending on the circumstances (the Baron’s self-professed reluctance is a nice touch), but this is mostly told rather than shown. I prefer having this sort of thing develop over time out of action, or at least some introspective monologues. I get that the format doesn’t really allow for that sort of time and so it’s an unreasonable standard; I really do. But it doesn’t help knowing why I don’t like something in terms of making me suddenly like it. Thus my dilemma with graphic stories at the core of what they are.
I never cared much for Agatha herself. Partially it’s all the “acks” and “eeks.” Partially it’s because the story — adolescent with a secret hidden past that turns out to be key — didn’t feel all that original. Partially because her gift just felt too easy: when in trouble, whip something up in a matter of seconds. And I’ve got to say the penchant to throw her in her underwear didn’t do much for my response to the story. I also get some of this is satire, but it was too-easy satire, too on the nose or surface.
Sometimes the art will make up somewhat for a dearth of positives between plot and character, but while the artistic rendering of many of the mechanisms was impressive, I was far less enamored of the portrayal of the human figures, particularly their faces, and overall I found many of the panels overly stuffed.
I don’t want to belabor the rest of the reasons I didn’t care for the story. One because I don’t like going on and on about faults in something someone worked so hard on, and also because clearly I’m in the huge minority here on this book, which has won a Hugo three years in a row. To which I can only say, “it’s a mystery to me.”
Suffice it to say I couldn’t find much of anything to really enjoy in the book: character, plot, or language. If, however, you’re a fan of the genre, I’ll send you up to Kat’s review (above), because I’m clearly not the guy to go to. And thus my search for more than “meh” continues. At least I still have sushi.