Girl Genius is a webcomic that follows the adventures of Agatha Heterodyne, the titular girl genius, in a Europe of an alternate timeline that's dominated by mad scientists, monsters, and massive machinery. Steampunk is possibly one way of describing it, although authors Phil and Kaja Foglio prefer to use the term of their own coinage, "gaslamp fantasy."
Girl Genius is old school fun. There's just the right amount of comedy, adventure, suspense, and romance. Although the story sometimes takes a dark turn every now and then, it's done with a humorous touch that never deviates from its lighthearted mood. Much of it owes to Phil Foglio's distinctive, cartoony art.
A brief background and quick synopsis of the storyline:
"Sparks" are people gifted (or cursed) with superscientific intellect and skills. Sparks can build complex robotic machinery -- "clanks" -- and breed monsters. Some sparks can even compel obedience through the use of the voice. "Mad scientist" is the easiest association with "spark," although they're not your stereotypical megalomaniac in a lab coat.
Because of the "sparks," the Industrial Revolution in Europe grew into an all-out war fought with zombie infantry, giant robots, and biological monstrosities. Finally, Baron Wulfenbach, a spark himself, conquered and united most of Europe and established peace under his iron hand.
To prevent another war, Baron Wulfenbach searches out and collects sparks. He brings them them to Castle Wulfenbach for training and evaluation, and in some cases, experimentation. (And by the way, Castle Wulfenbach is quite a sight to see.)
Despite his grip on Europe, Wulfenbach constantly worries the reappearance of the Heterodynes, the spark clan he defeated in the war for Europe.
Agatha, the heroine of the story, is the last remaining survivor of the Heterodyne clan. For years her spark abilities have been suppressed by a pendant given to her by her uncle. This also allowed her to avoid detection by Wulfenbach's agents.
The story kicks off when the pendant is stolen by two soldiers....
From here on out, there's a lot of intrigue as Agatha and the people around her discover her true heritage. Because of her lineage, a lot of nasty people are after Agatha. Along the way, she picks up a host of sympathetic characters that forms the larger cast of Girl Genius.
Girl Genius is well written, and the pacing is just perfect. The dialogue is spot on and there are several laugh out loud moments.
There are already over 500 pages worth of comics. These are divided into the Basic Class, the original Girl Genius graphic novel, and the Advanced Class, which continues the story after the graphic novel. At this point, the Basic Class is already about to catch up with the Advanced Class.
The Foglios are very diligent about their updates, coming up with a new page every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. As such, the reader isn't left hanging, and therefore it's a worthwhile story to get into.
Unfortunately, the site is a bit slow to download and slogging through almost four years worth of comics can be a bit of a chore. (I found a way around this but, er, I'm not quite sure the Foglios would be happy with me.)
Nevertheless, once you get into Girl Genius, you'll certainly be hooked.