Monday, August 13, 2012

Girl Genius: Gaslamp Fantasy

Confession: I jumped at the chance to write about steampunk because it let me recommend one of my favorite comic series, Girl Genius -- an astoundingly imaginative ongoing webcomic that balances one woman's quest to restore a family's honor with humor and mad science. The only problem, I discovered, is that it's apparently not steampunk.

I was confused for a reason -- the story of Girl Genius seems to share many of the thematic trappings of the genre. It follows a young woman named Agatha who lives in a world ruled by Sparks, people with a genetic talent for invention and machinery. Agatha discovers that she is a Spark herself and that she has connections with the powerful, evil Heterodyne family, but the various governments want to control her burgeoning potential. As is fitting a steampunk work, the power of science is both amazing and overwhelming. There is plenty of room for rebellion and capital-t Technology to take center stage.

Yes, it takes place in an alternate history in which science is king, dirigibles fill the air, and fashion peaked at Victorian gowns. Yes, impossibly convoluted technologies and their creation lies at the center of the narrative, and clockwork robots, an automated castle, and the world's largest (and most perfect) coffeemaker all play key roles. But no, the co-creators Phil and Kaja Fogilo themselves won't label their work as steampunk, instead choosing to coin their own genre term: gaslamp fantasy. Kaja said that their work had important differences from traditional steampunk, saying, "we have no punk, and we have more than just steam, and using a different name seemed appropriate."

This fact, unearthed after mere seconds of research, left me rather disappointed because I had used Girl Genius as my benchmark for steampunk for quite some time. Its intricate art displays the love its co-creators have for the fantastically technological and the Victorian-esque. However, they know steampunk enough (and are big enough fans of the genre) to know what steampunk is not, so I began reexamining the layers of the narrative to see where they saw differences large enough to define their own genre.

At the level of the story's technology, the distinction makes sense. There is "more than just steam," after all; the comic rarely explains what powers the whozits and gizmos that fill the comic's pages. Most of the machines are more whimsical than sensible (as an example: a recent page made mention of military technology that included flaming oil guns and "thunder bees"), and they color the world cartoony rather than futuristic. The machines are fantastic in an almost literally magic sense.

Adding to this fantastic feeling are the presence of constructs - artificial or altered humanoids including the trigger-happy Jägermonsters and various Frankenstein-ian creations. These and the various impossibly sentient machines receive very few comments from the cast. It doesn't take long for Agatha to accept the reality of a highly diplomatic talking cat, for instance.

The existential questions behind the existence of constructs are touched on here and there, but the story is more interested in the things constructs do than in what constructs are. While steampunk invites contemplation on the nature and meaning of technology and its effects on the world, Girl Genius makes these technological elements the means by which it tells its story of self-discovery, romance, war, and intrigue.

Similarly, the themes of that story shy away from the elements that steampunk is most famous for. Girl Genius examines the troubles caused by technological superiority, to be sure, but Agatha's rise to her destiny lacks an element of rebellion, grittiness, or "punk." Though the ongoing story might send her against the powers that be, her quest is more about her identity and the discovery of her talents than it is about overthrowing corruption and/or tradition.

Whenever the comic does not focus on Agatha, it instead looks at the complex interrelationships of the various Spark houses and their plans to thwart one another. Sparks are notoriously power-hungry, after all, and they have a history of enslaving populaces to the cause of SCIENCE and of stabbing one another in the back. These moments for me felt the most like the steampunk; they created a convoluted web of plots, meetings, and relationships that parallels the complex innards of steampunk's neo-Victorian machinery. But wouldn't defining a work's genre by a metaphor/parallel be disingenuous when so much of the work doesn't otherwise make the cut?

Steampunk, in my mind, cannot bear the unreality of Girl Genius's talking cats, self-discovery quests, and other unscientific flimflam. It might be hard to find its location between  the towns of Science Fiction and Speculative History on a map of Genreland, but I would at least know to start in the general area near Realism. Not to say that neither of those genres are particularly nonfictional. On a sliding scale of realism, however, this comic leans toward fantasy in both meaning and content, and it thrives because of it. I can concede my mistake and take up the "gaslamp fantasy" label with ease if it means showing more clearly what Girl Genius does so well.

Steampunk scholar Mike Perschon defined steampunk as an aesthetic rather than a genre, and if his definition holds true, then Girl Genius shows how that aesthetic can create a vibrant backdrop to a story that aligns with the fantastic.

Though the comic began in print form, its story can be accessed in full online. A word of caution: the creators learned and grew as they wrote the story, meaning that the beginning chapters may lack some of the polish of the later stories. I encourage you to give it a read regardless.

By Tyler Gegg