Wide World of Webcomics: Hugo Award Winning GIRL GENIUS

Wide World of Webcomics: GIRL GENIUS

Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at the best strips – new and old – online [Click here for tons more on online comics]. For this round of interviews, we’re going to focus on an increasing trend – creators initially known for their print work who’ve taken projects online.

We’ll look at people who’ve found new success with webcomics, creators doing side projects that are a 180 from their hard-copy work, and those who’ve put their new graphic novels online first as a promotional tool for an eventual hard-copy edition.

To start this round off, we wanted to go with the biggest print-to-web success story out there. Phil Foglio (www.studiofoglio.com) and his wife Kaja were already known for years in both comics and SF/Fantasy for such books as What’s New With Phil and Dixie, Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire, XXXenophile and art for such works as Robert Asprin’s Myth series and Magic: The Gathering. But when they took their biggest project yet online, it became their biggest hit.

The project was Girl Genius a rollicking “gaslamp fantasy” set in an alternate universe where the Industrial Revolution has escalated into an all-out war, with a key element being mad scientists gifted with “The Spark” – a powerful source of inspiration that can lead to incredible creations.

Agatha Heterodyne is the descendant of a powerful Spark family – and the mysterious Baron Wulfenbach will stop at nothing to control her. The result is an adventure across a radically-changed Earth, filled with airships, robots, deadly “Jägermonsters,” and the secrets of Agatha’s family’s past.

Since 2005, Girl Genius has been online-only, with hard-copy reprints of the storylines. The result has been a huge hit, with the strip twice winning “Best Graphic Story” at the Hugo Awards, science fiction’s top prize. More recently, it’s been adapted by the Foglios into a prose novel, Agatha H. and the Airship City from Night Shade Books.

We’re very excited to kick off this new installment of Wide World of Webcomics with a talk with Phil Foglio about Girl Genius, the challenges and rewards of going online, and what we’ll be seeing this year from the strip and this world (hint: a lot).

Newsarama: Phil, when you brought Girl Genius to the web from print, there weren't a lot of serialized comics online -- and there certainly hadn't been a print-to-web success story. What do you feel were the biggest steps you took that helped the comic succeed, and do you feel it would have lasted if it had stayed limited to the print editions? 


Phil Foglio:
It may sound flippant, but the biggest step we took was twenty years ago, when we became independent comic publishers. What it meant was that when we went onto the web, we already had a working relationship with Diamond, and we already had several books in print so we could begin monetizing the strip immediately. Most webcomics start up, and then have to wait up to a year before they have enough material to put out a book. We also had a comet tail of fans and readers that we brought along.

As to the durability question, I can't really say. We were doing okay, every issue we put out paid for itself, but we were experiencing cash flow problems, which is one of the many reasons we went to the web. We certainly didn't have anywhere near the number of enthusiastic readers, and within the first year of going online, our sales tripled.

Nrama: What did you bring from your experience in print comics to doing an online strip?

Foglio: The most important thing was paying attention to overall production values. You have to have a good website. Good lettering, good graphic design. Make it easy for people to see you, find you, and be able to give you money.

Nrama: How did you initially conceive the idea for Agatha and her world?

Foglio: Back in 1993, Kaja and I were looking for something new to do. We knew we wanted something with a strong female protagonist. At a convention, I was doodling, and did a recognizable picture of Agatha, with the title “Girl Genius,” which I had never heard anyone use before. I remember she was saying, "If I'm so smart, why aren't I rich?" (It was a slow convention). Kaja was the one who suggested that we set it a world of Victorian mad science, and once we had that, everything else just flowed. 


I remember reading the preview you did and seeing how thoroughly you'd plotted out the world and its characters. How has this world expanded since you've been doing the book?

Foglio: In lots of ways. When we started, the Jågermonsters didn't even exist . Now they're some of the more popular characters. Some characters were supposed to die- and didn't. Some were supposed to live- and got killed off. It keeps it interesting for us.

Nrama: We're going to be seeing a lot of Girl Genius this year -- tell us everything that's coming up.

Foglio: Well, the hardcover novel came out in January. The mass-market paperback will be out in time for San Diego (for you editor types, that will be the edition where we actually corrected all the typos that snuck past everybody in the hardcover).

We'll also have Volume 10 of the comic, Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse, out at San Diego as well. The audiobook version is out and doing pretty darn well, according to Brilliance Audio. The World Science Fiction Convention, Renovation, is throwing a Girl Genius-themed dance, and Volume 10 is nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story. In late fall, or early 2012, TOR will begin re-releasing the comics in color omnibus editions to help launch their new graphic novel line.

If you're a sophisticated world traveler, as so many in the comics world are, you'll be able to find Girl Genius in a number of foreign translations. We also plan to have iPhone & iPad aps out Real Soon Now.

Nrama: What was different about doing the prose novel -- what are some things you can do with prose you can't do in comics, and vice versa?

Foglio: You know how when they take a novel, and adapt it into a comic, there's a lot of world-building, character background and inner dialog that has to be winnowed out? Well that's all the stuff we were able to put into the novel. We had it, we just couldn't fit it into the comic. Now we can indulge ourselves, and our readers, who are always asking for this kind of background material.

Nrama: What's it been like revisiting your older work online?

Foglio: Painful. I cannot believe people paid me for this stuff. But then, hopefully, a year from now, I'll look back at the stuff I'm doing now, and say, "Man, I could do that better, now."

Nrama: Have the Hugo awards brought a new audience to your work, and what's your reaction been to the awards?

Foglio: Absolutely. There a set of people who try to read everything that has a Hugo. Now they have to read our stuff. Bwa-ha-ha-ha. Oh we were thrilled to death to get them. We started as science-fiction fans, so this is the award that means the most to us. 


Why do you feel there have been so few quality SF comic books, or SF comics that have gotten an audience?

Foglio: Probably because science-fiction is popular enough that if you're going to put that much effort into it, you might as well make some real money and pitch it as a movie. Conversely, if you like science fiction, you're more likely to go see a movie than buy a comic book.

Nrama: What's coming up for Agatha and friends?

Foglio: The end of Volume 12 will conclude the first half of the Girl Genius storyline. After that, they'll start to travel a bit. Paris, England, Africa, Skifander, and the City of Silver Light.

Nrama: Do you see an end to the saga at some point?

Foglio: Yes.

Nrama: What's the reaction to the prose book been like, and will you be doing another? 


Very encouraging. A number of reviews from people who said, in essence; "Heard about Girl Genius, but I'm not into comics, so I never picked it up. Well, now it's a novel, so I tried it out and Hey! It's pretty darn good." Night Shade is bringing out three more novels. The second one, 'Agatha Heterodyne and The Clockwork Princess', is almost finished. I swear.

Nrama: You've really taken advantage of new distribution methods such as the iPad, which is something I've been asking other webcomic creators about. How do you keep up with new venues of distribution, and what do you feel is the biggest mistake most creators -- and larger companies -- make when dealing with electronic distribution?

Foglio: Actually, I really think we're dropping the ball on this. We already should have iPad aps, but we're too damn busy to do all the work that's required on our end. I guess if I have an opinion about it, I'd say don't get too cranked about the money part of it. The thing you want is people reading your work, and as a webcomic, you're already giving it away for nothing. Don't let people rip you off, but don't ask for the moon.

Nrama: What's next for you?

Foglio: Finish the second novel. Start the third. Finish the cover for TOR. Do a bunch of conventions. Get a new page up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Maybe lunch.

Visit the world of Girl Genius at www.girlgeniusonline.com every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Next at Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics: Marvel Comics’ Jeff Parker and artist Erika Moen take a demented trip to Portland with Bucko. And later this week, interviews with the creators of Battlepug, Gingerbread Girl and Ratfist!

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