by Agent Zara Cruden (a.k.a. Z the Pun-isher)
Some people find it hard to work well with others, and others find it nearly impossible. That is what is so unique about Phil and Kaja Foglio; they have written the entire Girl Genius series — both in comics and in books — together. Phil Foglio says, “The comics came first, and then, you know, we worked from the comics and wrote the novels, which is different from how it usually goes.” Both their books and comics about the exploits of young Ms. Heterodyne have a fandom that is quite large, but they are lucky to have fans that are content and just happy to get new material.
Although they may not have screaming fans who devote entire YouTube channels to following their cars (looking at you, George R.R. Martin), they still run into fans who have the ingenuity to recreate some of their character’s designs. Phil remarks, “Oh, that’s wonderful! It’s nice to see people in costumes [from our books] … I feel pretty confident in my costumes, because I took four years of fashion illustration in art school, so I have a lot of costumers who come up and go, ‘I can actually make your stuff! This is awesome!’ Well that’s because I had teachers who pretty much drummed it into me that … you have to design stuff that people can actually wear.”
Their fans aren’t the only ones who get to fantasize about sumptuous garments. Phil explained what garment he would bring back into fashion from the Victorian era, “If there was something I could bring back? I don’t think men wear enough hats … A gentleman looks good in a hat … It’s an extra little flip of style.” He may not have enough physical hats, but metaphorically he is a man of many.
The series that he has written with wife Kaja, Girl Genius, is published in hard-copy book format and as a free online web-comic. When asked about the unique challenges of writing both, Phil was able to give a unique answer, “Writing is more difficult because there is that old adage, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ … I think that is pretty much why I was more of an illustrator for so long, because I’m a really lazy guy, so I would just draw a lot … but as we started working on the Girl Genius novels, and I’ve done other novels in the past … There are things that you can do with language that you can’t, at least I can’t, do with art alone … Art is easier, but good writing is more evocative.”
Phil and Kaja have a very synergistic approach when it comes to the clothing that their characters wear. Kaja Foglio remarks, “We do a lot of scribbling back and forth,” with regard to their joint ideas for outfits. While Phil studied fashion illustration, Kaja was involved in the costuming of many theatrical productions. She says, “It [fashion illustration] teaches you a lot about how clothing hangs and where the folds go, and so when you’re drawing a garment, you actually have an idea of its construction. I, in college, took a lot of costuming and I did some theater work … and so I have more of an idea of how it goes together, and he has more of an idea of how to draw it. Sometimes when he draws it, it makes me crazy because I’m like, ‘You have no idea how that’s actually supposed to be constructed, do you?’ But, we found that even in the theater, the theater illustrators would draw something, and then they’d hand it to us and they’d be like, ‘Make that,’ and we’d say, ‘Yeah … okay, sure. We’ll do a thing like that … They would draw a beautiful piece of art, and it may or may not have actually worked.”
Although there may be a difference between fanciful and functional in the clothing, there is little difference when it comes to actually sitting down and creating both the Girl Genius books and comics: they are markedly similar. Phil explains, “They are both writing creative things. One is a little more visually oriented, but … I think being visually oriented, as both Ki [Kaja] and I are, makes our writing as visual as it is.”
When asked who he would love to collaborate with, living or dead, Phil let out a big sigh as he pondered this question, “Living or dead? I’d say Terry Pratchett of course, geez. The man was awesome! We learned an awful lot just by reading his stuff.”
Kaja has a slightly more realistic dream, “So, I would have said Tom Kidd, who does beautiful airships and has done beautiful airship drawings … and magical cities for a long time, but … actually, on the novels here, he’s the artist that our publisher got for us for the cover art. So, that was very nice. It was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even have to ask, and he’s the person I would have suggested … Gosh, there are definitely a lot of people out there that I would love to have [work with].
“I have sort of a fantasy project that I would love to do, where I would hire a number of different fantasy artists to do their own take on the Girl Genius universe. For instance, do me a picture of the character, a cover, or something like that … then put it together in a big art book. I’ve seen this done for various manga series and anime series that I like. I have this fantastic book from Japan where they collected all this different art from Hatsune Miku and the other characters [Vocaloid characters] and some of it is manga, and some of it’s album covers, and it’s just all these different styles, all these different works, based around those characters. It’s amazing, so I keep this as one of my little treasures up near my desk, like, ‘I want this, but for Girl Genius.’ I would love to do this. To go to all of the artists that I admire and say, ‘I want to hire you to do a picture for us, for this book.’… It’s kind of a fantasy project that I would love to do.” Given a few years, Kaja’s dream may very well become a reality, and that would be a feat to be seen.
Working with another person on something as personal as art can cause tension and dissension, but Phil says that he and his wife have a great solution. “We talk it out. It’s just kind of like, ‘Okay … explain yourself, why do you think this?’ … it’s kind of like a D&D [Dungeons and Dragons] game … you have to say, ‘This would happen.’
“‘Ah, no, but this person would do this.’
“‘I guess they would.’
“‘Alright, then this would happen.’
“‘Uh, no, I don’t thing that would happen because this guy died two pages ago.’
“‘Yes he did!’
“Like I said, we just talk it out.”
They may not have much difficulty when it comes to problem solving, but they have found an unexpected challenge when they write the voice for one special character. The Hetrodyne Castle. “The castle is one person … but because it’s generally a computerized person, we’re able to have separate entities that … well, if you hooked it back up, it would all flow together, and then the castle would know everything that both of them knew, but they’re separate. Like the train … is like a peeled-off bit of the castle that was sent out and was experiencing things, and maybe eventually come back and add that data or that knowledge … It would come back and add that data to the greater mind, but at the moment it’s still its own little thing, and at the moment it’s still kind of got its own little way of speaking and it’s very angry, and very …’Well, you’re all idiots! Argh!’
“So writing those different voices, they’re … all the same person but they all have different experiences and have slightly different knowledge bases. The little bit of it that they [the main characters] have just met in Paris, that’s part of the castle, but it’s not currently part of the main castle, but it still thinks of itself as part of the castle, and if they hooked it back up, it would be like, ‘Hey I suddenly know all of the maps of Paris, and I know all the stuff that happened in Mechanicsburg, and the one in Mechanicsburg doesn’t currently have the knowledge of Paris that the other one has. If you put it all together, it’s like pouring water into a glass, and then it’s like, ‘Ha, now you’re all here,’ and that’s a weird … way of thinking that really kind of runs counter to our own human individualist idea of me and you as separate entities and individuals.” This certainly would be quite a task to write, and try and get all the little nuances across without making it too blatant.
Every good writer (and yes, even the great ones too), has to start by reading up on whatever it is that grabs his or her interest. In the case of Phil Foglio, it was comics. Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, by Gilbert Shelton turned out to be his favorite. He added, “Underground comic … from the seventies. About a bunch of … reprobates. They are certainly well-known.” The strip was first printed in an underground newspaper in Austin, Texas, around 1968. It starred three guys, although not brothers, who sported quite a bit of hair. The first was Freewheelin’ Franklin Freek, whose red hair flowed behind him as he moved from hi-jink to escapade. Next was Phineas Phreek, who has the biggest and most unruliest bush of black hair. Lastly came the most obese of the trio, the aptly named Fat Freddy Freekowtski, whose blond mop cascaded perfectly from his head.
The Foglios like to hide some Easter eggs into their comic. They will probably not be understood by anyone outside of the Foglio family, however. Kaja shares one such joke, “Occasionally we’ll use the name of a friend, or throw a joke in there that came from some place … private. Like, at one point, when Tarvek is babbling, he says, ‘Imagine everything is made of pigs!’ Which is nonsense, but it’s actually an old joke between Phil and me because he once, long ago, woke up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea for a story. It was just an amazing idea, and he was so excited about it, so he wrote it down and went back to sleep. When he woke up in the morning, the paper said, ‘Imagine everything is made of pigs.’ and he was like, ‘Okay then.’ That was apparently a really weird dream, and we’ve laughed about that ever since … I guess the idea was to imagine that all of the electrons in an atom were little pigs, and they get all excited, and they run around a lot, or something. So, that’s just a thing that makes us laugh, and we throw it in there and it makes us laugh even more … Or, the occasional science joke that Phil will throw in there from something he heard from his friends at Fermilab years ago, or some weird historical thing that I’ve read about somewhere. I’ll throw things like that in. A lot of times, there is usually someone who gets it, in that case, and then they have the fun of explaining it to their friends.”
The Foglios incorporate witty banter, inside jokes, hat-tips to friends, and just plain old science jokes, to give their stories that little bit of umph makes them so entrancing and keeps the readers coming back in droves. They make personable and believable characters with fantastical, yet satisfyingly functional, designs and they take off to explore a world of their own creation with each posting of web-comic and chapter of their books. They have taken the steampunk genre by storm, and they are still going full speed ahead.