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Girl Genius, Vol. 14: Beast of the Rails (review)—“Get toolish”

Authors: Kaja and Phil Faglio

Illustrator: Phil Faglio

Colors: Cheyenne Wright

Airship, 2015

A LOCOMOTIVE HEADLAMP flickers in the distance and grows stronger. A warm, welcome feeling arises as the train arrives where you stand bundled up alone in a falling snow that sheathes the landscape. All the roads have disappeared.

This opening scene in the GIRL GENIUS graphic novel “The Beast of the Rails” captures how the adventure courses inevitably toward you, growing distinct and powerful, until it roars to a halt with metal grinding right where you stand poised to board. Like a big train in the snow, the story is amusing, sweet, and forbidding, all devised to turn one from happiness to horror and back again shivering.

This second “Journey of Agatha Heterodyne,” begun in 2015, starts on a train zooming through a snowy countryside in a world well established in an earlier thirteen-book journey, so all the characters and character types spring into life full-blown. I felt I was dropped into an already simmering stew. Each character plays a particular part with exaggerated features, much like masked characters in the Renaissance commedia dell’arte—pantaloon, harlequin, doctor, and others—familiar types replayed endlessly in renewed comic jumbles.

In the Girl Genius romanticized steam fantasies one is never quite sure what time it is, with castles, fireworks, and big-bolted machines and tubes coagulated together in a cartoonish hodge-podge, combining everything that once existed before the digital age when the world became quickly de-mechanized and disincorporated until we barely exist. Facts and fictions blend together in a single liquid stream one swims through easily, so easily I was reminded of the question posed by Robert Musil in The Man Without Qualities, finding himself in the same situation plaintively drifting and swimming among facts and fictions: “The goals, the voices, the reality, the seduction of it all, luring and leading one on, all that one follows and plunges into—is it the real reality or does one still get no more than a breath of the real, a breath hovering intangibly on the surface of the reality one is offered?”

I am not sure the Girl Genius is real or unreal, virtuous, or lovely, or anything else she thinks she is, or what anyone else thinks about her. Same goes for all the others. They hold many points of view and no one seems decidedly one way, just who they are masked as themselves scraping against each other: royal types, servitors, hunters, even bears. When I found I liked the bears, I knew I was on board.

Stay seated on this one and keep your hand on the cord. However you take it, despite distractions inside and outside the compartment, should you happen to get an idea how to invent a new spoon or something else useful along the way, by all means take time to work it out. Curious main mechanic Lady Heterodyne might even step off the page to help you with the engineering. She’s real enough for that.