Phil Foglio began his career as an artist by winning the Hugo Award for Best Fan Artist in 1977 and 1978 before going on to work as an illustrator and comics artist for TSR, Wizards of the Coast, DC Comics, First Comics, WaRP Graphics and many others. He has worked mostly on his own comics including “Buck Godot,” “MythAdventures,” “XXXenophile” and the long-running comic strip “What’s New with Phil and Dixie” which ran in Dragon Magazine for years.
Foglio is best known for his current project, “Girl Genius,” a webcomic that he draws and co-writes with his wife Kaja. Initially a quarterly print comic, “Girl Genius” became a three day a week webcomic in 2005. Last year at the 67th World Science Fiction Convention, “Girl Genius Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones” received the very first Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story, beating out work by Joss Whedon, Bill Willingham, Brian K. Vaughan and others.
Foglio spoke with CBR about the origin of “Girl Genius,” what inspired its alternative universe Europe that Kaja Foglio has termed “gaslamp fantasy” and the business of webcomics.
CBR News: Let’s start at the beginning, Phil – can you share with us the origin of Girl Genius?
Phil Foglio: Years ago, Kaja and I were like, “We should work on something.” Up until then I had pretty much been by myself. At a convention I was sketching a picture of Kaja and I just labelled it “Girl Genius” and thought, “Hunh.” It just went from there. We basically wrote the story for seven years before we put anything out.
Was it just a question of working out the story, or was there something else that caused the long development process?
I follow a lot of independent comics, and I don’t know how many have started out where it’s an amazing new book, and the story’s really intriguing, and there’s interesting characters…then it stops coming out regularly. Maybe it stops coming out at all. It’s not sales. They just never bothered to write an ending, or figured one would come to them. Or they didn’t think it would take off so they didn’t bother. Or they were just trying to get a movie deal. For me, story is very, very important, so we were bound and determined not to have that happen to us and we basically worked out the whole thing.
Not to say that things don’t change. There’s accumulated changes. I call it whip, where you make a small change and then it ripples through the whole story. We pretty much know where the story ends, and while things may change in the details, we know how, when the dust settles, what the characters are doing and who survives.
In 2001, you started releasing the comics in print. In 2005, you changed things up and began putting it out as a webcomic. What was behind that change?
The reason we started out in print was, quite honestly, I’ve been doing comics for thirty some odd years, and that’s what I knew. All of my experience and training had been in putting out print books. As time went on, people would ask me, “How do I break into comics?” I’d be like, “The way to do it is do it as a webcomic. There are so many advantages and it’s so much cheaper and blah blah blah.” Around 2005, we started realizing that we’re giving all this great advice, why the hell don’t we take it. There were a couple of things that forced our hand. There was a cash crunch and it was a lot cheaper to do it as a webcomic, so that’s what we did. It was the best financial move we ever made. Within a year our business had tripled.
If your business tripled, then I’d presume the audience grew by a much greater number.
Our Diamond sales were around 6K copies, and we sold another 3K ourselves through our online shop. For an independent comic, [that is] very good. The most recent figures I’ve got tell me that I’ve got over 320,000 readers. That is a serious underestimation, because I just count the numbers of people who check the website. We also put it up on deviantART, we put it up on LiveJournal, we do an rss feed…
The method that we use for checking the readers on the site is flawed, because it doesn’t track actual readers, but IP addresses. If you log in and read “Girl Genius” at home, that’s one reader. If everybody at Microsoft reads “Girl Genius” at work, that’s one reader. We take the raw number of unique views and then divide that – that’s how Scott Kurtz taught me. That assumes that everybody checks it once as soon as it [the comic] goes up, but there are a lot of people like you who just can’t take that constant whipsawing, so they only check it once a month or once every two weeks. So I say we’ve got 320,000 readers. We’ve obviously got a lot more, but we just say 320,000.
Did this huge increase in readership also translate into a noticable increase in sales of the books, not just through your online store, but also as far as comic stores and bookstores are concerned?
We’re definitely seeing an uptick in sales through Diamond. That is a great advantage I had to most people who are starting out in the webcomic business. I had already had a very well established relationship with the traditional comic book industry, and all of the hoops that a new creator has to jump through in order to get carried by Diamond was never even a question.
Also, we had an advantage because when we first went online and collected that larger audience, I already had two or three collections in print, so I was able to make money from day one, as opposed to most creators who have to wait a year or so in order to create enough stuff to put together a collection. Unless they’re on top of it with prints or mugs or other merchandise, they’ve got to dig in and wait before the money starts coming in.
As for sales figures, we figure for every hundred people who read “Girl Genius” online, I’ll get money from maybe two of them. I talk about to old style comicbook creators and they’re like, “Wait – you mean 98% of these people are getting this thing for free?” I’m like, “Absolutely, just write them off, you’re not going to see dime one out of them.” They just go insane and I’m like, “Goodbye, dinosaur man, nice knowing you.” That’s just the way it works. The secret to success? Keep getting hundreds of people and keep selling to those one or two.
So getting back to the comic itself, it started with with this single image of Kaja, but how did you go from that image to this huge steampunk epic?
Originally, “Girl Genius” was going to be contemporary, but that just wasn’t gelling. We couldn’t come up with stories that we really liked. We liked the character and we liked the character design. Kaja was going through some of my old sketchbooks and drawings, and she’s like, “You’ve done science fiction and you’ve done high fantasy, but you’ve got a bunch of stuff from the files of this weird Victoriana stuff.” Walking gunships and cats in top hats and stuff. I was like, “No one’s ever done something like that, I’ve never had a place to use it.” And we went, “Nobody’s ever done anything quite like that.”
It’s a period we both really like. The stuff that the steampunk genre took its inspiration from, Jules Verne, and H Rider Haggard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs and science fiction where you could do pretty much anything and nobody knew enough to say, “No you can’t really do that.” Fantasy, with the hopeful trappings of science. Once we decided, let’s do it in that period, that milieu it really opened everything. We were able to work with the typical stereotypes of mad scientists, and visually it’s a real treat to draw.
You post three pages each week, on Monday Wednesday and Friday. Do you think about each page in isolation from the others? There’s a much larger story, obviously, but do you try to think of each page as separate in a way that you didn’t think about when you were making traditional comics?
Very much so. People will go, “‘Girl Genius,’ that sounds interesting, what’s that?” They’ll take a look, and that could happen on any random day, so any random day I better put something on that page that makes them go, “This looks interesting.” A good joke, or a nice bit of tech, or an interesting layout ,or a bit of a cliffhanger. Something. It’s very nice if every day has enough of a cliffhanger that you want the next page. When I can leave people with a major, “Oh my God what’s going to happen?” on a Friday, and they have to wait two whole days, I’m humming about that all day.
It’s tough. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. At that point you just have to rely upon momentum and your track record and just assume that if somebody clicked on this day, well, thats just the way it goes. I’ve heard from people who were like, “I checked this out like four years ago and just wasn’t terribly interested, but I clicked on it yesterday and I’ve been up for ten hours reading it.”
Can you take us through the process of putting together a typical strip?
Kaja and I talk it over, and we’ll have a rough idea of what we want to do, where the story’s going and what plot point we want to advance. I’ll sit and sketch out the scene on a couple of pages of typing paper or something. I’ll show them to her and we’ll talk it over, and if it works, then I draw it out. It gets scanned. It goes to the colorist. At the same time, Kaja takes the script and she does another writing pass on it while she’s lettering the pages, and then I’ll take a look at it. And if I want to make any changes, I’ll make changes and we’ll argue about that back and forth until we’re done. It’s very much a give and take right up until it goes online, and even then we’ve been known to change things occasionally, but not very often.
Do you still draw the entire strip by hand?
I have tried to work on a Wacom tablet and such. My colorist, Cheyenne, is just a whiz at that, and he makes it look so easy, damn him. I’m just an old fashioned paper guy. And that gives me originals to sell later, so there’s an economic reason to keep doing it this way.
Calling anyone’s style manga-influenced has become meaningless by this point, but would you say there’s a certain sensibility and style in terms of the layout and pacing that may be something you picked up from manga or other influences?
Yes. I’d say the big difference between “Girl Genius” and my previous work is that I’m trying to be a lot more relaxed about the pacing, which certainly would be something learned from manga. In my last work, “Buck Godot,” I really tried to pack as much information as I could into each page. It was an eight issue series, and it should have easily been about fifteen because there were pages that had like twelve panels on each page with little bitty lettering, because there was just so much. It was just too much. There were too many shots of talking heads and not enough art, so I tried to relax and open up the art a bit.
I came out of science fiction, loved science fiction and world building and coming up with reasons for why these things exist. I just love that kind of stuff, and this certainly gives me a chance to do that.
That is a nice segue to our next topic of discussion. You won two Hugo Awards in the late 1970s, and last year you and the rest of your team won the first Hugo Award for Graphic Story, beating out a bunch of nobodies like Joss Whedon and Brian K. Vaughan and Bill Willingham and Jim Butcher in the process. How did that feel?
It felt mighty good, I’ll tell you! I thought it was very nice of the science fiction association to make an award for me. (laughs) We were just thrilled to death. And very surprised, because a lot of the other nominees were more well regarded. I mean, Joss Whedon. We’d pretty much written it off. The guy who designed the actual Hugo Award this year, Dave Howell, called us from the awards ceremony, and he held up the phone and we got to actually hear them announce us as the winner. He’d known twenty four hours in advance, because he had to put it on the award.
Readers of the strip know that you posted a funny strip about winning, but in all seriousness, would you like to take this opportunity to give the speech you would have given were you at Worldcon to accept the award?
(laughs) Well let’s see. We very much want to thank our colorist, Cheyenne Wright, who makes the stuff look good, and we want to thank all the people who have worked with us over the years. We want to thank our printers. And we want to thank the science fiction community, because we started out in science fiction, and its nice to get recognition in the field.
For those of us who follow the comic, what can we look forward to in the near future?
Well, we will be coming to what we would call – we’re not making any big secret of this – a save point, if this were a game. We’re coming to a point where there would be enough information and we’ll be structuring it enough as a fresh start, that you’ll be able to pick up Volume Eleven and get up to speed pretty quickly. It’s not like things will be stable. In fact, they’re going to be on the move pretty constantly but, gosh, what do you want to know? I’m not going to tell you anything.
So we can look forward to “Girl Genius” being as unpredictable as ever?
I certainly hope so!