I’ve been a fan of Phil Foglio’s since I first read “Fun with Phil and Dixie” in the back of Dragon magazine way back when, and have followed his career closely ever since, which included seeing him perform with his comedy troupe the Zanti Misfits, buying a piece of his original artwork at a convention in the late 80s, reading his novel ILLEGAL ALIENS, and buying all the various comics he produced over the years and getting him to sign as many as possible at conventions. He and his wife Kaja started Girl Genius about 15 years ago, and I anxiously await each tri-weekly installment (and then, of course, buy all the collections when they become available). This steampunk-inspired strip has won multiple Hugo awards, and deservedly so.
So it was a wonderful treat when they both agreed to be interviewed at a recent convention. It was a fun experience with lots of laughs!
MICHAEL: So I’m here with Phil and Kaja Foglio…
KAJA: It’s pronounced “ka-ya.” It’s one of those names …
MICHAEL: I’m so sorry! I’ve only read it…please forgive me.
KAJA: That’s quite all right.
PHIL: We just like to think of this as “strike one.”
MICHAEL: (laughs) Got it!
I appreciate this opportunity. I want to discuss writing since that’s the theme of my blog. I think your stuff is so well written! I have the impression that you had Girl Genius planned out long before you even started episode one.
PHIL: Yes. We started working on it in 1993 and we didn’t start publishing it until 2001.
MICHAEL: So do you have a huge bible where you know where events are going and what’s going to happen?
PHIL: Yeah, pretty much.
KAJA: In our heads.
MICHAEL: I certainly get that impression because there are things that we see that don’t really make a lot of sense and then, five years later, we go “Oh, that’s why they said that!” — so you’ve got to have some major planning going on.
KAJA: Oh we do, we do … We don’t have it all nicely written out —
PHIL: Which may be an error on our part —
KAJA: Well, yes.
MICHAEL: Do you have an ending planned?
MICHAEL: How long will it be until you get to that?
KAJA: We’ll probably die.
PHIL: A couple of years.
MICHAEL: Are you really going to end it?
PHIL: Well, does anything really have an ending? Does the world explode? No.
KAJA: It probably won’t explode. I am a great fan of everyone floating dead in space …
PHIL: With every story, there comes a point where you’re like, “Okay, the characters go to bed and that’s it. Tomorrow’s another day.”
KAJA: Or they all walk off into the bright future.
PHIL: There you go!
MICHAEL: You had a stopping point a while ago where the characters went into the future, and that’s like “part two” and even the books are designed a little bit different now. Are you seeing a “part three” or is it too soon to say?
KAJA: That’s almost a packaging consideration. I change ideas a lot as far as packaging goes. We did the “second season” kind of thing because we were getting so far into it we thought, “Let’s give ourselves the writing challenge of building a safe point where if someone is looking at this huge vast thing and saying ‘I do not have time for that’ there’s a place they can jump in.” It doesn’t really affect what happens to the characters; it affects the way we tell the readers what is happening to the characters. It’s a presentation thing. It’s how you choose to write and present that material, rather than the actual events that are happening in the story.
MICHAEL: Do you have anything you planned that didn’t go as expected?
PHIL: Oh, sure.
KAJA: Klaus Wulfenbach was supposed to die in the very first segment of the story and then Gil was going to be the big evil bad guy for the rest of the thing, and there was going to be that tension where they’re kind of attractive to each other but he’s the villain and she’s the hero — that did not work out the way it was going to go.
MICHAEL: Do you know who Agatha is going to end up with?
MICHAEL: But you’re not going to tell me that.
PHIL & KAJA: No. (laughs)
MICHAEL: Didn’t think so.
KAJA: There’s this martian prince…
PHIL: And a werewolf boyfriend.
KAJA: No werewolves!
MICHAEL: One of the things I admire about your work, and I try to emulate in my writing, is the fact that every single side character seems to have a huge backstory.
PHIL: It’s a huge story with literally hundreds of characters so you have to make them interesting and you have to make them visually interesting or else people will get confused.
KAJA: From just a writer’s standpoint, the minute you give a character a shape, you start thinking about who they are and what they feel about things and that’s the same when we’re reading someone else’s story. “Oh, here’s this new character! What’s their deal?”
MICHAEL: And with the novels, you are able to go into a lot more detail about that.
PHIL: We did the comics first. Comics are very much like movies, stylistically. No doubt you’ve got stories you’ve enjoyed that got turned into movies. They left a lot out, didn’t they? Well, they had to! We had all this world-building and background detail but there really was no satisfactory way to put it into the comic or else or it would be even slower paced!
KAJA: You don’t want to interrupt a visual story-telling medium with “By the way, there’s this really interesting historical anecdote about this vase on the table blah blah blah” whereas in a novel, you can totally do that.
PHIL: We had all that stuff! So we wrote the novels to show people how smart we are.
KAJA: I thought we just liked writing novels…
PHIL: Well, that too.
MICHAEL: One of the problems you might have with the comic is that you have to end each page with some sort of cliffhanger or joke …
PHIL: I like to do that, mostly because it’s a webcomic. You look at the first couple of issues of Girl Genius, and we were doing it in a traditional comic book format, so we thinking more in larger arcs. Whereas webcomics … if somebody is like, “Ah, I’ve heard of this Girl Genius thing, let me check it out…” Boom. You’ve got one shot to catch their interest.
KAJA: I have a different opinion about this. This has always been a kind of bone of contention. I’m just like, “For pity’s sake, we are telling a long-form story here. Tell the goddamn story.” Don’t fuss about “Oh, it has to do this” or “It has to do that.” Especially because every single panel is a cliffhanger. Everything leads into the next thing. The only reason you notice is because it stops for the day.
If you’re reading a novel and you’re only able to read to page 52 and then you have to go to the grocery store, that’s a cliffhanger because you haven’t turned the page yet. I think it’s an artificial definition.
MICHAEL: I suppose but often when I read that last panel, I go, “Wow, there’s a new muse!” Then I’m waiting to find out who it is…
PHIL: Yeah …
MICHAEL: It’s what gets me impatient for the next one, because I read it three times a week…
KAJA: There will always be something where the characters are talking and they stop, because it’s the last panel! Of course they stop!
MICHAEL: There’s a lot more freedom with a novel. Phil, you did ILLEGAL ALIENS years ago…
PHIL: With Nick Pollata.
MICHAEL: I interviewed him and he told me about how much fun he had in putting that together, and how you guys were in the comedy troupe together… Will that be re-released? I still have my original copy, by the way…
PHIL: Nobody has expressed an interest. I probably should send it to my agent.
KAJA: There might be some legal stuff involved.
MICHAEL: What about the Buck Godot comic books that have never been put into paperback?
KAJA: You mean the Gallimaufry?
KAJA: That needs some editing because editing was not a thing that was happening a lot back then…
PHIL: (laughs) Yes, that’s true…
KAJA: Makes my college-girl brain sort of clump into a little ball and die.
PHIL: Buck Godot was a project that frankly, I was doing when I didn’t have to worry about money. That pretty much came out when I was in the middle of doing work for the Post. So money was coming in from that…
KAJA: And you were doing Xxxenophile…
PHIL: So money was not a problem, which is a good thing, because Buck Godot never really made a lot of money.
KAJA: Buck Godot was a labor of love. It cost money.
PHIL: People really liked it!
KAJA: I didn’t work on Buck Godot so I can honestly say it’s brilliant. I have it mostly laid out for printing and every time I’m working with it, I’m like, “This is so good!” But it needs editing.
MICHAEL: I look forward to seeing that! The Xxxenophile stuff is not really being promoted any more…
KAJA: It’s a different age level than what we’re doing now.
MICHAEL: I can understand that. I used to enjoy reading those and the main thing is that there are great stories underneath all the sex.
KAJA: I made the comic book store sell them to me when I was seventeen, which was technically illegal, but whatever! That was the same comic store that introduced me to Phil.
MICHAEL: As someone who has always loved steampunk, I wanted to talk about what you are doing because you’re sort of doing a fantasy version of steampunk.
PHIL: Oh, very much so.
KAJA: I don’t give a shit about what steampunk means. We’re making a story.
PHIL: The thing is that we don’t call our stuff steampunk.
KAJA: (pointing to my notes) He’s got “gaslight fantasy” written there.
MICHAEL: I agree with you!
PHIL: Kaja came up with that exactly because there are people who are determined what steampunk is.
KAJA: This was me predicting the future, because this was back in the late 90s when I had just heard the term steampunk and it wasn’t this big subculture. There were a few things out there, but I could just smell it. I knew there was a fight there that I didn’t want a part of. This is going to be one of those things where there are people saying, “You’re doing it wrong.” And I’m, “Nope!”
I guess I had seen a bit of that with goth. My friends in the goth community who were “Well, it’s not properly goth unless…”
MICHAEL: That’s one of the reasons you set Girl Genius in an alternate Europe where things are not quite the same…
KAJA: Making up your own stuff is so much more interesting just using someone else’s stuff.
MICHAEL: But Phil, you’ve always been interested in fantasy and science fiction and not worrying about being too accurate. Even Buck Godot had its magic…
PHIL: Yeah, there were deux ex machina elements, certainly. Alien technology, law machines…
MICHAEL: There are a lot more people writing “gaslight fantasy” these days, including my next book. But I think that’s what makes it more fun.
PHIL: Science fiction for a long time has been caught up in real science. Oh, let’s go to Mars! You can’t, because X. It would be impossible because of Y. And for the people who like to write scientifically, great. Good for them. But a lot of people just like escapism. So why not “Here, there are colonies on Mars. We got there by rowing really hard.” You know you could if you just tried! But some backbone into it, you lazy…
KAJA: There are canals in Amsterdam and canals on Mars. Obviously, they’re connected!
MICHAEL: The bottom line is in telling a good story. And I appreciate your storytelling which is why I have all your books and read everything you guys put out.
PHIL: Thank you!
MICHAEL: From the beginning, it wasn’t just about the artwork, but there were stories there I could really enjoy.
PHIL: You can have crappy artwork but if you have a good story, people will pay attention.
MICHAEL: What other projects might you ever do?
KAJA: It’s hard to know. Right now, we’re just working on this. Phil is working on a novel.
PHIL: It’s about a monster that lives in Disneyland. That’s something I work on when I don’t want to work on anything else.
KAJA: I have a few things brewing… If I start blabbing, it would be boring and it wouldn’t stew as well.
PHIL: If you’ve got a great story inside of you, if I tell you, it acts as a pressure release valve and I feel like I’ve written it already.
MICHAEL: You’ve done projects for others in the past, like the Angel and the Ape books. Any of those kind of side projects?
KAJA: You did a monocle comic.
MICHAEL: I didn’t know about that.
KAJA: I don’t know if it’s available to the whole world…
PHIL: It is actually. I just have to post about it.
KAJA: Saturday Morning Breakfast Circle is a really funny webcomic and he did a really goofy kickstarter for single-use package monocles that look like condoms… I guess we did it, since I totally lettered the hell out of that thing.
MICHAEL: You’ve let other artists do Girl Genius stories when you took vacations.
KAJA: We’ve done that a couple of times.
PHIL: Chris Baldwin and Cheyenne Wright, our colorist…
KAJA: Boy, we hear about that when we do it. We’re not allowed to take vacations. We actually had one — that Phil drew and Cheyenne colored — where we had the characters say that the creators have to go on vacation and so we’re doing this other thing instead, and we hard about that! Logic does not always come into play here. Clearly, we were still working but because the characters said we had gone on vacation…
MICHAEL: Nobody wants you to take a break.
KAJA: It’s not fair! (laughs)
MICHAEL: You have a big fan base.
KAJA: It goes too slow for me.
MICHAEL: Well, there are lot of things I’d like to see answered that I’ve been wondering about for ten years or so…
MICHAEL: Like that very first scene with the time travel… We’re seeing clues now, obviously, so that’s coming up.
PHIL: Oh, yes!
MICHAEL: There are characters out there that I’m wondering what happened to…
KAJA: That depends. I notice when we talk to people at conventions that people will say, “What about this thing?” and we’re like, “That’s done. That character was not a major character. They passed through the other character’s lives and now they’re done. That’s all we ever intended.” It’s not pertinent to this story what that person went and did.
MICHAEL: Sometimes you might see something and think, “Well, obviously the circus is going to come back” but you imagine it and then expect it even though it wasn’t planned…
What do you like to read? What are your influences?
KAJA: I like anime. I like manga. What else do I like? I don’t know. I don’t like anything.
PHIL: Let’s see. Gosh, I read an awful lot of stuff. I like historical stuff. I’m currently working through a Richard O’Brien book…
KAJA: Yeah, because I bought it! Why do you get credit for it? (laughs)
PHIL: Because I’m reading it!
KAJA: Richard O’Brien does a series of nautical adventure novels. Very good. The movie was “Master and Commander.”
MICHAEL: Yeah, sure!
KAJA: It’s interesting because they take things out of several of the books and squish them together into the movie, which is very strange. They’re really a research project. I started reading them and then I had to go and buy the book of maps and the book of nautical terminology. I already had the cookbook because I like historical cookbooks. If you start talking to people about historical cookbooks, the first one that comes up is LOBSCOUSE AND SPOTTED DOG which is all the cookery from this series of novels I hadn’t read… So I finally bought them all, but Phil has pulled ahead of me in the series.
PHIL: We are both big fans of George MacDonald’s “Flashman” series.
MICHAEL: I can see that.
KAJA: They’re great. Well, Flashman himself isn’t great, he’s dreadful, but the books are fantastic.
MICHAEL: I think I remember reading in an interview with you where you said you would have loved to have worked with Terry Pratchett.
PHIL: Yes. He was awesome.
KAJA: His stuff has been a big part of my life. I had a friend in high school who was from England. “You’ve got to read these, and there’s a third one coming out! It was like if Douglas Adams wrote fantasy! Here you go!” This was back before I met Phil.
MICHAEL: I still remember when THE COLOR OF MAGIC came out…
KAJA: I had a very nice boyfriend who introduced me to his friends and the first thing they did, they started throwing books at me. “Have you read this? Have you read this? Well, did you like it?” Finally, at the end, they were like, “You may date this woman.” It was a great group of people. We played a lot of GURPs.
MICHAEL: What’s your take on the Hugos?
KAJA: I’m so glad we got our Hugos before all this happened. Our Hugos are less tainted! (laughs)
PHIL: I think the Hugos will pull out of this.
KAJA: Is this still going on?
MICHAEL: They did a little more this year. Nominated Chuck Tingle…
PHIL: People are paying less attention to it. They’re doing desperation moves. They’re saying, “All right! The Puppies are still here and this year, we’re nominating ‘Star Wars.'”
MICHAEL: Like it wouldn’t have been nominated any way.
PHIL: Right. But they want it to look like they’re the ones pushing it. So if/when “Star Wars” wins, they can say “Yep, one of our nominees won.”
KAJA: Dr. Who will totally beat it. (laughs)
PHIL: So, you know, fuck these guys.
MICHAEL: You took yourself out of contention at one point…
KAJA: We said “for next year” but what a lot of people heard was “forever.” That’s cool because the next year where we were eligible we lost fair and square. First of all, curses! But it also shows that this is a viable category. It was insanely flattering but also people were also saying, “Well, it’s just going to be the Girl Genius category” — obviously not, but it’s so nice of them to say.
I didn’t want to go to the Hugos, and didn’t want to touch it, and I sat in the lobby watching a feed and getting all emotional.
MICHAEL: How much of the comic version of this where you two were arguing about whether to take your name out of consideration was true?
PHIL: That was just us goofing around.
MICHAEL: I wasn’t sure if it was based in any slight bit of truth…
KAJA: No, Cheyenne is not actually the Bat King of the Underworld, although we’d like to think he is.
PHIL: Pretty much everything we do in that sort of thing is done for laughs.
KAJA: All the congratulations to other people are totally true.
PHIL: (Rolls eyes) Oh, yes. Totally true. (laughs)
MICHAEL: So before we leave, any hints you’d like to give?
PHIL: Major character appearing next Wednesday!
KAJA: Who is that?
MICHAEL: The muse?
MICHAEL: I guess I’ll find out!