The Evolution of the Heterodyne Boys

Phil and Kaja Foglio tell fans that Girl Genius is a story they've been wanting to do for a long, long time. And it is not the first place the "Heterodyne Boys" name was used. Join me now as I trace what little I know about their pre-Girl Genius appearances. Contributions and corrections are welcome.


According to a Phil Foglio interview by Kurt Wilcken, the Heterodyne Boys started as a spoof of the various turn of the 20th century book series like Tom Swift and the Radio Boys. After reading all the titles in a used book store to some friends, he made up The Heterodyne Boys and Their Anthracite Burning Earth Orbiter, which his friends then wasted several minutes trying to find on the shelf. He also used the title during a charades game played that night. It was popular, so he "drew up some pictures of them, basing them on two more friends."

It's not in the current version of Jess Nevin's Kingdom Come Annotations, but an earlier version quotes John M. Gamble as saying one of those two friends was Bill Higgins of Fermi Lab and well-known Chicago SF con-goer. This is also said in a Girl Genius Yahoo! Groups message which also identifies Barry as Barry Gehm, also a Chicago scientist and science ficiton fan. Later, in a a new introduction to the first Heterodyne Boys story (see below), the Foglios confirmed that they were "based upon Phil's real-life scientist friends Bill Higgins and Barry Gehm."

Mr. Higgins maintains a blog at LiveJournal under the name "beamjockey".


The first published appearance of two characters called Bill and Barry Heterodyne in a Phil Foglio story I'm aware of was in Grimjack #40 (November 1987). It was a Munden's Bar 8-page backup story called "Work Ethic." You can actually read this story online at the Studio Foglio site. (Thanks to MJ Dennis for pointing out that it returned after a while of being unavailable.)

The Bill and Barry depicted here look nothing like the ones from Girl Genius. They also come from what appeared to be the first half of the 20th century, rather than an age of clockwork and steam power. They are, however, in the process of foiling a mad scientist's plans. The scientist is Dr. Mongfish, another name used in Girl Genius.

San Diego Comic Convention

Next, in August 1988, according to information from Michael Hurwood (see part 7), Bill and Barry appear in a single page cartoon of the convention's program. As you can see at left, they're still modeled after Higgins and Gehm. The illustration features them in (or in Bill's case, clinging to) a helicopter-like flying machine called The Archaeopteryx trying to avoid anvils dropped by what would later become another Girl Genius staple, an airship.

It's unclear why Foglio chose the Bill & Barry for his SDCC illustration. Possibly he had early plans to do more with them, but equally likely is that he just thought it looked cool.

Stanley and His Monster

In 1993, Phil Foglio wrote and drew Stanley and His Monster, a four-issue limited series, for DC Comics. It was based on a DC property from the late '60s. In the first issue, Stanley finds The Heterodyne Boys Big Book of Fun in his attic. Every adult Stanley shows it to seems to have fond memories of it, but hasn't seen a copy in years.

In the DC Universe, the Heterodyne Boys are still are named Bill and Barry and still look the same as they did in the original Grimjack story. Stanley's mother tells him, "according to contemporary sources, they were real people, like Doc Savage or the Shadow." (DC had been publishing licensed comics of both Doc Savage and The Shadow within the previous couple years.) The Heterodyne Boys books were written by Charles Ott "around the turn of the [20th] century". The only two titles given in the series are The Heterodyne Boys and Their Anthiracite Burning Earth Orbiter and The Heterodyne Boys and the Mystery of the Cast Iron Glacier. The former is obviously taken from when Phill first made up the Heterodyne Boys name (see above). The latter appeared again, shortened to simply The Heterodyne Boys and the Cast Iron Glacier, on a bookshelf full of Heterodyne Boys books in Girl Genius #7, page 16.

The Heterodyne Boys Big Book of Fun was published in 1912 and features a Zeppelin on the cover. Usually. Sometimes the title appears instead. (Phil often changes minor details in his art between panels for comedic effect.) It inclues sections on:

I'm not currently aware of any further appearances by the Heterodyne Boys after that until Girl Genius.