Friday, November 6, 2020

Interview: Phil Foglio

I became a regular reader of Dragon magazine with issue #62 (June 1982). In addition to its cover, one of the things I remember most about it was the comic What's New with Phil & Dixie by Phil Foglio. After reading it, I was immediately hooked and looked forward to each new strip and its quirky, humorous perspective on Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games. I reached out to Mr Foglio and he very kindly agreed to answer my many questions about his involvement in science fiction fandom, What's New, and anything else I could think of. 

1. As I understand it, when you were at university, you were very involved in the science fiction club, including editing and providing art for its fanzine. What do you remember about those days? What was science fiction fandom like at the time? 

Back in those days – by which I mean pre-1980 or so, science fiction fandom was very much like a monastic order. We were a small, persecuted group held together by our love of science fiction as a genre. Our love was almost entirely centered around the written word. Books and short stories. The general public thought SF was stupid, and their derision was well earned, as they only saw SF in TV and movies, and most science fiction TV and movies were written by morons and had a special effects budget of $10. We also had a much higher percentage of doctors, scientists, engineers, and teachers. Conventions were a lot smaller, as was the total output. It was easily conceivable that a science fiction fan could know everybody in fandom, and read everything that was published in a given year.

2. Do you ever miss those days, when the fandom and, by extension, the conventions and other gatherings were smaller and more intimate? 

Eh – not really. Like I said, originally we were a derided group of weirdos. Today, science fiction has won. It’s everywhere. A lot of it is terrible, of course, but there is also a lot of really good stuff.

3. How did you first become aware of roleplaying games? Was this the result of your connections to science fiction fandom?

I became vaguely aware of them at some early convention. At the time, they were things like the Fletcher Pratt naval warfare recreations, which took entire ballrooms, or Napoleonic warfare recreations. I wasn’t into that. Some time later I heard that they’d added magic and stuff, but there was this accounting system that sounded crazy. Never tried it.

4. Really? That surprises me. In the years since, have you had the opportunity to try RPGs?

I played my first RPG in 1986, and enjoyed it quite a bit. Played off and on ever since, though since the people I know are no longer college students, the groups inevitably succumb to heat death and fade away.

5. How did you first come to the attention of the editorial team at Dragon magazine? Did you approach them or did they contact you?

A friend dragged me off to Gen Con in 1978. It was in a church basement in Milwaukee. I got to play a board game called ‘Photon’ with Gary Gygax (though that name meant nothing to me at the time). It was some sort of promotional thing where if you managed to beat him, you got a copy of the game. I did it in one. Afterwards, I showed a portfolio of my art to the editor of Dragon magazine, who at that time was a guy named Tim Kask. He liked my stuff and commissioned a cover. That was for Gamma World. Never played it, but the idea was pretty simple; post-apocalyptic scenario.

6. What was the genesis of What's New? Did the strip come to your imagination fully formed or was there an evolution of it from an earlier concept?

Did a few more covers for Dragon, as well as a few interior cartoons. They paid $25 a cartoon. So one day, I get this idea of a guy selling chess as a role-playing game. “I can make a cartoon about that”, sez I. However I was, as I remain today, incredibly lazy. Did I want to go to all of that time and effort for a lousy twenty five bucks …? On the other hand, if I come up with another four or five jokes and string them together, it would fill an entire page, for which they paid $200. I could do that! So I whipped it up and sent it off and before the end of the week I got a phone call from Kim Mohan saying “We’ll take as many of these as you’re willing to do.”  Whoa! Steady work!

7. I must admit to some embarrassment about this, but, despite having read What's New? for years, I only recently realized that Phil is a fictional version of yourself. What about Dixie Null? Is she wholly imaginary or is she too based on a real person?

No, Dixie was made up out of whole cloth. When I found someone who reminded me of her, I married her.

8. How much freedom were you given in the content of What's New? Was the strip's long-running joke about "Sex and D&D" just a gag or did it stem from editorial directives about the types of content you could include?

I was given complete freedom, with the understanding that if I went “overboard,” they’d let me know. The "Sex and D&D" gag came from the realization that if there was anything gamers were more interested in than gaming, it would be sex.

9. There are a few What's New? strips I remember so vividly that I can practically quote them from memory, like the one comparing fantasy and science fiction RPGs (Dragon #65, September 1982) and the one about superheroes (Dragon #75, July 1983). Do you have any favorite strips or ones of which you're particularly proud?

I was very pleased about the one that talked about how to duplicate game events in real life. The taking a shower covered in cats has been quoted back to me about a million times. In The Duelist, there was a strip where I had to do something about the Weatherlight Saga, or whatever the hell they called it. The people at Wizards wouldn’t tell me anything about their Big, Secret Storyline, so I just analyzed  the mechanics of stories and the card game mechanics, and predicted everything. They were furious, and convinced I had a “mole” in editorial. Hilarious. There were also a few strips from the third run in Dragon (after The Duelist) which I thought were particularly clever: my exploration of the Drow, and of Elves, in particular

10. You decided to take a break from writing What's New? in April 1984 to focus on other projects, such as the continuation of D'Arc Tangent (which sadly never happened), and adaptations of Robert Asprin's MythAdventures series, among other things. These eventually led to work with well-known comics publishers, like DC and Marvel. Was this transition to "bigger and better things" your goal all along?

I never really thought of it as a “transition”, as I continued doing monthly freelance art for a lot of other magazines even while I was working on more grandiose comics projects. I meant what I said in my letter: I’d been doing What’s New? for three years, and I was afraid of it getting stale.

11. Nevertheless, What's New? returned in 1993, appearing in the pages of Wizards of the Coast's The Duelist magazine. How did that happen? Were you a player of collectible card games at the time?

I was an investor in the company, and I played the game. The art director of The Duelist called me and said he wanted to revive What’s New? I was hesitant. I mean, I’d quit for a reason. He reminded me that I’d be writing about collectible card games (an entirely new thing upon the earth), as opposed to D&D.  This was an excellent point, but I waffled (still lazy), until he said those magic words that every artist should hear at least once in their career: “We will pay you whatever you want”. Well okay then. So I appeared in every issue of The Duelist until it was killed off by the whole Pokémon thing. However, after the phone call where they’d told me that the magazine was ending – as I cradled the phone – it rang again. It was the editor of Dragon magazine (who at the time was the next desk over in the Wizards of the Coast publication department), who wanted to know  – now that I had some free time in my schedule – if I’d like to bring the strip back to Dragon. I said sure, and appeared there until Dragon folded.

12. Nowadays, you're probably best known for the web comic, Girl Genius, which you write with your wife. Where did the idea for the comic come from and how have you managed to keep it going for such a long time? 

Well, I wanted to do something with my wife Kaja. She wanted something with mad science. I came up with the title and a recognizable sketch of Agatha at a convention. Originally, it was going to be in a modern setting, but it just wasn’t jelling. Then Kaja was leafing through some of my old sketch books, and she mentioned that I had a lot of sketches of weird Victoriana period stuff. Airships, people in bizarre outfits, and she wondered why I didn’t draw more of it, since she thought it looked pretty neat. I replied that I loved drawing stuff like that, but nobody did anything like that. Then we looked at each other and repeated; “Nobody does anything like that”. And Girl Genius as we know it was born.  Now, I had a number of other projects I wanted to finish up first, and we had WotC money coming in, so we were in no rush. We worked on the script for 6 years before the first issue came out. A lot of comic projects start because someone comes up with a great, fresh idea, and they just launch into it. Then, after a while, they realize they have no idea where to go with it. We were determined not to do that, and worked out the beginning, middle, and end. We’ve managed to do it for so long because we still enjoy it, and enough readers like it that we can continue to make a living off of it.

13. Are there any other projects you're currently working on or will be working on in the future that you'd like to share with us?

Girl Genius continues to be our main project. I’ve got a novel I’m working on, a humorous, horror, detective that lives at an amusement park. We'll see it that goes anywhere.


  1. Great interview! Thanks for doing it. Got an original pencil from GG on my office wall right now. It's one of my prized possessions.

  2. Myth Adventures doesn't get mentioned much these days, but I love Phil's work in it.

  3. Back when Dragon was print and Phil's stuff was in it, that was definitely one of the things I looked forward to every month.

  4. What, didn't ask him about XXXenophile and the CCG they did for it? I mean, it did spawn the Girl Genius card game and all. :)

    Good as Girl Genius is, it's a shame we're unlikely to see more Buck Godot. Gallimaufry in particular remains one of the best comic scifi story arcs every written.

  5. By far, WN? was my fave of the comic series in "The Dragon/Dragon". The one on "minigames" (not miniatures games) was my fave, I think.


  6. Nice interview, and now I'm off to read Girl Genius. It sounds like a character that my daughter might like.