Cleopatra in Space, written and illustrated by Mike Maihack. 3 vols. New York: Scholastic, 2014-2016.
We have before us a highly entertaining space opera swashbuckler aimed at a younger audience but also suitable for adults.
Author and illustrator Mike Maihack has worked on several different comics projects, including the webcomic Cow and Buffalo. He also produced an earlier webcomic version of the present story under the more facetious title of Cleopatra in SPAAAACE, which he halted abruptly in order to reimagine Cleopatra’s tale as a series of graphic novels, published through Scholastic’s Graphix Imprint. The stories of the graphic novels and webcomic differ in some details and do not overlap.
The series currently stands at four volumes, the fourth having released recently this year. I am here discussing only the first three, which are all I’ve got my hands on so far.
As you can likely guess from the title and cover art, the concept is basically Buck Rogers with an Egyptian veneer. As the story goes, sometime around 54 B.C., the famous Cleopatra VII Philopater, fifteen years old and three years away from taking the throne of Egypt, stumbles upon a mysterious tablet in an abandoned temple. The tablet carries her an unspecified number of years and an unknown number of light years to a distant future and distant galaxy. There, in the Ailuros star system, she encounters humans, aliens, and talking cats who believe her to be the prophesied messiah destined to save civilization from the ravenous Xerx hordes and their dastardly overlord Xaius Octavian.
Like any sensible spacefaring civilization suddenly gifted with its prophesied messiah, they do the obvious thing and … enroll her in school, specifically the Yasiro Academy at Pharaoh Yasiro’s Research and Military Initiative of Defense (P.Y.R.A.M.I.D.), which is sort of like a cross between a high school and a military academy. There, Cleopatra (“Cleo” for short) discovers that she’s a deadeye with a ray gun, so she proceeds to make trouble, fight villains, and recover dangerous ancient artifacts while also hanging out with her bubbly roommate Akila, the tech geek Brian, and the stuffy cat Khensu, who is both her talking animal sidekick and her history professor. Also, she rides a flying motorbike shaped like a sphinx. In space.
The story’s amusing, but it’s best to ignore its claim to have an historical figure for its protagonist. Cleo acts in every way like a modern American teenager, complete with slangy dialogue, and rather than being the fish-out-of-water we might expect, she instantly grasps concepts that should bewilder her and swiftly integrates into the culture. As soon as she arrives in the future, Khensu appears and delivers an infodump that ought to be unintelligible from her perspective (he references “galaxies” and “star systems”), and already in the second chapter, she says, “Light years from my home planet, millennia in the future …” Wait, what’s a light year? And why is she calling the Earth a planet?
Even before that, we are treated to a scene of her back in ancient Egypt, where she has a tutor who is instructing her in—wait for it—algebra. Algebra? What the hell is algebra? History of mathematics isn’t my subject, I admit, but I’m reasonably sure algebra was not a thing, not exactly, in the Greek-speaking world of the first century B.C. Had she been learning geometry, that would make sense, but algebra?
In addition to the glaring anachronisms, Maihack has thrown out what we know, or think we know, about the historical Cleopatra and done his own thing instead. Cleopatra is legendary for her feminine wiles and is supposed to have bathed in milk to keep her skin soft, but Maihack’s “Cleo” is a rough-and-tumble tomboy. The historical Cleopatra had a formidable intellect and is supposed to have spoken nine languages, but “Cleo” hates school and skips most of her classes except combat training. Cleo also, somehow, never lets slip any ancient, heathenish ideas that might shock the people of a family-friendly future civilization: she doesn’t wonder why she has no slaves to dress her in the morning, nor does she ask if she can test poisons on condemned prisoners.
Also, although she’s Greek, Maihack shows her reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. Granted, the real Cleopatra is supposed to have been the first Ptolemy who could do that, but the real Cleopatra was also apparently more interested in educating herself than is Maihack’s version.
Basically, the Cleopatra we meet in Cleopatra in Space is just about the exact opposite of her historical counterpart.
But who cares? This series is a lot of fun. The artwork is good (if not spectacular), with clean lines and expressive faces, and the characters are enjoyable. Cleo may not be a sensitive portrait of a major figure out of history, but she is an endearing heroine with lovable faults and a knack for getting into trouble. The humor is good-natured, if never quite laugh-out-loud funny. Maihack also has a respectable talent for pacing action sequences, though he appears to get his knowledge of fighting largely from Hollywood.
He arguably overdoes it with Cleo’s implausible wire-fu: I find it hard to believe that a fifteen-year-old princess could leap off buildings in her bare feet or punch out a killer mummy-robot with her bare fist, but there are hints that traveling through time imbued her with superpowers, so I’ll leave that criticism aside until I’ve seen more of the story.
As such things often do, the tale starts out weak: as already mentioned, we get a massive infodump at the end of the first chapter, and Cleopatra adapts to life in the future with absurd speed. The second volume, however, improves considerably on the first, and the third volume is even better than that. I’m eager to get my hands on the fourth. It is an action-driven story and a very quick read (I finished these three volumes in a couple of hours).
The worldbuilding is not particularly complex, but there is one interesting idea: the villain Octavian reached his position of formidable power in the galaxy largely by hoarding information and subsequently unleashing an EMP-like weapon that fried most other civilizations’ digital databases, plunging the galaxy into a dark age. Ailuros survived because its pharaoh had the old-fashioned idea of gathering up and storing physical copies of books. This is an intriguing, if exaggerated, reflection on the real question of the stability of digital information.
Although this is a children’s comic coming from Scholastic, Maihack is unafraid to get a little gritty, even killing off or seriously injuring likable characters. Cleopatra in Space has a lot of action violence, some of which comes with real consequences, but it’s restrained enough to remain suitable for children. I find it highly enjoyable, and from what I’ve seen of it so far, I would recommend it for all ages.