Starting out as a webcomic created by Mike Maihack, Cleopatra in Space is now taking on the publishing industry. “David Saylor, the creative director at Graphix, contacted me shortly after seeing my self-published collections at San Diego Comic-Con back in 2011, inquiring if I had any interest in creating new material for the title at Graphix. It was kind of a no-brainer decision for me since I already had an origin story for Cleo brewing in my head and was a huge fan of most, if not all, of the titles Graphix had already published. Plus the opportunity to introduce Cleo to more kids than I ever would have been able to do on my own was a huge draw.” When asked what led him to put the notorious princess in outer space, Maihack answers, “I’ve always loved stories where a character is thrown out of their world and tossed into another. Cleopatra is already such a famous figure from history that it made tossing her into an unfamiliar environment all the more fun. Combining elements of what history tells us of Cleopatra with this retro, sci-fi environment I’ve surrounded her in is partly what I hope makes the comic an enjoyable read. I’m treading a lot of similar sci-fi territory, but using Egyptian mythology to visualize it in a – hopefully – new and exciting way.”
“It still contains all the ridiculous humour and banter that makes up most of my work and the art style is much the same,” observes Mike Maihack. “I suppose the story is more action oriented which is a touch outside my comfort zone since I’ve tended to draw more ‘talking heads’ comics in the past. But I’m having a blast with it and of course there’s the historical element. I’ve had to do a lot more research than I’m used to in order to stay true to not only who Cleopatra was but also so I can add recognizable elements to this new chapter of her life in outer space.” The Tampa Bay, Florida-based illustrator notes, “Cleo is the hero of the story, so she needed to have flawed traits – or at least real human problems that we can all relate to – but be able to overcome those issues through noble actions [which should never be a fast process if you want the character to remain interesting]. It’ll take a few books before Cleo comfortably attaches herself to the label of ‘hero.’” Maihack shares a common love for cats with his protagonist who is accompanied by a trusted feline cohort. “Well, I wouldn’t necessarily call him a sidekick. Haha. He’s more of Cleo’s mentor, failing miserably at making sure she doesn’t get in too much trouble. He’s also a devout believer in Cleo’s destiny, which is good for keeping the story on track, since Cleo is much less so. Also, cats are the best companions, but they do kind of assert themselves as being in charge. I don’t think Cleo and Khensu’s relationship is too far removed from how things are in real life.”
“My process gets easier for each subsequent stage,” explains Mike Maihack. “Writing tends to be the toughest stage, next the drawing, then the inking, and finally the colouring. Of course, each of them have their moments where I’d rather be doing any of the other three, but the important thing is to set weekly goals for myself and stick to them no matter what. Otherwise, the various distractions in my life could result in the book not making its publication date and that wouldn’t be good! Plus, I’m not solely responsible for all of it. Cleopatra in Space wouldn’t be nearly what it is without the invaluable input I receive from David and my editor at Graphix.” Critical is devising an effective page layout. “It would depend on what was happening in the story but I did make an effort to make sure every page had at least a semi-interesting layout to it without affecting readability. In other words, I don’t want to arrange the layouts in a way so unusual the reader wouldn’t know where to set their eyes next, but still wanted to keep the pages visually interesting. A full-bleed panel here. An overlapping panel there. Nothing too extreme. I took a lot more liberties during action sequences, often because I didn’t have much dialog to worry about. In the end the layouts just needed to convey the same level of energy, excitement, or emotion the characters were feeling.”
“Every environment needed its own colour scheme to keeps things distinguishable,” states Mike Maihack. “Ancient Egypt is full of earth tones while planet Mayet is inhabited with teal buildings, pink lights, and other colours that contrast the environment Cleo was used to. Likewise, certain colours evoke certain emotions with red generally giving off a feeling of danger. During the last major action sequence where Cleo and Khensu find themselves trapped in a room and forced to fend off an army of mummies, the entire scene is only coloured in red tones. I originally wanted the future world Cleo inhabits to be even brighter and chromatic than I depicted it, but I toned this down a bit in the first book for story purposes. I knew there were some things coming up in Book 2 that benefited from being brighter when compared to Book 1, so Book 2 will end up being the more colourful of the two.”
There is no trick required when incorporating successful character narration. “Just stay true to your characters and don’t have them act in a manner that doesn’t feel comfortable for them. Or, if they do act against their behaviour, make sure there’s a really good story reason behind it! There needs to be an evolution to how they grow. People – well, most, at any rate – don’t change overnight, and the characters you’re creating need to be as real to you as family members. Cleo is going to react differently in Book 1 then she is in, say, Book 5, but only because of the events that have transpired in Books 2, 3, and 4. To give an example, I easily could have written Cleo as a ‘girl out of time,’ fussing about with future technology in a similar way to how the writers of the current Sleepy Hollow [Fox, 2013 to present] series write Ichabod Crane. There’s a little of that, but because she has such adaptable capabilities it wouldn’t be in keeping with her character – and in truth, would start to feel a little artificial. It’s much more real and interesting, for me at least, to focus on her uneasiness with being stuck in one place or forced into a box. There are many more story possibilities for that and Cleo is able to tell me exactly which direction she needs to go in order to grow as a character. I’ve often said in the past how I don’t write characters, I let the characters write themselves, which is as true for CiS as any other comic I’ve done.”
In regards to creating memorable character introductions, Mike Maihack states, “I suppose you don’t want your readers to forget who your characters are. Haha. At the very least [unless there’s a specific reason why not to] make sure readers know what to call your characters right from the start. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own stories – and I’ve been guilty of this – we forget to have our characters say their names. I’ve also always thought the way you introduce a character should somewhat foreshadow where they end up [although I don’t always heed this rule].” One of the toughest creative challenges is incorporating exposition without slowing down the plot. “For me, I always have my characters doing something – even if it’s just moving from one side of a room to the other; that at least keeps any exposition visually interesting. If the exposition doesn’t move anything forward, it likely isn’t necessary; that doesn’t mean it needs to be plot driven. Often times, exposition’s sole purpose is simply to add something new or more to your characters’ motivations. I actually struggled with this a bit in writing Book 2 because there is an extra amount of exposition in it [compared to Book 1], but hopefully all the characters came out stronger for it in the end.”
Stories with emotional impact have elements of drama, romance, humour and action. “I wouldn’t say you necessarily need romance,” remarks Mike Maihack. “‘Relationships’ is probably a more accurate term. The need for action depends on the material. But, for the type of story I’m writing, yeah I’d say those four elements are important. And again, if you stay true to your characters, the right mix will present itself. I tend to look at my stories as a song: building relationships in verse, an action scene the bridge before a dramatic chorus, and humour the melody that ties the whole narrative together. If something doesn’t sound right, it needs to be reworked.” Comic book covers should not be misleading. “It should convey, as concisely as possible, what to expect from the pages beyond it. Nothing annoys me more – and current comics are bad at this – than a cover that has nothing to do with what’s inside. Sometimes there are characters on the cover who aren’t even in the issue! But as far as designing goes, I tend to sway toward simple, bold shapes because I feel they stand out among the ocean of ultra-detailed or photographic covers out there. The more controlled the composition is, whether by the use of negative space or colour, the more likely I am to pick it up and take a look. Hopefully the main character of the book is on there too.”
“When I initially created Cleopatra in Space it was just a single pin-up image with no plans of ever turning it into a comic,” reveals Mike Maihack. “Once I did start the comic, I still didn’t have any major plans for the series so I made it up as I went. It wasn’t until about 20 pages into the webcomic that I started thinking about where I wanted to take the character and where she came from. Fortunately, Cleo’s snarky personality was pretty much intact from page one and since I never envisioned her as anyone other than the actual Cleopatra from Ancient Egypt, I already had two wonderful traits I could begin expanding a series on. Placing Cleo in a school setting – where those facets of her character could really come into conflict – is where everything started to come together.”
Does Mike Maihack have a favourite scene? “I do! But it’s not till Book 3, which I haven’t drawn yet. There’s a sequence in Book 2 that I love, but can’t talk about. There is a page right at the beginning of Target Practice where a few aliens suddenly become a wave of a few hundred aliens that are almost crashing down on Cleo as she’s shooting her ray gun into them. I love that absurd, larger than life stuff that only works in comics.” Cleopatra in Space will continue to evolve as a series. “I’ve outlined three major story arcs that would take Cleo through nine books total. The actions in each arc result in Cleo coming out a much different character and that much closer to fulfilling her destiny. Hopefully by the end she’s the type of hero that inspires other artists to create their own stories.”
Images courtesy of Mike Maihack.
Many thanks to Mike Maihack for taking the time for this interview.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.