“All the bazaar men by the Nile, they got the money on a bet; gold crocodiles they snap their teeth on your cigarette”
Prior to reading this book, I had read two Igor Baranko comics in my life (which is handy, as he had only done two long-form comics in his life, along with some shorter stuff), Jihad and Shamanism. Jihad was excellent, while Shamanism was a bit of a mess, but Baranko is a tremendous artist and even though it wasn’t great, his second book was still compelling, so I had no qualms about picking up his third book, The Egyptian Princesses, which comes to us from Humanoids and costs a mere 20 dollars (it’s a solid 242 pages). It’s better than Shamanism but not quite as good as Jihad, but that still means it’s a fine comic!
Baranko takes us to the reign of Ramses III (1186-1155 BCE), but it’s a slightly different reality than ours. Herakles, for instance, makes an appearance, and magic is not exactly common but not impossible, either. Baranko tells the story of Titi-Nefer Sehmetiketh and Kiki-Nefer Bastimerith (luckily, those shorten easily to Titi and Kiki), two of the pharaoh’s favorite daughters, who have been living out in a remote town but are being taken back to Thebes, the capital (Baranko uses different, and I assume the old Egyptian names, for the places, but it’s Thebes), when the woman entrusted with taking them back betrays them and attempts to kill them. They escape, and then their adventures begin!
This is a big, meaty book, as Baranko doesn’t really stick to one main plot. The woman who plans to kill the princesses sends her husband after them and then disappears from the comic for a long time, showing up much later only to tell them that, yeah, she’s no longer interested in killing them and she’s going off to live with her new husband in the desert somewhere. The assassination plot is basically a vehicle to get the princesses to Akhetaten, the “forbidden city” of Akhenaten, who ruled 200 years before the events of the book. Akhenaten was famous for trying to turn Egypt into a monotheistic society, but after his death, the Egyptians reverted to their traditional pantheon and, in the book, Akhenaten is simply referred to as the “great criminal.” Baranko sends the two princesses to Akhetaten in their escape, where they meet an old priest (he’s named Amenhotep like the famous ruler, but luckily the pharaoh isn’t referenced too often in the comic), his student Ptahmoses, who wants Amenhotep to tell him the story of the Moses from the Bible, and Yahmoses (lots of Moseses in this comic!), the husband who was sent to kill the princesses. The princesses split up (Kiki thinks Titi is dead for some time), get back together, and split up again as Baranko moves them through a somewhat complex plot, or rather plots, as he adds lots of threads to the story – Titi and Kiki want to warn their father about the plot against him (of which their deaths are only a part), Ptahmoses wants to know about Akhenaten and the Biblical Moses, Yahmoses wants to escape the curse his wife put on him, Amenhotep wants to find Akhenaten’s body, the pharaoh’s wife is plotting against him to put her son on the throne, but the son says he has no interest in ruling, so who will take over when Ramses dies? We also get the brief appearance of Herakles, a long flashback to the time of Akhenaten where Amenhotep tells Ptahmoses the story of the Biblical Moses, a brief thread about the destruction of the Minoans, and a good old-fashioned plot to destroy the world. Baranko weaves these threads together as well as he can, but there’s still a lot of bumpiness when it comes to moving between them. Because the plot is so heavy, we don’t get to know the characters all that well, either, so while there are some differences between Titi and Kiki (Titi is a bit more mystical than her sister, for instance), we still don’t get to know them that well, so it’s hard to get too invested in either one of their stories. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the book – the clash between science and religion, the notion of myth and how it affects what we think in the present, the way despair can warp even the noblest of souls, the idea of sex as a political act, the way women need to act to get ahead in a fairly patriarchal society (ancient Egypt is presented as still patriarchal, but as with a lot of monarchies, the queens or queen mothers wield a lot of power behind the scenes), and the power of stories and storytelling – and Baranko keeps it all moving nicely, but while Titi and Kiki do quite a bit in the book, they remain enigmas and therefore aren’t as compelling as they could be. Amenhotep, the crazy old priest, is the puppet master, dominating huge chunks of the book, but he’s also not that interesting, so we don’t have a huge stake in his story either. It’s a frustrating book, because it’s very entertaining and even thoughtful, but it lacks a beating human heart too often.
Baranko is a terrific artist, and The Egyptian Princesses is a visual feast. If you’ve ever been to Egypt, you know that the grandeur of the pharaonic era is tinged with sadness because the desert is always encroaching on their monuments. The desert makes everything brown (believe me, I know), but what people always forget about ancient civilizations is that they liked color as much as we did, and while this book is in black and white, we get a sense of the spectacular colors that the Egyptians painted with, as Baranko’s details are so stunning that we can’t help but “see” the colors that would be present. Every wall is covered with hieroglyphs, telling marvelous stories about the gods and Egypt’s past. The people wear leopard skins and fine fabrics, with elaborate wigs and headdresses, so we get a good sense of a civilization still at its height, but with decadence coming soon (Ramses III is regarded as the last effective monarch of the New Kingdom, the final native Golden Age of Egypt). Baranko also draws the ruins well, showing the way Egypt was ancient even 3000 years ago, adding weight to Amenhotep’s stories of Akhenaten and Moses and Crete. Baranko’s art is a bit stylized, so his people are a bit exaggerated, but they all are, so his delicate princesses don’t look out of place among the severe matriarchs plotting against Ramses or the overly plump ruler himself. There’s a lot of nudity in this book, and I have no idea if the ancient Egyptians were quite so cavalier about it, but Baranko doesn’t play favorites – the princesses are naked a lot, but poor Herakles spends his entire brief time in the book with no clothes on. Baranko stages action scenes quite well, as there’s a terrific kinetic feeling to the fights, from the ambush early on to when Herakles escapes his prison and wipes out a bunch of priests. He draws natural disasters well, too, so we get a good sense of Knossos being drowned and the Red Sea returning to its natural state after Moses is done with it. He uses stippling, hatching, and spot blacks very well to add texture and nuance to the panels, so the characters are more fully realized through the artwork than the writing. It is an absolutely beautiful comic, which makes it interesting even if the writing doesn’t quite hold up.
Baranko is a major talent, and while he still needs to work on his writing (as always with most Humanoids comics, I should point out that this has been translated, by Quinn and Katia Donoghue, so who knows if that has anything to do with it), The Egyptian Princesses certainly entertains. It’s a fascinating and gorgeous book, and there’s nothing wrong with that!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
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