By Jordan Mechner, A.B. Sina, LeUyen Pham, Alex Puvilland, Hilary Sycamore
When First Second published a graphic novel adaptation of The Prince of Persia back in 2008, I didn't give it much attention. The original video game, like many other games, had only a skeleton of a story from which to hang its 2D action scenes. The player spends virtually all of the alloted time scampering around an impossibly large, maze-like, palatial interior while dueling haphazardly stationed guards, and avoiding booby traps. Even the graphic novel's original cover, dominated by a robust-looking running figure, gave the not-quite correct impression that it was a heroic action-adventure in the spirit of the original material. I'm unfamiliar with subsequent versions of the franchise, but the narrative contained within the comic is complex, deliberate, and not quite as swashbuckling as its video game origins would suggest.
The video game's creator Jordan Mechner seems to have limited his creative involvement to approving the efforts of writer A.B. Sina, and collaborating artists LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland. This wife and husband team draw in a wonderfully expressive style that' seems more influenced by Euro-comics, children's book illustration, and animation. Rather than the overwrought figures found in mainstream fantasy illustration and used to package the games themselves, the graphic novel's characters posses an easily approachable, down-to-earth charm. The art's simplicity offsets the intricacies of a plot that jumps back and forth between two time periods separated by 400 years, each with its own set of characters. Both are tied together by themes like the power of legend, the circularity of history, and the immutability of human nature. Oftentimes the four alchemical elements are used to reinforce them. That's quite a lot to hang on what's basically a dashing tale about heroes battling the machinations of would-be tyrants.
Pham and Puvilland eschew the more obvious devices that could have been used to delineate the two periods. They aren't drawn in contrasting graphic styles. They don't use clear chapter or page breaks to announce the shift in setting. The settings themselves look and feel very similar despite the centuries separating them. The transitions take place between adjacent panels and are only noticeable through small alterations in their details. The layout is also fairly conservative, favoring three to four tiered pages, with single-page panels to punctuate key moments. This makes the shift between the 9th and 13th centuries so seamless as to be almost unnoticeable. A rushed reading of the book will inevitably lead to a great deal of confusion. Colorist Hilary Sycamore paints the later period in more subdued hues using a blue-pink palette, and the earlier period with more saturated colors predominated by reds and oranges. This only partially helps the reader. As the story develops, the two periods begin to resemble each other more and more, especially in the later parts of the book when a prophecy explicitly connects the two casts of characters to each other.
Fans who come to the graphic novel expecting it to be more like the video game or the more recent movie adaptation might come away from it disappointed. In trying to balance the lighthearted romance of the original concept with the scope of its own ambitions, it never achieves the status of an epic. Still, this is far more rewarding than I would have expected from most media tie-ins. If nothing else, I'm looking forward to Pham and Puvilland's next comic book project.