Prince of Persia
written by A.B. Sina and Jordan Mechner
illustrated by LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland
What do graphic tie-ins to non-graphic properties bring to mind? An opportunity to expand upon a given mythos à la Aliens vs. Predator—before it became movie fodder again, that is? Or maybe a quick cash grab by those who care little for comics as an art form but instead see them as one more “channel” for their brand?
Well, it may be time to throw out the ol’ playbook on transmedia franchises when it comes to the nothing-short-of-brilliant Prince of Persia graphic novel. First published in 2008 and then rolled out again in 2010 in time for the Mike Newell film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s so accomplished that frankly it’s irrelevant where it fits into any wider canon. But because it bears a title that connects it to a mega-popular videogame, it’s the kind of work that’s easy to gloss over when perusing the shelves…and that would be a profound shame.
Of course you might pause when you notice the publisher, First Second, and recall the editorial thoughtfulness that it brings to virtually all its titles. That’s probably the first hint that this is not merely a screen saga rendered flat and brittle as it moves onto paper, just one more disposable pop-culture novelty item. Perhaps mitigating against that perception, though, is a quick glance at the bio of artist LeUyen Pham, whose pedigree before several acclaimed children’s books includes a stint at Dreamworks Animation. In other words, does that mean that the artwork is cartoony or juvenile in some way?
Ah, but Prince of Persia’s ability to confound those kind of snap judgments is where the fun starts. Collaborating with her husband, Alex Puvilland, the phenomenally talented Pham has created images—and sequences of images—that stay with one long after the book is set down. To say that comics storytelling is “cinematic” usually means that the artist has a flair for dramatic angles and chiaroscuro lighting techniques. It sometimes, not often enough, refers to the panel-to-panel interplay of images that both move the narrative fluidly in a shot/countershot kind of way and creates its own poetry in the manner of filmic montage…yet that’s what the art in Prince of Persia does, time and again.
The narrative efficiency helps writer A.B. Sina tell an epic story—make that two stories, actually—in a modest span of pages, and it’s a story that well deserves telling. On the one hand, we get Prince Guiv in 13th-century Marv, lying low in a mystical citadel after almost being executed by his brother-in-law Layth. On the other, we get a story that recounts, years later, the resistance against Layth’s successors in the form of an unlikely romance between two teen misfits. How are the two stories connected? Though there is foreshadowing aplenty, especially if one is sensitive to the Moses-like subtext, Sina does a masterful job of structuring things so that each half complements the other and yet feels satisfying in its own right.
So both storylines are juxtaposed not simply to dress up a conventional swords-and-sorcery saga or to keep readers guessing in lieu of compelling dramatic tension—but because it’s only together that they address the concept of legend itself, how it inspires people to create history and not simply recall it, one of the book’s key themes. And for those who care to notice, a connection to graphic novels and comics more broadly, often described as modern vehicles for myth, is made explicit by the text’s inclusion of several artfully illustrated scrolls. Here we get a sense that sequential pictorial narratives, whether told via stained glass windows or hanging tapestries, is a timeless way for civilizations to pass down their most resonant and heroic tales.
Full of passion and horror and flashing steel, Prince of Persia effortlessly blends action and big ideas in a way that’s rare for the adventure genre in any medium. With its haunting treatment of its themes of prophecy and courage in the face of certain doom, it’s a thinking person’s yarn that fears neither narrative complexity nor lopped-off body parts. At turns unabashedly lyrical, coolly aphoristic, and brutally violent, Sina and Pham’s tone and approach manages to capture something of the messy grandeur of true myths and legends, not the kind that are sanitized for mass audiences. Oh, and kudos also are due Hilary Sycamore for the marvelously inventive color palette, all the more surprising given the largely rock-and-desert setting—then again, that’s just one more instance of how Prince of Persia defies expectations.-- Peter Gutiérrez