Prince of PersiaWritten by AB Sina; Illustrated by LeUyen Pham and Alex PuvillandFirst Second; $7.99
As soon as I got home from seeing Prince of Persia at the theater, I bumped the graphic novel to the top of my review pile. Though the movie got mixed reviews, I enjoyed it with the same enthusiasm I have for old Sinbad flicks. I like swashbuckling in all settings, but there’s something especially fantastic, lush, and mysterious about adventure stories set in ancient Persia.
I was a bit disappointed then to find that First Second’s graphic novel doesn’t follow that tradition. Though inspired by the popular series of adventure video games and overseen by Jordan Mechner, the games’ creator, the Prince of Persia graphic novel is much more thoughtful than swaggering. In his afterword, Mechner explains that this is entirely intentional. “We didn’t want an adaptation of any of the games or the movie,” he writes, “but a new story that would tap into the deep wellspring of Persian myth, legend, and history from whence the prince had risen.” And that’s exactly what they created.
Mechner also writes that “one of [publisher Mark Siegel’s] missions for First Second is to foster European-quality graphic novels in the United States.” That attention to quality and the European sensibility of the artwork are the main reasons I’m so fond of First Second’s books. Flipping through their Fall catalog for this year though, it’s apparent that if their mission was ever limited by European boundaries (I'm thinking of The Lost Colony and Kampung Boy, for instance), it certainly isn’t anymore. Not in subject matter anyway with the Native American story Dawn Land or the Caribbean Zabime Sisters. Certainly not with the Middle Eastern Prince of Persia, whose writer was born in Iran and whose themes are steeped in Eastern ideas of conflict and relationship. That can make Prince of Persia a demanding read for Western audiences. It was for me.
Challenges and rewards, after the break.
It follows two stories, set 400 years apart and connected only by the one’s being history to the other. In the 9th century AD, the leadership of the city of Marv is in turmoil. When the old ruler Saman died, he appointed his son Guiv as his successor, but the caliph in Baghdad – whose forces Saman had overthrown to conquer Marv – had other ideas and proclaimed a man named Layth as ruler. Layth was the son of the caliph’s commander who had given his life protecting Marv from Saman, but Saman had adopted Layth and raised him with his own children: Guiv and his twin sister Guilan.
If that sounds confusing, it is. It’s even more confusing when it’s revealed in scattered flashbacks, many of which are told as history from the perspective of the second storyline. I had to flip back and re-read some sections multiple times to make sure I had it all straight.
As the graphic novel begins, Layth has married Guilan and is about to execute Guiv, whom he sees as a rival. Guilan intervenes however by threatening to kill herself and Layth’s unborn child if the execution proceeds. Layth relents, against the wishes of the caliph and the new commander of his military presence in Marv. When Guiv leaves the city, the story follows him in his quest for purpose, but it also tracks Layth and Guilan as they struggle to rule Marv and hold off a take-over by the caliph’s men.
The second story takes place in the 13th century AD when Marv is ruled by a corrupt, self-indulgent government that’s allowing its people to die from lack of water. Shirin is the young daughter of the ruler, but she hates the corruption and runs away to the desert to join a band of rebels. She misses her meeting though and ends up in the ruins of a major location from Guiv’s tale. There she meets a possibly insane young man who’s living in the ruins for mysterious reasons and keeps referring to Shirin as “Guilan.”
But as challenging as Prince of Persia can be, sticking with it is a rewarding experience. There aren’t any easy, visual cheats to differentiate between the two time periods. I’m thinking of things I’ve seen in other comics: differing color palettes, shapes of panels, types of lettering, etc. Though we occasionally have adjacent panels showing a 9th century structure and its 13th century ruin, the main clues that the reader has switched times in Prince of Persia are thanks to LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland’s ability to differentiate characters through a wide variety of faces, body types, and costumes. That means that readers have to do more work in keeping up with the time-jumps, but it’s not that hard and it pays off in making time a very fluid thing.
In addition to the history (or are they memories?) shared by Shirin’s friend, time is further blurred by a talking peacock that befriends Guiv and expands his knowledge of both the past and the future. Though we’re reading two stories, we’re meant to understand them as one and draw the same lesson from them both. It’s a lesson I’ll leave unrevealed, but it’s one that resonated with me and left me satisfied, in no small part because of the work I invested in arriving at it.
But though Prince of Persia paid off, it still left me wanting some great, Middle Eastern swashbuckling. Fortunately, most of the creators from this volume got together for another book, First Second’s Solomon’s Thieves, which I hope will let me be more lazy. It just got bumped to the top of the review pile.
Four out of five lion-princes.