Jordan Mechner on "Prince of Persia"

To say that Jordan Mechner is pretty busy these days is an understatement.

While many fans know of the writer, artist and director's involvement as an Executive Producer and writer on the Jake Gyllenhaal-starring "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" movie - the long-awaited adaption of the video game series Mechner created in 1989 - Mechner also has a hand in almost all the big media expansions of the "Persia" world on the horizon from Ubisoft's new "Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands" video game (set to ship on May 18) to a whole string of comics and graphic novels penned by the man himself.

Already on the shelves of book stores and comics shops is Disney Press' "Prince of Persia: Before The Sandstorm" graphic novel, featuring art by the likes of Bernard Chang, Tommy Lee Edwards, Tom Fowler, Niko Henrichon, David Lopez and Cameron Stewart with a cover by Todd McFarlane. That anthology prelude to the film will also be released as a four-issue miniseries from Dynamite in June. And aside from rereleasing their 2007 "Prince of Persia: The Graphic Novel," publisher First Second Books has teamed with Mechner for his first original graphic novel project, "Solomon's Thieves," which hits May 11.

"To go from moving pixels around on an Apple II screen and trying to make it look like someone running and jumping to seeing Jake Gyllenhaal in the best shape of his life running around a cast of thousands in the deserts of Morocco, it was pretty mind-boggling," Mechner told CBR of where his career has taken him. "To have graphic novels and Legos and action figures designed by Todd McFarlane... it's all pretty cool."

In this in-depth interview, Jordan Mechner opens up about his history with comics and gaming, how so many projects came together at once, and why both "Before The Sandstorm" and "Solomon's Thieves" should appeal to old school "Prince of Persia" fans and newbies alike.

CBR: Jordan, as a lot of people know, you created and designed the original "Prince of Persia" game in 1989 and since then have kept a lot of the rights and control over the property yourself. What gave you the foresight to keep rights to yourself and have that final say with what happens with the property?

JORDAN MECHNER: It's interesting. I think there's a little bit of a misconception [with how everything's been created.] The reality is that the very first "Prince of Persia" game that I did on the Apple II was the last one that was basically a one-man creation. Everything that's been "Prince of Persia" since has been through collaboration, and there's literally thousands of people who have worked on "Prince of Persia" games, books, movies and toys. The one's that I've personally been involved in have had lots of input. There are many, many aspects of the "Prince of Persia" world that I haven't been involved in. For me, the ones I've written or designed and that are the ones I feel some degree of creative ownership of are the first two games, "Sands of Time," the movie and the graphic novels. Everything else - I think it's great, but I can't take credit for it. I have nothing to do with making the Legos or some of the other games. Those were other people's creative talents.

Though as the property owner, you get to choose the creative talent that works on a lot of this. Do you like to meet with and discuss the property with the people who work on products you're not directly involved in?

Well, certainly I think choosing Ubisoft, Disney and First Second as partners, I've been incredibly lucky to have them. And thanks to their efforts, "Prince of Persia" has become so much more and so much bigger than it was back in the days when it was an 8-bit Apple II game. [laughs] But it's not realistic to think that one individual can have creative control over something that giant movie studios and game studios are going to be pouring huge amounts of money into. My impact on the "Prince of Persia" works I've been involved in have been through my efforts as a writer, artist and game designer.

I think what's unusual about the way "Prince of Persia" has developed is that I personally have a passion for all three of these separate art forms: screenwriting, game design and graphic novels. Each of them is a separate craft and requires a separate apprenticeship. So I think what's unique is that I've been able to work in all three fields - not that I was supervising others, but that I got my hands in up to the elbows on those projects myself.

Let's talk about the comics/graphic novel space for you. People have known you for so long as the game designer, but were you a comics reader and interested in comics since when you were younger?

I loved comics as a kid before video games were even invented. For years, I dreamed of becoming a comics writer or illustrator, and then the Apple II came along when I was in high school. That really absorbed my creative energy for years. So it's been really great and satisfying that thanks to "Prince of Persia" I was able to get back into comics and actually realize an old dream of working in the form.

Take me back to the first comics project you did. While a lot of the new stuff is connected to the movie, you and First Second did "Prince of Persia: The Graphic Novel" in 2008. How did that first project come about?

It's funny how it started, and that is what started it all. [First Second Editorial Director] Mark Siegel e-mailed me, and he didn't know that there was a movie in the works. He didn't even know about the new generation of Ubisoft video games. Mark contacted me because he remembered the old school side-scrolling "Prince of Persia" game, which you played on a black and white Mac in the '90s. He asked if I'd ever considered turning that into a graphic novel, and it just so happened that there was a window there for us to do a "Prince of Persia" book that was not tied into the games or the movie but was really the chance to approach "Prince of Persia" in a fresh way.

That was that first First Second book that LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland drew from a script by A.B. Sina, who's a brilliant Iranian poet who put his own stamp on the "Prince of Persia" world that's very different than the games or the movies or anything I would have done -- which is exactly what I'd hoped for and encouraged him to do. That process - helping to guide that creation of a graphic novel - really awakened in me the desire to do one myself. And of course, I was super excited that LeUyen and Alex agreed to do "Solomon's Thieves," which is my first original graphic novel and the first time I've done something first as a graphic novel that didn't begin as a video game or a movie.

Knowing your past, it seems one of your core storytelling interests is history but history also married with that kind of classic adventure fiction. Is that what "Solomon's Thieves" grew out of?

"Solomon's Thieves" is set in the period of the Knights Templar in France in the 14th Century. I've been fascinated by the Templars for many years, and this was a story I came across while doing research for "Prince of Persia." You can't read about the Crusades without the Templars being mentioned. For many years, I thought this story was fascinating, but I didn't really see how to do it as a movie or a book. Then it really clicked was when I thought to do it in the spirit of Alexander Dumas, one of my favorite writers - something that would be, like "Prince of Persia," a fun swashbuckling adventure that would also be set against a real historical event. It's very rooted in history and I think also very relevant to the modern day.

With the big backdrop and tone and historical context in place, who's the character you're using to bring the reader into things in a way that makes it all flow together?

"Solomon's Thieves" is really told from the point of view of two knights who come back from the Templar Crusades to find that the world has changed. Like returning veterans of any unpopular war, they have trouble fitting into society. In this case, they arrive in Paris just in time for the entire order of Knights Templar - hundreds of knights in the rank and file up to the grand master himself - to be arrested in a single morning and hauled before the Inquisition on charges of blasphemy and heresy. This is an actual historical event - the overnight destruction of what had been one of the most powerful military religious organizations in Europe. And so the fun of the book is to see these great, sweeping historical events - the conflict between the church and the king and all of it - from the point of view of the small fry, the small fish who slipped between the cracks. They don't necessarily understand what's going on, but we deeply sympathize with their plight because these are guys who joined up to be heroes.

The Knights Templar were like the Japanese Samurai or the Jedi Knights of their time. They represented an ideal. They weren't just the best fighters - though the Templars considered it even odds when they were outnumbered ten to one - but they were the best, noblest knights. They were above material gain at a time when normal knights just fought for plunder. As boys, they dreamed of growing up to be Knights Templar. The red cross on white was a very potent symbol in the Medieval Age, so that's why their fall was so shocking, and the plight of these knights as ordinary enlisted men was something I felt modern audiences could connect with and empathize with.

Visually, their take on "Prince of Persia" in that first graphic novel had art that felt like old maps or tapestries with a very intentionally flat feel. "Solomon's Thieves" looks much more cinematic in its presentation. Did you have a specific idea for the visual identity of this book?

One of the great things about working on "Solomon's Thieves" with LeUyen and Alex was that they were amazing collaborators. We were able to spend a lot of time on it and go back and forth. I would give them a draft of the script, and they would thumbnail it while at the same time giving me notes on the script. Then I would redraft the script, and they'd change the thumbnails based on our discussions. We were really able to sink our teeth into it in a way that writers and artists don't often have the luxury to do in graphic novels.

And in fact, "Solomon's Thieves" was conceived as a trilogy. So what's being published next month is Book 1, but it's been designed as a complete story.

There are different ways a project like "Before The Sandstorm" is built, as opposed to "Solomon's Thieves," because you have all the "Prince of Persia" material for years before and the movie specifically coming to bear on how this Disney graphic novel will play out. Though, overall it feels like the project fits most into the mold of the "Arabian Nights" tales and Scheherazade as that's an idea so many people are familiar with in terms of the setting and the anthology feel.

Well, of course, the tales of the "Arabian Nights" are the original source material that inspired "Prince of Persia" in the first place. But for this book, what I was really intrigued by was the challenge of an anthology book where you'd have six different artists interpreting this world with his own unique style, yet how do you do that and make it one unified, book-length story rather than six separate chapters? My solution to that was to go back to the "Arabian Nights" structure where you have stories within stories within stories. That's why I constructed the book as five tales narrated by five characters held within a frame story drawn by the sixth artist. The style was different in each story because each character is describing the world as he or she sees it.

Did you have specific art styles and tones that you wanted to match with each character? For example, it feels like the Sheikh Amar tale drawn by Bernard Chang, while it is an adventure story, needed a certain comedic flair.

With all the artists who worked on "Before The Sandstorm," it was my first time working with them, so this was a fun process of discovery. I didn't really know how they were going to do it until I saw it. And yes, Sheikh Amar definitely has that strong comedic aspect to his personality, and that's present in the movie as well. One fun thing about that chapter is that in the movie, Amar is played by Alfred Molina, who you remember from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" - "Throw me the idol, I'll throw you the whip!"[laughs] And that was the sequence more than any other that I really drew on in making the first side-scrolling "Prince of Persia" game back in 1989. A lot of the original elements from the game -- like the gates with the spikes and having to slowly pull yourself up on a ledge -- came out of that sequence. So in "Before The Sandstorm," there's a lot of side jokes that Bernard and I put into it that weren't just introducing Sheikh Amar's character for the movie, but also looking back with tongue-in-cheek at the story of the original "Prince of Persia" game from 20 years ago.

Over the course of the book, those tones change. Niko Henrichon has a very lavish, painterly style in his chapter, where later Tommy Lee Edwards has a kind of photo-surrealist quality to what he does. Like with "Solomon's Thieves," did you look at some of the art coming in and change anything up about the whole project to synch those elements up some?

Isn't Tommy Lee's chapter fantastic? When I saw the first pages, I was blown away. I didn't know he was going to do it like that. It's really spectacular. But in this case as compared to "Solomon's Thieves," "Before The Sandstorm" went much quicker. The chapters went to the artists, and they drew it. In some cases, what was laid out in the page necessitated a change or shortening in terms of the length, but basically we didn't have the luxury of a year to go back and forth.

And the whole project is wrapped up in a Todd McFarlane cover. Was it hard to find an image for the front that helped get the whole story across, considering the different styles inside?

Well, Todd really came up with an iconic image that's completely over-the-top yet somehow encapsulates what "Prince of Persia" is all about. Just look at all those swords! [laughs]

Disney is releasing the graphic novel version of "Before The Sandstorm" and then Dynamite will release the material in single-issue format. Where did that plan come from?

You know, I don't know what the thinking was behind doing it that way. [laughs] It really is an unusual way of doing it, isn't it? Some people might prefer to have it as a single-issue comic rather than as one book. Who knows?

With the movie coming out and I'm assuming there are more game projects on your plate, but what do you see as your future with comics?

The rhythm of filmmaking is so special, as is the rhythm of video games, and both are so different from making comics. I feel that being able to do all three and switch from one project to another really helps keep me sane. To go from a giant movie - where it takes seven years and you've got thousands of people and the sheer scope of the production and the pressure on everybody is insane - to a small project where it's just me as the writer in one-on-one collaboration with an artist, that's a really nice balance. I hope I don't ever have to give either one up.

"Prince of Persia: Before The Sandstorm" is in stores now as a graphic novel, and will serialize as a four-issue mini from Dynamite Entertainment starting in June. "Solomon's Thieves" hits on May 11 from First Second Books, just before the big screen "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" lands in theaters on May 28.

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