From Games to Comics: First Second's Prince of Persia OGN

Beginning with its 1989 debut on the Apple II, Prince of Persia – the video game series developed by Jordan Mechner – has entertained millions of gamers. Beyond the game’s original incarnation, which spawned two sequel games, the series re-launched by Ubisoft in 2003 as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the beginning of a game trilogy conceived by creator Mechner.

Prince of Persia, however, is now reaching out to even wider audiences than ever before. The POP feature film is currently on schedule for a 2010 release, and earlier this fall, First Second released the first POP graphic novel, scripted by writer A.B. Sina and illustrated by husband/wife tandem LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland.

Jordan Mechner took time from his hectic schedule to answer some questions about the new graphic novel, giving up control of his creation, and the comics that shaped the famed princes’ development. Illustrator Alex Puvilland also shared his experience working on the book.

Jordan Mechner

Newsarama: Jordan, how involved with crafting the story of the graphic novel were you?

Jordan Mechner: I worked closely with the writer, A.B. Sina, but it is really his story. In our first conversation I encouraged him to feel free to get far away from the games and to come up with a completely original story, and that’s what he did. As the project developed, I gave feedback, suggestions to tighten it up and so forth, but the characters and story are his creation.

NRAMA: How does the book relate to the games?

JM: The book contains many of the same themes and story elements as the games, but reconfigured into a different shape. The prince in the games is idealized – he’s the classic mold of a Hollywood action hero. Whereas the book is about not one, but several princes – ordinary people who have this heroic expectation put upon them, that they will fulfill the role, this legend of a prince that in reality doesn’t exist.

NRAMA: Who selected the artists for the book, and what’s your impression of the final artwork now?

JM: Mark Siegel has an amazing eye for talent, and suggested LeUyen Pham, who brought in her husband Alex Puvilland. LeUyen is a brilliant children’s book author/illustrator, she and Alex are both former Dreamworks animators, and POP is their first graphic novel. We’re actually working together again on a new book, which should give you an idea of how much I love collaborating with them. They hit their stride on POP and they just keep getting better and better. These are really challenging books to do, with everything from vast landscapes and crowded city scenes, to these intimate character beats. They can do epic and subtle at the same time, the characters are specific and human, and the work is solidly grounded in deep historical research. The research doesn’t distract you from the story; what you see is the tip of the iceberg. They’re phenomenal.

NRAMA: Is it difficult to read a Prince of Persia script by another writer and judge it fairly, Jordan?

JM: Doing what I do, moving between games, graphic novels and screenwriting, requires a fairly flexible attitude towards authorship. The last Prince of Persia title that was “mine,” in the sense that a graphic novel author can write, draw and color every panel of a book, was the original Apple II game published in 1989. From the moment that other people are involved and bringing their creative talents – programming, art, writing, sound, acting – it’s a collaborative effort. On Sands of Time, I wrote the script and worked closely with the team at Ubisoft on every aspect of the game. Whereas the last few games, I haven’t been involved in, except in the sense that Sands of Time laid a creative foundation that the subsequent games built on. With the graphic novel, I made the deliberate choice not to write the script myself, but to find a really talented writer who would write something very different from anything I would or could have written myself. In this situation I have no problem letting go and enjoying what others have created within the POP universe.

NRAMA: After two decades as a game character, you must be very excited to see your prince achieving new successes, with this book and a movie in production. If the first book is a success, are you interested in continuing to develop the franchise in comics?

JM: Prince of Persia is about to go through a major transition. After twenty years of being a computer game and the past five years with Ubisoft, it’s about to become a major Disney movie franchise. I’m excited and, honestly, in a lot of ways I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it.

If there are future POP books or graphic novels they will likely be tied in to the movies and be part of the Disney Prince of Persia canon. Whereas with First Second, we had this one window that gave us a unique opportunity to do something completely different and original. We knew this chance would never come again. I wanted to use that window not just to retell the story of this year’s game, but to create something timeless, that you could look at five or ten years from now and not feel that subsequent movies or games had outdated it. First Second was the perfect partner for that because they don’t do commercial tie-ins. They publish original books that stand on their own merits and stand the test of time.

NRAMA: You mention in the book’s afterword that you were a comic fan. What books were your favorites?

JM: As a kid growing up in the 1970s I loved Marvel comics, MAD magazine, and National Lampoon—Gahan Wilson, Vaughn Bodé, Cheech Wizard. Of the European comics all I knew were Asterix and Tintin. Later, in my 20s, I lived in Paris and discovered this whole world of amazing European authors that I’d never heard of. Hugo Pratt, Francois Schuiten, Enki Bilal – and they’ve really formed my comics tastes to this day, and been a huge influence on my writing as well. These days, I especially enjoy Joann Sfar.

LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland

Newsarama: How did you get involved with illustrating Prince of Persia?

Alex Puvilland: Uyen and I met with Mark Siegel at the very start of First Second, when he was looking for artists to work with. Uyen had published many books by then, including Big Sister, Little Sister, which was done in a brush pen style Mark really liked. A few months after the dinner, Mark asked Uyen if she would be interested in doing some character sketches for Prince of Persia, using that same brush style. She had no experience doing graphic novels but was intrigued. She was then picked from a group of potential illustrators by Jordan Mechner and Mark to do the book.

For the next year, the script for POP went through a lot of changes and rewrites. When it was finally ready to go, Uyen was pregnant and the time she had to do the book was impossibly short.

At that point she asked me to do it with her. And I was very excited to say yes. Mark knew my work and we had been looking for a project to do together for a while, so he also was pretty happy with the arrangement.

NRAMA: The story jumps back and forth between two time periods. How did you approach illustrating the two eras?

AP: We did a lot of research and it was a bit difficult because there are not a lot of artifacts from these specific periods. Most of the more iconic Persian style and famous landmarks were developed much later than in the story. So we took some artistic license to be able to interpret the story, but kept the art and architecture rooted in some historical fact. Our main goal was to avoid the ‘Thousand and One Nights’, middle-east clichés that can be so common in this genre, and to keep it as simple as possible.

As far as separating the two periods, overall the second period’s architecture and fashion is more complicated, the domes are higher, more colorful. The nature-based Persian patterns mix with the more abstract geometric Islamic patterns.

NRAMA: Were you familiar with the games before starting? How, if at all, did the games affect your approach to the artwork?

AP: I had played the game in its first incarnation when I was a teenager but that’s about it. Neither of us knew any of the following versions, so the game did not really influence the way we approached the book. We actually felt that was kind of the point, to be able to have our own vision without being influenced too much by what had been done. This was definitely something that both Mark and Jordan had wanted. The graphic novel being its own thing and not a tie-in to the games, we worked with everybody to develop a style which worked for the story and which was streamlined enough to allow us to finish the book in time.

NRAMA: What was the breakdown of labor in your artistic collaboration?

AP: We did everything together. Out of the 186 pages of the book, neither of us can claim entirely more than one or two pages. We collaborated at each level passing drawings back and forth at different stages.

NRAMA: You both have fairly diverse backgrounds as illustrators and animators. What drew you to this book as something you not only wanted to draw, but wanted to work together on?

AP: I work only part time for Dreamworks Feature Animation. The rest of the time I work on comics. It’s something I have been wanting to do for a while, and POP was a golden occasion I could not pass. Uyen sort of stumbled onto the comic scene, as she has been known in the publishing industry for a while as a very prolific and industrious artist. She’s usually given assignments that most other artists aren’t able to take due to the crazy deadline. For this particular project, which had a very tight turnaround point (at the time the book was supposed to coincide with the release of the movie), her reputation as a deadline-maker definitely made her attractive to Mark as a candidate. Despite the enormity of the project, Uyen considered doing it anyway, as she is never able to back down from a challenge. When Uyen finally got the manuscript for the book and was set to work on it by herself, we quickly realized it was going to be an awkward situation for both of us. She was getting this great book that I would have loved to work on but could not because it had been offered to her, not to me.

As I was trying to make my peace with that, she asked me if I would do it with her, as the deadline for the book was roughly two weeks before her due date of our baby, and she was already in her third month of pregnancy. I was hesitant at first, fearing it was going to take its toll on our relationship. We did fight from time to time but overall it turned out to be a very fruitful collaboration, drawing on our individual strengths as artists. In addition, it turned out to be good testing grounds for our role as parents, as we definitely learned to communicate with each other better.

Personally, I liked the story and the setting. The whole thing had a very different flavor being so infused with Iranian mythology.

NRAMA: How much did you work with creator Jordan Mechner and writer A.B. Sina when shaping the world of Prince of Persia?

AP: We did the book really fast. So we did get a lot of comments from Jordan and AB Sina at the beginning when we produced the first pages. After that, they were pretty much hands off and gave us the necessary space and trust to do our work.

We would e-mail AB Sina from time to time to ask specific questions about the story, and Jordan usually had small additional comments. In the end, we were churning out work so quickly that it was hard for anybody to be able to give much feedback.

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