"There are many ends before the end, Yahhhr. What you see is little somethings of future."

Prince of Persia

I can't recall when I first played a Jordan Mechner computer game; it was probably on a video game console, actually, since my old Tandy 1000 was never much good for play. I'd never really known what a game designer did back then - all the games I'd liked in the '80s seemed to come from Japan, and half their credits were laid out in the jaunty patois of NES coding, like excerpts from an especially frivolous medieval epic presenting the lineage of cartridge kings in a forgotten tongue: The Opus of Yuki's Papa. Games might as well have dropped from the sun, so downplayed was the human element in that new and risen morning.

Eventually, I got a clue. It's possible I first ran into some variation of Mechner's 1984 professional debut, Karateka, which remains striking in its attention to character animation and its holistic, cinematic grasp of the playfield, a left-to-right plane with you on the left, the villains on the right, and the viewpoint occasionally wiping or cutting from one point (your play) to another (programmed enemy activities) in order to create suspense, or maybe just a sense of life.

Indeed, it was perhaps one of the first games to use non-interactive graphics in the middle of play as a means of substantively suggesting the possibility of life away from the player's viewpoint, and thus foster a greater desire to explore a teeming virtual world (er, however much you can 'explore' a rigid left-to-right map). All of its primeval cut scenes are 'in-game,' every location you see can eventually be visited, and every character you glimpse can ultimately kick your ass. It was a hard game, even sporting an infamous alternate ending wherein the lady love you're striding to rescue cracks your neck with her foot if you're so rude as to approach the romantic finale in your combat stance. I always liked that better than the heroic end, although I guess it begs the question as to why the girl needed to be rescued in the first place.

But it was 1989's Prince of Persia that cemented Mechner's reputation. You're a young man in a dungeon, and you've got to amble and hustle and leap to make your way up, down and around each level map, all of which are 'levels' in a palace you're invading so as to (again) save a lady love from some fuckwit. The new division of 'levels' was glued with time; you have an hour (as in an actual, at-your-chair realtime hour) to save the day, effectively replacing the spatial with the temporal as the game's primary means of evoking a wider, fantastical life.

Funny then that none of that is what makes Prince of Persia stick in my memory. It doesn't really pop for me at all as a 'world,' not on recollection. No, I vividly recall movement, in both the scampering and scrambling of the player's character and the visual clatter and jolt of the game's many spiked traps and collapsing floors. It's a very tactile game, in that your character moves with some real weight through an environment liable to break away (or at least sink into the floor so as to trigger a helpful gate!) at any time. And while I can watch videos of play whenever I want, when I think back to it I can only see running and heaving, ascent and decent, all of it frantic, a struggle against time.

In the end, I think I got stuck in Mechner's temporal cement, seeing his work not as worldbuilding but a study in activity: narcissism by way of avatar, maybe, but I find it hard to fault a game that gave so many their first peek into a credible, virtual reflecting pond.

Time is also a major concern for this new, 208-page official licensed comic from First Second. Water too, but in the manner of literary metaphor. Everything is very literate in this book, which may seem odd in reference to the not terribly elevated standards of video game comics, but this is the same publisher that set its last licensed book apart by having Eddie Campbell convert an unproduced screenplay into something vividly uneven, so maybe expectations ought to be adjusted. Heaven knows my experience with Mechner's game put a wholly different brand of anticipation into me.

You see, I think the comics form has long ago proven itself excellent at processing movement across its oft-segmented panels and pages. Sequences can stretch and squash time, with layouts evoking (or merely depicting) space, thereby affording the artist many ways in which to guide a character (or the reader) through an environment. This strikes me as rather analogous to my own play with Mechner's original game, so encouraging of obsession with activity within segments. There was so little plot, but so much to work with, given the stuff of the game and the aptitude of the comics form! The book itself seems to acknowledge this aspect, marking everything from its logo to its online preview with iconic displays of the Prince running.

But there's little movement in the comic itself, and nothing all that responsive to the mechanics of that first game. I suppose it's more aligned with the story-gameplay partition of modern 3D action/adventure/platform games (although remember, I haven't played the modern sequels), only without all that 'gameplay' stuff, since this is a book, and books are for storytelling, right? Despite some sites crediting him as a writer, it doesn't appear that Mechner was even involved in the comic's creation much beyond some creative direction and story suggestions (he's still credited first, though).

I don't know what he'd necessarily have brought, however; in a 12-page afterword, Mechner expresses a great admiration for the works of Pratt, Bilal and Schuiten, all good and proper European greats, but very illustrative and measured in terms of craft, and literary in storytelling approach. Even as delightful a formal frolic as Schuiten's symmetrical NogegoN (written by his brother Luc) is more concerned with the effect of symmetry as a concept on the story's characters than any particular visual or visceral effect on the reader.

I admire the hell out of all of those folks, but I do wish that some influence could be taken from slightly more recent (like, at least 1990s?) developments in French-language comics, something to press the boundaries a bit more. It seems so plain to me that comics and gaming can interact in a deeper, more intimate way, especially given a franchise with roots that expanded the limits of its own medium of origin, and in a way that seemed very applicable to the spaces and times of comics storytelling, and the potential for that dynamic illusion of movement!

But that is not the book we've got here. All of my theorizing is to throw into sharp relief that this Prince of Persia comic is polished and sophisticated in a way that will be familiar to readers of the literary-inclined comics of today. It's ok on that ground, and a hell of a lot better than your average video game comic, although it didn't strike me as especially fine.

Most that you'll need to know is in the visuals of LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland (with colorist Hilary Sycamore), sturdily designed in the manner you might expect from veterans of illustration for children's books and animation, and very placid in terms of layouts and perspective. Panels tighten up at the right moments when action is necessary, with dense pages sometimes counterbalanced by dramatic splashes. The images are sometimes bloody, but able enough cartooning takes the edge off, along with that very deliberate pace.

The writer is A.B. Sina, a poet and essayist making his comics debut; he avoids most of the pitfalls that plague established writers new to the form, primarily a disinclination to trust in the visual aspect (maybe his work in poetry affords him a better perspective). His story is not based on any particular Prince of Persia game, but draws from the old tales that informed the premise of the franchise to create a sibling work.

Mechner mentions in the Afterword that Sina had noted that in such Eastern works "the characters' conflicts and relationships tend to be with the structure of reality itself, the structure of consciousness, rather than with individual psychological issues as we tend to focus on in the West," and his broad concept does reflect that stance. The story is split between the 9th and the 13th centuries. In the former, we follow Guiv, a muscular, violent guy that's just stormed from his palace after nearly being executed for trying to murder the adoptive brother that's become romantically involved with his biological sister. Animal guide in tow (Yoda-talking peacock variant), Guiv ventures to a citadel where he eventually becomes a veiled prophet and a king of beasts, even as trouble brews back home.

Meanwhile, 300 or so years later, Guiv's words have become an excuse for the local ruling class to crack down on dissent while soaking in decadance. Spunky princess Shirin ventures into the harsh outside world and discovers Ferdos, an angular Guiv doppelgänger who's been raised in secret, steeped in 9th century lore, and living in the ruins of Guiv's old homestead. Needless to say, deeper connections are later revealed, and while Sina's storytelling gets somewhat cluttered in its self-aware referencing of earlier bits of its own lore -- for a while, Ferdos insists on referring to himself and Shirin by the names of Guiv's brother and sister, since he's been schooled in the lore -- it does pack some power in its theme of destiny.

The point-by-point plot progression of this book isn't as important as its study of time. And again, I don't been the heart-thumping bodily time of the early Prince of Persia, but a distanced study of history's currents allowing one era to possibly inform a later one up the river, although pollution is also very possible. There's an attempt made to visually differentiate the book's era via color schemes -- a technique that vanishes and reappears, seemingly at the whim of story particulars -- but I found Sina's ways of bonding the centuries though symbols to be more interesting.

As mentioned above, water is very prominent, both as a representation of time's passage (by the end of the story, page-sharing scenes set between the eras are literally bisected by a river, in case anyone didn't quite get it yet) and a general font of life: humble saviors from both time periods are guardians of the water, the stuff's flow is central to the power of the 13th century's royal family, and learned, compassionate Ferdos' (again, sometimes literal) command of the water provides a point of contrast with the fiery killer that is Guiv. But even scholar Ferdos encounters a time to pick up the sword, just as Guiv cradles the babe while clad in combat-ready badass lionskin; nothing is absolute, goes the message, though Sina noticeably declines to forward a whisper of redemption to theocratic hypocrites in power.

What's really not absolute is their society, nor that of the princes of Persia. The name Ferdos suggests the poet Ferdowsi, and Sina's tales seem most like the famed Shâhnâmeh in their demonstration of people's passage from a fixed landscape, old actions informing the new across the changing character of ages: the structure of reality.

And while the stories wrap up in the expected climactic confrontations and unforseen fulfillment of prophesies -- to say nothing of a nasty big bad getting toasted unto death just inches from life-giving and very profound water!! -- they join in declaring that living is to begin the process of dying, for princes and their kingdoms, like the old bones sitting forever in Guiv's citadel, like these new stories left to inform our modern society, which too will decline. What will we make of it?

I kind of wish this book made a little more of the stuff it had in front of it, to not only say something about time and stories -- possibly in a manner less blunt than closing the thing on an image of a book, which we're helpfully told is meant to be closed -- but to become filled with the varying aspects of time that cut across different art forms. As it stands, it's a decently-mounted, modestly-troubled, thoughtful-if-unspectacular work that I hope can drift prominently down the waterway to inspire later licensed comics to attempt grander union of societies. The potential has always been there, and the ambition surely exists. I pray for newer realities, startling as my vision first moving from far left to far right, sharp as lavish frames of animation breaking my neck.