By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
A number of people have adapted Sun Tzu’s The Art of War into comics. But writer Kelly Roman is the first to tell an actual story.
Roman’s graphic novel is set in the near future, when China is the dominant economic superpower, and Wall Street is weaponized. It stars a Special Forces soldier with bio-enhancements who infilitrates the financial organization run by Sun Tzu (which appears to be a title more than a name), to find out who killed his brother, who worked there. What happens next is an imaginative adventure story, which I won’t spoil for you here.
But what needs to be spoiled is why the protagonist’s name is Kelly Roman – the same as the author. Kelly the character even looks like Kelly the writer. In an interview, Roman revealed his unusual storytelling method:
“It was an experiment in method acting that impacted the writing process, an extremely personal approach,” he said. “I’d go out for a run while working on a scene involving Kelly Roman, and I’d live the scene in my head as I ran, and it began to feel like I was remembering something that happened to me. It transformed the experience of writing the book into a surreal process of recording memories.
“It was an experiment,” he continued. “There’s no author bio on the back of the book, no author photograph. The only Kelly Roman you get is the character in the book, who is shown writing the book, and there’s his name on the cover.”
Readers at this point might be wondering what all this has to do with the “The Art or War.” It is that classic that is the spine of the story, as Roman records his adventure in his diary, writing down what Sun Tzu has to say – and putting those strategies to work. Which raises the question of which came first – did Roman marry Sun Tzu to an existing narrative, or write a narrative suggested by, and constrained to, the original book?
“I chose the more restrictive path,” he said. “I wanted to preserve how the text was organized in its original chapters, and structured a story that followed the flow of these chapters, in the same order. Restrictions spark creativity. I wanted to honor the text as much as I could, both thematically and structurally.”
But did he use it all?
“The first draft integrated every single sentence from the original,” he said. “My editor suggested that I cut out any line that didn’t really fit, while still preserving the same chapter structure – in other words, every line in Chapter 10 in the graphic novel appears in Chapter 10 of the original ‘The Art of War,’ although I did take liberty with the order of the lines within each chapter. Instead of using every line, I ended up using about 75 percent.”
Of course, The Art of War was more an instructional manual than a story, so Roman had to craft an entire world, peopled with characters of his own making. Were these new characters simply there to serve the narrative, I asked, or were they metaphors for Sun Tzu’s instruction? A little of both, he said.
“In the original text, Sun Tzu warns that spies often hide in swamps and thorny brambles,” Roman said. “That works literally as well as metaphorically. In the graphic novel, Sun Tzu’s daughter is a bit of a succubus, and I think of her as swamps and brambles incarnate. The original The Art of War has a whole chapter dedicated to using fire against the enemy, and I wrote the sadistic assassin in the graphic novel as fire incarnate, a monster who likes to burn people alive.”
All of which is pretty ambitious. What brought Roman to The Art of War, and why did he think he would do it better than the other attempts?
“I think it’s a perfect moment in history to adapt China’s most famous and influential book, given the nation’s spectacular rise to power,” he said. “The Art of War was written in China thousands of years ago by a great general who unified competing fiefdoms into a single empire. Thousands of years later, it’s the strategic backbone to China’s current rise, beginning with its use by Mao and Nixon and Kissinger. Mao and Kissinger would recite it.
“I thought I could do the text justice in an adaptation because I was so focused on writing a good story and making sure every page of art was good enough to be cover art,” he continued. “It’s like adapting Shakespeare – you should give it your all. I don’t think the other versions out there really made that same commitment that [artist] Mike [DeWeese] and I made to storytelling and quality. It took us years of 70-hour weeks.”
And was it worth it?
“We loved most of it,” he said. “Sometimes it was a nightmare, but we fought through to give the book all we had to give. I wanted to create something that might be read in a thousand years like the original. That’s a lofty goal of course, but it’s the mental space that produces the best work we could produce.”
Roman’s The Art of War is $22.99, copyright Harper Perennial.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.