By Andrew A. Smith
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been a classic for centuries, and has been adapted to comics by a number of creators. But none have taken the approach of first-time graphic novel creators Kelly Roman (writer) and Michael DeWeese (artist). Their The Art of War (Harper Perennial, $22.99) not only marries an SF narrative to the ancient classic, but imagines the writer himself as the protagonist.
Set in the near future, when China is the world’s superpower and Wall Street is weaponized, the story opens with Special Forces soldier Kelly Roman being released from prison, where he has languished since a horrific friendly-fire incident. On his release, Roman learns that his brother was brutally murdered while working for financial wizard Sun Tzu, and infiltrates Wall Street to find out the who and why – and exact revenge.
What follows is an imaginative adventure story, which I won’t spoil here. But I was so intrigued by the unique aspects of the book that I had to ask the author about them.
For example, Roman wrote in a Huffington Post article (www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-roman/the-art-of-war-graphic-novel_b_1...) that the graphic novel takes the form, essentially, of a diary by Kelly Roman as he investigates his brother’s murder, frequently quoting Sun Tzu’s tidbits of wisdom, which he then puts into practice. But why the eponymous name? What did that add?
“It was an experiment in method acting that impacted the writing process, an extremely personal approach,” Roman said in an interview. “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.”
I was also curious why Roman chose The Art of War as a foundation, a book that’s been adapted to comics many times. I wanted to know what drew him to it, and why he thought he’d do a better job than previous efforts.
“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.”
In answer to my second question, he said: “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. 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 Mike 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. 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.”
Speaking of DeWeese, I asked Roman how he selected him, and what their writing method was: Full script? “Marvel” method? Back and forth?
“I used to work at Nielsen Media and created something called the Book Video Awards,” he said. “Mike was a student at North Carolina School of the Arts and won one of the awards. I saw his artwork and knew he had enormous talent and a strong personal style. I quit my job at Nielsen and started working on The Art of War, and called Mike up and asked if he wanted to illustrate.”
In regard to method, Roman said, “We had a great collaborative partnership on this book. I wrote the script, edited it with my editor at HarperCollins for about 6 months, and then drew storyboards for each page of the graphic novel based on the script. I then e-mailed the storyboards to Mike who drafted pencils, which we discussed and edited, and then he inked them by hand, with brush and ink, and scanned them. We spent an enormous amount of time on each page.”
Roman said the task was “scary” at first, given that neither man had ever done a graphic novel before. But in some ways, Roman considered that a plus.
“I had never drawn a storyboard for a comic prior to starting this,” he said. “I think that may have helped us, because both of our visual styles are raw and experimental, and they merged in a great way that doesn’t look like anything else out there. Mike’s amazing. He’s doing a lot of work with Lady Gaga nowadays. I was extremely lucky to work with him on such a long piece – over 350 pages.”
That raised the issue of how he could turn Sun Tzu’s spare instructions into a narrative. Did Roman marry Sun Tzu to an existing story, or write a story 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.”
One other unique aspect of Roman’s The Art of War is that only one color was used – red – and it was always at 100 percent, with not shades or tints. Did it represent China? Blood? Both?
“It’s a violent, bloody book,” Romand said. “I like using the pure red in concert with startling composition to really slap the reader around visually. I intentionally chose the same Pantone red that’s used in the Chinese flag. The Chinese flag is red to symbolize the blood shed during the revolution that transformed China’s government from archaic to modern. So that specific red has a lot of history.”
That raised the issue of metaphor, and there seems to be plenty in The Art of War. There are no characters in the Sun Tzu book, of course, so they were all invented. Were they all there to service the narrative, or were they metaphors, representing different aspects of Sun Tzu’s counsel? A little of both, as it turns out.
“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.”
Red ants play a pivotal role in the book. Were they a metaphor for China? Or any system where control is absolute?
“For me the ants symbolize how far we will go to gain competitive advantage through the use of biotechnology,” Roman said. “Prospective parents already have their eggs genetically tested. You can see if there are any genetic defects present in the eggs before they are fertilized. At some point parents will adjust the genes so their children have certain attributes. In the book, a mathematical genius has antennae grown on his body so he can communicate with a captive colony of ants, to help him derive new algorithms. This takes the concept of biotech used for physical improvement to a point where you are willing to engage in a form of self-mutilation in order to succeed. It's the Botox mentality on a much larger scale.”
Which raised the issue of politics. In the blog post, Roman said “Suppression of personal freedom – the thing most Americans associated with China – is not the product of political ideology, but the desire to preserve control.” Which didn’t sound specifically Chinese to me. So I asked Roman if almost any country or ideology that established total control would look much the same, and could serve the same function in his graphic novel.
“One point the book makes is that it’s not the Chinese we need to fear, it’s human flaws amplified by great power that we need to fear,” Roman said. “If it was a different country taking the reins, it would certainly look different and have a different vibe. It might have a more religious bent, or a more outwardly militaristic rise. What’s so familiar about China’s rise is that it doesn’t seem particularly ideological – other than the ideology of capitalism – and so it feels very American. American expansionism is a lot more ideological in many ways.
“But there is a darkness in terms of the Chinese military establishment – they are more disposed to aggression than the non-military political elite,” he continued. “This is well documented. So far they have been kept in check. A lot of economists are rightly predicting a future of political unrest in China in the coming years, as unemployment rises due to the global economic slowdown. One percentage point of unemployment in China equals an enormous amount of unhappy people. But I don’t think a revolution in China would necessarily mean it becomes more Democratic. It might mean that the military takes more overt control – like what we’ve seen in Egypt. That’s why I militarized the financial industry in the graphic novel.”
Comics” Smith has been writing professionally about comics since 1992, and for Comics Buyer’s Guide since 2000.