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Review time! with The Art of War

I’ve already reviewed some of this, but now I get to review the whole thing!

As I mentioned when I first reviewed the preview of The Art of War, Kelly Roman and Michael DeWeese’s new graphic novel (with lettering by Jason Arthur, calligraphy by Ming Sheng Wang, and the translation of Sun Tzu by Lionel Giles back in 1910), my cousin, who lives in New York, knows Roman, and she put me in touch with him. He was nice enough to send me an “uncorrected proof” of the book, which will be released on 31 July, and as there’s a new trailer out there (I’m still not used to trailers for comic books, but I can roll with the times, man!), it’s time to get a review up on the blog! The Art of War is published by HarperCollins and costs $23 for almost 350 pages.

The proof I have isn’t colored, which is too bad, because the book will be in black and white and red, and we all remember how effective that looks from those Grendel books, don’t we? But right now, it’s in black and white. The Art of War takes place in 2032, mostly in Manhattan (it begins in Ohio, but quickly moves to New York), where a great deal of the island is now owned by the Chinese. The main character, who’s named Kelly Roman, returns to his Ohio home after getting out of military prison to find that the town has fallen apart. He visits his old girlfriend, Jackie, whose body is part cybernetic and part reconstructed flesh, and one hundred per cent horrifying. We learn that Kelly is to blame for her condition – they were in the same army unit, and he accidentally shot her when a sand storm blew up. She’s forgiven him, but he can’t forgive himself. He also finds out some details about his brother’s death that spurs him to head to New York. His brother, Shane, worked for a company named Trench, run by a man named Sun Tzu. Shane was a fast-rising executive in the company (he was only 27 when he died) who had figured out an algorithm to predict financial markets, which made him a target for rival companies – one in particular, called Vespoid, is run by a shadowy figure called the Prince, who has discovered a way to control insects. The Prince and his head assassin killed Shane, and now they’re trying to destroy Trench. Kelly goes to work for Trench and becomes Sun Tzu’s favorite, angling for revenge all the time. Of course, there’s a lot of corporate espionage going on and all sorts of double-crossing, but Kelly tries to remain resolute.

While at its core, this is a revenge tale writ large that takes contains an interesting but not completely unexpected twist, but Roman and DeWeese do some nice things with it. Science fiction can do this well – put forth ideas that seem ridiculous but only because they’re fully realized in a world that is similar to ours, so it looks different. The idea that China could take over the most valuable real estate on Earth and colonize it in two decades, as they do in this comic, might have sounded plausible a few years ago, but given what we know now about China’s economy, it sounds like they’ll have their own problems to deal with rather sooner than later. That doesn’t invalidate Roman’s thesis, of course, because one thing that speculative fiction is good at is taking metaphors and making them concrete, so the Chinese presence comments on the American debt, economic colonization, outsourcing, and the idea of business as warfare. This isn’t the first time Sun Tzu’s treatise (which is quoted often throughout the book) has been used to allude to business practices, of course, but Roman makes it literal, which hammers home the point about the cutthroat nature of Trench’s dealings. It’s not a xenophobic book by any means – Trench does quite a bit for the American infrastructure, while the U.S. government is as culpable as any Chinese business when things go horribly wrong – because Roman is more interested in looking at how globalization has linked us all, even people in small-town Ohio. The characters are fascinating, too – Kelly, the main character, is noble even though he’s wracked with guilt; his father appears weak but can take care of himself; Sun Tzu is a ruthless businessman who nevertheless values loyalty above all; the Prince is insane but is driven to the depths by very real rejection; Qing (Sun Tzu’s daughter) is forever failing to live up to her father’s desire for a son; Jackie knows that what happened to her was an accident, and she despairs ever making Kelly see that; even Ripley, who is Kelly’s girl Friday and a relatively minor character, gets some nice personality traits. The characters are driven by complex emotions, which makes their tragedies all the more powerful. Roman does a nice job linking the acts of violence – Kelly, perhaps, is redeemed because Jackie forgives him (even though he doesn’t accept it), while the Prince appears beyond redemption yet yearns for forgiveness. Every main character in the book is tempted, and Roman does a nice job showing how they react differently to such temptations.

There’s a lot of interesting artwork in the book, and I can’t wait to see it “colored,” because it will look even nicer. Before I write more, I should say that I wish Roman had explained why, when Kelly and Qing go to Egypt, the Sphinx and the Pyramids are surrounded by jungle, as they are, in reality, in the middle of a desert (and right next to many, many buildings, which you rarely see in comics/movies/television). I doubt if anyone will be able to terraform the Giza plateau in the next 20 years. It was very odd. But that’s just two pages, and the rest of the artwork is quite good. DeWeese occasionally draws figures a bit stiffly, but fluidity in characters is one of the hardest things for new artists to get, so I don’t mind it here. He does a very nice job creating this world, because it’s not too far removed from ours, but there are some nice differences. Traverse, Ohio, where Kelly grew up, is almost a ghost town, but DeWeese does a good job making it eerie, especially because people still live there. Trench’s skyscraper in Manhattan is impressive, as DeWeese puts a Chinese-style palace on top of it where Sun Tzu receives visitors. DeWeese designs some creepy robotic weapons that could easily be extrapolated from current technology, as we use more and more drones. As some of this is a horror comic, DeWeese needs to be able to convey the weirdness of the Prince using insect biology to transform his body, and he does that very well. There are quite a lot of characters in the book, but thanks to DeWeese’s designs, we’re able to keep track of them effortlessly. The Prince remains a shadowy figure, but when he confronts Kelly near the end, we get a sense of how much of his humanity he’s lost. Kelly and Qing are the two most important characters, emotionally, in the book, and DeWeese is very good at showing how far Kelly goes into despair when he thinks he’s lost everything, as well as how sad and angry Qing is at her father’s indifference and then hatred toward her. DeWeese also uses some nice tricks in the artwork – the book doesn’t often have traditional panels, which makes many of the scenes feel more expansive, and a few times, he creates an effect like a photo negative to indicate something terrible is happening. He uses it sparingly, so it has more impact. DeWeese does a marvelous job blending Eastern and Western iconography to assist with Roman’s take on globalization – New York is more international than it is even now, and the fate of the United States is tied to the fate of China even more than it is now. Roman makes this point more explicitly, but DeWeese’s artwork helps bring it across.

The Art of War is the first graphic novel by both creators, which makes it even more impressive that they manage to deal with some many different themes well. Of course, on some level it’s a fight between good and evil, but Roman and DeWeese are too smart to let it devolve fully into that. They give us a harrowing but not completely dystopic vision of the future, one that confronts us with our fears and doesn’t let us turn away. The science fiction aspects of the book might be a bit further off in the future than 20 years, but the Prince’s ideas about order aren’t all that crazy when we look at the way despots run their countries. Businesses are already major players in the political sphere, so the book’s conceit isn’t too hard to swallow, and the creators make it even more intense by giving us several strong characters who are forced to navigate this murky world. The Art of War is Strongly Recommended, and I encourage you all to pick it up when it shows up in a couple of months. You can also check out a pretty long preview at the web site, to which I linked above.

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