The Art of War is very much about bodies: bodies being tortured, bodies being infiltrated with ants, and bodies being resurrected. It’s a gruesome book, reminiscent in style and art of some of the Heavy Metal series from the '80s.
The Art of War: A Graphic NovelPublisher: Harper Perennial
Illustrator: Michael DeWeese
Author: Kelly Roman
Length: 346 pages
Publication date: 2012-07
For the past decade we have lived under a shadow of economic doubt, political grandstanding, national frustration (no matter in which nation one resides), and international war. It feels like the perfect time for a revisiting, or a modern reenvisioning, of Sun Tzu’s oft-cited text, The Art of War. Which is why it’s so puzzling that The Art of War, a graphic novel written by Kelly Roman and illustrated by Michael DeWesse, manages to be simultaneously dull and politically irrelevant. Despite the near-perfect context for the story, it falls so fast and from such great heights, you can almost hear the wind ripping past your ears as you turn each page.
The Art of War takes place some 20 years in the future (though the amount of time may as well be arbitrary, given how little it adds to the story) after the proverbial shit has hit the fan. Wall Street is militarized, China runs the world through it’s economics prowess and unyielding power, cities are ravaged, dogs are dead, and our protagonist, Kelly Roman, is released from prison to return home to his aged father in war-torn Ohio. What should have jumped out about that last sentence is that our protagonist shares a name with the writer: Kelly Roman. If I tell you that the first few pages of The Art of War show Kelly Roman (the character) writing in a journal, can I rely on you, dear reader, to put two and two together? I thought so.
If you can make it past this eye-rolling novelty of story structure, then it’s off to the would-be races as Roman describes his time serving and learning under Sun Tzu, recast here as a stringent economic mogul who may or may not have been responsible for the death of Roman’s brother, a man who was also employed under Sun Tzu. It helps that Roman has military training of the highest caliber and is able to act as a kind of superhuman when it comes to withstanding the literal tortures of his “interview” process to work for Sun Tzu. His hands are systematically clipped off while given the chance to surrender.
But, as it turns out, 20 years in the future we are able to remove body parts and reattach them at will. Which is convenient, because The Art of War is very much about bodies: bodies being tortured, bodies being infiltrated with ants, and bodies, eventually, being resurrected. It’s a gruesome book on occasions, reminiscent in style and art of some of the Heavy Metal series from the '80s. Characters are grotesque and unpure, especially in their facial expressions, and their bodies are often ugly and distorted into unnatural positions.
Visually, it’s unsettling; a feeling that never disappears even after being immersed in it for 346 pages. Using black and white drawings (with splashes of red) was clearly the only alternative for this type of narrative and it suits the mood of the story except that, more often than not, the use of black overwhelms the panels. DeWesse has a fluid, gritty style well suited to outsider genres. I’d love to see him tackle a Western or a Sci-Fi adaptation, but as for The Art of War, it may not be the best evidence upon which to judge his skills.
That’s because DeWesse is left to carry the bulk of Roman’s muddled story with his art. It’s not that the plot of The Art of War is particularly complex, only that, as a reader, it’s difficult to become invested in any of the characters. Female characters fall into the staid Madonna/whore dichotomy including the love of Roman’s life, Jackie, who has been surgically repaired across her whole body after Roman opened fire on her while hopped up on drugs during their shared tenure in the military.
If this act (consequently, the reason why Roman went to prison) along with his need to discover the reasons behind his brother’s death is supposed to provide motivation for Roman’s actions, then they seem shallow at best, but mostly self-serving and narcissistic. Roman is not a sympathetic character; he’s a killer intent on destroying himself and most of those around him. Which is fine; anti-heroes are fun to root for, too. But Roman never develops as a character, even when his past unfolds. The most sympathy we ever relate to is his desire to save his dying father.
Sun-Tzu, the mogul whom the Roman family works for, comes across not as a levelheaded thinker, but as a self-aggrandizing culprit whose knowledge is delivered grimly. Consequently, we are supposed to accept the wisdom of his words because they are presented in bold, calligraphic font—clearly we needed it spelled out, that what he says in important, even when it’s not. And as for the real Sun-Tzu, whose words are extracted from the ancient text of The Art of War and passed off every other page or so, his knowledge is supposed to provide an omnipotent guiding chorus, a driving force for Roman to learn from and process. But these words soon just become background fodder; a mass of text that sometimes relates to the story and other times strain to be relevant. Honestly, I stopped reading them after about 100 pages or so because they only seemed to slow down the pacing of the artwork.
“This is definitely some down the rabbit hole shit,” a female agent working with Roman says. Agreed, but not in that thrilling Alice In Wonderland way, either. Trying to chart every psychedelic detail of Roman’s poorly charted conspiracy isn’t worth the trouble. If you’re a general fan of futuristic military drama, you may find plenty in the The Art of War to appreciate. But The Art of War tried to deliver a sprawling, climactic epic bent on illuminating a near future where science, greed, and nationalism have run amok and precious few are left to defend “the part of American worth saving.” What it actually delivers is a second-tier futuristic story—Phillip K. Dick-lite, if you will—that’s big on ideas and short on execution. In other words, it's the very opposite of Sun Tzu’s wisdom.