The Art of War, a graphic novel currently published in the U.S. and Brazil by Kelly Roman and Michael DeWeese, adapts the text of Sun Tzu’s original Chinese classic The Art of War to a dystopian sci-fi universe immersed in a war among the world powers and the international marketplace. The main character, also named Kelly Roman, is seeking revenge for the murder of his brother. I asked Roman to describe the genesis of the project.
What prompted you to do The Art of War as a graphic novel?
I was fascinated by the idea of a future in which China has surpassed the United States financially and militarily. In the mid 2000s, I noticed that China’s sovereign wealth fund was investing in U.S. financial firms like Blackstone and JP Morgan. I wondered: At some point, if the amount of money became high enough, would the Chinese consider their sovereign wealth fund a national security interest? You would think so. A key national security interest is going to be protected by the nation’s military, by the nation’s intelligence community. So I started to think about a near future financial world that was weaponized. A world in which drone technology and biotechnology are ensuring a good return on your investment.
As I read the ancient text over and over, I saw how I could set the flow of my story to the flow of the ancient text. Chapter by chapter, even line by line. For my first time writing a graphic novel, it was a bit challenging, and I loved that it was a bit challenging. I worked enormous hours marrying the story to the text. Ultimately, I depicted Sun Tzu as the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund, and the protagonist became his protégé, writing down in a diary the words he heard Sun Tzu say. The book became the visual diary. Then I named the protagonist after me, so I could treat it that way, like method acting. Picturing the scenes for the story began to feel like remembering the past.
Who did what work on the book?
I wrote the story and then drew storyboards for nearly all the pages. Mike DeWeese then took the script and storyboards and went off and made pencils of the pages. We then workshoped the pencils until they were ready for Mike to ink. Mike is an incredibly talented artist with a very unique style. We work exceptionally well together—a lot of the times reading each other minds artistically. Once all the artwork was complete, I started working with our letterer, Jason. I gave him the lines and journal entries and dialog and he put them onto the pages, which I then reviewed and finalized. Then Crawford did color conversion, because we discovered we made the mistake of painting many of the pages with different kinds of red without realizing we were limited to a certain pantone. Overall, the entire process took nearly six years.
How did you construct the narrative? Did you follow the original Art of War to the letter?
The narrative structure, meaning the story arcs and the information and metaphors, was carefully tied to the Chinese text. For instance, the last chapter of the text is all about how to use spies, and the narrative uses this final chapter to reveal spy-related characters and metaphors and plot points. The protagonist Kelly Roman writes down the words about using spies he hears Sun Tzu say, layering this on top of the narrative. The chapters of the book have the same titles and subject matter as the Chinese text, and I even kept the lines that I integrated from The Art of War, as journal entries, native to each chapter.
Does this have anything to do with the once powerful Brazilian junta or any such military overthrow?
No, there was no thought of Brazilian history per se in the story. I didn’t even know the book was going to be published in Brazil until much latter. HarperCollins in the United States bought the North American rights to the book in 2008. Editora Best Seller bought Portuguese translation rights in Brazil in 2010, if I remember correctly. Suma bought the Spanish rights. So for me, the focus was on Sino-U.S. relations, but you could certainly apply the text and metaphors to a lot of situations. I’m sure many juntas are thoroughly familiar with the ancient text.
What were the models for your story?
I’m kind of old school and read a lot of Joseph Campbell and Laslo Egri. Those guys revealed the models for storytelling for me, based on ancient mythology and modern plays. Campbell is a master of mythological storytelling structure, and Egri is a master of understanding why drama works and why it doesn’t. And we all know when it doesn’t work—it’s not working the moment you get bored.
How long did the book take to complete?
Six years from start to finish. It went by very fast. I’m glad I spent a decent chunk of my life working on it!