This week, amidst the 21 hour shifts and the bottomless corporate bar tabs of a December in hospitality, I’ve found some time to read the oddly-pitched graphic novel, The Art of War by Kelly Roman, illustrated by Michael DeWeese.
A couple of weeks ago, I found The Art of War at the bottom of my always 30+ book-filled Amazon “to buy later” basket. I’ve been using this feature for about a decade to remember things that I want to buy (ideally from a shop) and read at some point in the future. During this period, maybe about three or four years ago (before I had a) the disposable income and b) the self-confidence to buy comic books) I read an article somewhere about the Comic as the new avant garde. A piece that listed this book, and a few others (one of which is also in the afore-mentioned Amazon basket), as those at the forefront* of this charge.
The botched martial metaphors are appropriate**, for The Art of War is actually (loosely) based on The Art of War by Sun Tzu, that famous Chinese book of military wisdom that I (somewhat inappropriately here) have never read. I’ve read The Prince and a couple of other, similar, things, and they’re all the same, right?***
Kelly Roman (who – shockingly – is not a woman) takes segments of Sun Tzu and uses them to comment upon the story he tells, which is a sci-fi piece about venture capitalism set in the near future, though one of those “near futures” that is in no way believable to have arrived by the time it states, which is around 2030. The main character, also a man called Kelly Roman**** is a war veteran looking for revenge for his brother’s death. Shane (the brother) worked for Trench, an investment bank that controlled the sovereign funds of China and – later – the USA. Shane died in mysterious circumstances at work, and the reader soon discovers that he was killed by Vespoid, the bank’s main rival and the company responsible for managing all the money of India and Africa, in this future places that are as rich, if not richer, than the USA. Kelly goes to work for Trench.
Shane’s success was due to his implementation of biotechnology, specifically the ability to kinda fuse with insects (eurgh) and use their pheromone sensors to read the world around him in such detail that the financial markets could be known and traded upon with terrifying accuracy. There is also sci-fi crap about head transplants and militarised miniature black holes.
I suppose what I thought limited the book was this constant invention of bullshit technologies. A near-future epic where financial markets are toxic military battlefields is a strong enough idea to, I think, float without all of the insect crap and the hyper strength of future tech. I think Roman does himself a disservice by, as the piece goes on, choosing to focus far more on the shiny chrome spectacle than upon his initial neat premise: if money is what makes the world go round, surely those who control it control the planet?
There are some interesting questions raised within the idea of the book, and Kelly’s brutal introduction to the violent world of future banking are enjoyable and tense – the blood-soaked suit he wears is a far more interesting visual than the double page spreads of red ants eating a crowd that we see near the end.
Where The Art of War works well is when the simple phrases of Sun Tzu add to or emphasise a human story about greed, anger, self-hatred, etc.. There is the kernel of something great here, but – as I tend to almost always think with science fiction – the tone distracts from the text.
I wouldn’t say it was bad, but coming after The Great Gatsby and A Brief History of Seven Killings, it’s not a book I’m likely to ever mention in conversation with anyone.
Underwhelming and a disappointment: promises far more than it delivers.
* Can something be at the forefront of an advance?
** I’m writing this at a snail’s pace, this is the slowest I’ve typed a blog in weeks. I’ve only been awake about an hour and I already want to crawl back into bed and sleep… One more week, one more week…
*** Ultimately all victory comes down to carrot and stick – make people like you but in neither a chummy nor a begrudging way. S’all about respec’, innit. If I’ve read them right.
**** An inexcusable fucking narcissistic touch.