I am often asked by friends who don’t read comics what comics they should read to get started with the format. They don’t want superheroes, they don’t want simplicity. They want “literary” comics, things that will reveal the true range of this art form we love. There are certain standard recommendations to give in response to a request like this. Watchmen, of course, along with Maus and Blankets and American Splendor. And now I have to add a new member to this elite list of Graphic Novels That Will Blow Any Reader Away. Meet The Art of War, a comic that will flat out knock you on your ass.

Though it reads like a comic and will satisfy serious devotees of the medium, this book also reads like no other comic you’ve ever picked up. It’s an adaptation of a book of platitudes about war written by an ancient Chinese general, but how do you adapt something like that? How do you take something that’s basically a self-help book for military commanders and turn it into a cohesive, powerful story, let alone a story set in the near future? I was as puzzled as anyone when I heard the premise, so instead of attempting to explain it for you, I’m going to let the official synopsis do the talking.

“A stunning and gritty graphic novel integrating the iconic strategy text by Sun Tzu into a sweeping thriller set in the near future when Wall Street is militarized and China is the world’s dominant economy.

Kelly Roman served time for a horrific friendly fire incident. Once free, he discovers that his brother died while working for Sun Tzu, the ruthless strategist who runs China’s global financial empire.

From the apocalyptic third world of suburban Ohio, Kelly heads into the futuristic Gomorrah that is Manhattan to infiltrate Sun Tzu’s organization and find out who murdered his brother—and why. Using the skills and genetic enhancements his Special Forces career provided him, he’ll confront both Sun Tzu and his nemesis, a monster of biotechnology known only as The Prince.

Throughout his harrowing adventure, Kelly documents Sun Tzu’s ancient wisdom, which guides him through each bloody battle and hairbreadth escape in his quest for vengeance and redemption.”

It sounds crazy, and quite honestly it kind of is crazy, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that what Roman and DeWeese are doing here is just my kind of crazy. A few pages into The Art of War and you’re down a rabbit hole of ferocious storytelling and unforgettable imagery. It’s Terry Gilliam’s futuristic fever dreams combined with Mario Bava’s bloodlust and dusted all over with John Woo bombast and a David Simon flair for dialogue. Every page is honed to draw blood, and every page bleeds right into your brain.

I almost wish I were exaggerating. It seems unlikely, even ludicrous, that one comic could pack this much of a punch, but The Art of War really does belong in that badass league with all those game-changing comics I listed above. It might not always be as accessible as other cornerstones of the medium, or as all-audience friendly, but it is a visceral, unforgettable example of how powerful the graphic novel can be. This book will crawl into your brain and set up shop, slicing away at your frontal lobe until you’re forced to read it again, and again. If you want brutal, no-holds-barred, truly inventive storytelling, don’t miss The Art of War.

Category: Comics, reviews

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