Review time! with <i>The Art of War</i> preview

Okay, so there's a deal with this.

When I was back in Pennsylvania I visited my cousin, who lives in Manhattan (as I wrote about here). She knows Kelly Roman, who happens to be writing (and storyboarding) a comic. She asked me if I was interested in reviewing it, and I said sure - I'm friendly that way. However, Roman and his collaborator, Michael DeWeese, have put the first three chapters up on yonder Internets for everyone to read, so it's kind of pointless for me to review it, right? I mean, you can just go read it, right? But that's never stopped me before, so I'll share my thoughts with you about the first three chapters. The entire book will be available in the spring, which is when I can probably give it a better review.

Roman and DeWeese's comic is called The Art of War. Roman wrote it and storyboarded it, DeWeese drew it, and Jason Arthur lettered it (with calligraphy by Ming Sheng Wang). It takes place 20 years in the future, when China is the world's dominant economic power and much of Manhattan is Chinese-controlled (the book, so far, has not made it clear if the Chinese rule politically or if they simply own all the real estate). As we begin, a man is released from prison and returns to Ohio to see his father. The man's name is Kelly Roman, which will make it difficult to discuss this, I suppose. Kelly's brother is dead, and he and his father are going to try to figure out why. The two men drive to Manhattan (it's unclear where Kelly was in prison), where Kelly applies for a job at the same corporation where his brother worked. It turns out that Kelly's brother was a kind of financial savant, and his death is somewhat mysterious (of course). When Kelly goes out to lunch with an executive of the corporation, the man dies horribly and inexplicably. And Kelly's job interview is ... well, it's a bit more intense than your usual job interview.

It's difficult to write about the story all that much, because the sample provided just begins to get into the meat of the plot, so there's a lot we don't know. We get nice glimpses of how the country's infrastructure has been ruined - the Ohio town is a wasteland, and Roman and DeWeese do a good job showing the despair of the inhabitants. Kelly visits an old girlfriend, who had reconstructive surgery on her face ... but not her body, which leads to a horrific reveal. Kelly's father lives in a dilapidated house with no electricity, and everyone views Kelly with a great deal of suspicion. Things are better in Manhattan, of course, but we still get a good sense of the oppressive nature of the new regime - things simply don't feel free, and the creators do a nice job implying this without stating it outright. Perhaps they will later on in the book, but so far, it's all atmosphere.

Roman (the writer) incorporates quotations from Sun Tzu's book into the text, and it's clear that Roman (the character) is preparing for a war. It's not a bad way to introduce both the philosophy and the plot, because it allows the writer to go slowly and show how the character follows the text and figures out how and why his brother died. Roman (the writer) does a good job introducing the character's past, as we learn that he killed a fellow soldier accidentally, leading (presumably) to his stint in prison. And the use of Sun Tzu allows Roman (the writer) to show that Roman's (the character) stroll into the lion's den isn't as crazy as it might seem. If only he can survive the interview ...

In the absence of a lot of the plot, a huge part of the appeal of the book is the art, which is tremendous. DeWeese has a very nice line and does a fine job showing the despair of the regular folk and the opulence of Chinese Manhattan. When Kelly visits his ex-lover, her tragedy is brought home with unnerving clarity because of DeWeese's pencils. When Mr. Gates (the corporate executive) dies, it's a wonderfully bloody scene, and DeWeese nails it. He and Roman do a really nice job breaking up the standard layouts when they need to, from Kelly's overwhelming return to his hometown to his flashback when he describes his time in the army. They don't eschew panel borders too often, but it's effective when they do. The colors in the book are also amazingly effective - it's in gray tones for the most part, with red the only true color, and then only used sparingly - except in some crucial spots, which makes it very effective. The book reminds me of those Grendel anthologies Dark Horse put out a while ago, where red was the only color - the choice works very well, and gives The Art of War a distinctive look.

Perhaps you've heard of Roman and DeWeese because in May they had their blood extracted and then stamped onto samples they gave away in Columbus Park, in Chinatown (in homage to Mark Gruenwald, who of course had his ashes mixed in with the ink of the Squadron Supreme trade). It's a nice gimmick, and certainly clever enough of the creators to get the name of the book out there. Of course, it should stand on its quality, and these first three chapters are quite good, and I look forward to reading the entire comic when it comes out.

You can read the sample at the web site, which is very well-designed. I should have reviewed this a while ago (I'm still trying to catch up, people!), but I'm glad I waited, because it allowed Greg Hatcher to post his thoughts about reading comics on-line. As you might recall, I don't like reading comics on-line for some of the same reason he doesn't, which is why I'm going to be getting this in its "real" format. However, the web site is really nice, and you can read the sample very easily. You can enlarge the book so that it fills the screen with two pages, and you can zoom in anywhere you like. There's one double-page spread in the sample (ironically, it's one of the least dramatic pages in the sample), but you can see both sides of it at once, which is nice. It's presented very well, and it's very easy to read. I challenge even Other Greg to say bad things about the format!

So that's The Art of War. It's a nice taste of what looks like a very cool graphic novel, and I encourage you to check out the web site, read the sample (it doesn't take all that long) and judge for yourself. Why should you take my word for it?

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