By 2007, I had spent a year writing full time for the first time in my life, struggling to identify the best approach to adapting Sun Tzu's The Art of War into a graphic novel. I had already written and disposed of a script that had been rejected by all the publishers that read it - I needed to start from scratch. I sensed a growing national anxiety about China's hegemonic rise, and I wanted to transform the ancient text into something that explored this anxiety. I discovered that China had recently formed its first sovereign wealth fund, the China Investment Corporation (known in the industry at the CIC), to invest a portion of the nation's trillion-and-a-half dollars worth of currency reserves. In May of 2007, I read that the CIC invested $3 billion in the American private equity firm Blackstone run by the notorious Wall Street tycoon Stephen Schwarzman - a company that itself had stakes in large corporations employing over 350,000 people. I found myself haunted by the question: "What would the world look like if China considered the performance of its investment portfolio a legitimate national security interest that may be protected through the application of military force?" Images flooded into my mind and, over the course of the next four and a half years, provided the basis for the inked pages of The Art of War: A Graphic Novel [Harper, $22.99].
Today the CIC is the most powerful sovereign wealth fund in the world. It manages over $400 billion, including a 5% stake in JP Morgan and, very recently, a 30% stake in GDF Suez, one of the world's largest utility companies, headquartered in France. China's portfolio focuses on the things large populations need: energy, infrastructure, minerals, agriculture and finance. Twenty years from now, the CIC could easily manage $1-$2 trillion -and become a legitimate national security interest.
So I decided to set the graphic novel in the year 2032 and depict Sun Tzu, the ancient general-philosopher, as the Chairman of China's sovereign wealth fund, which I named Trench. The financial industry would be militarized. Terror tactics such as suicide bombings and torture would be used to instill fear in the enemy. The most game-changing piece of military hardware since the atomic bomb - the unmanned drone - would be used by portfolio managers to acquire information and eliminate competition. Especially mosquito and hummingbird drones descended from those already being developed. Biotechnology would also play an important role, to enhance the performance of fund managers in charge of vast fortunes. Sun Tzu's nemesis evolved into a currency trader who decides to grow antennae on his flesh to communicate with a captive supercolony of army ants in order to invent new trading algorithms.
Suppression of personal freedom - the thing most Americans associate with China - is not the product of political ideology, but the desire to preserve control. It's interesting to note that a few months ago, the FAA released a list of certificates given to organizations to operate drones in civil airspace. The list includes the police departments of North Little Rock, Arkansas and Seattle, Washington, as well as the county of Otter Tail, Minnesota and the city of Herington, Kansas.
After reading Minxin Pei's book, China's Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy, and learning how China's communist party siphons off the country's wealth through the collusion of China's state-run industries, I realized that what we have to fear is not something innately Chinese, but the basic human flaws amplified by the possession of great power. With a population four times that of the United States, given enough time, surely China could realize four times the power.
By the end of 2007, I had managed to establish the world and at least one of the major themes for the adaptation; the next challenge was how to integrate the original text of The Art of War - more specifically, Lionel Giles' seminal translation that resides in the public domain. I wanted the graphic novel to organize the text into 13 chapters like the original, with the same chapter titles. My solution was to create a protagonist who becomes Sun Tzu's protégé and keeps a diary that documents what he hears Sun Tzu say. The diary includes drawings, and by the end of the novel you realize you are reading the diary. That's why I named the protagonist Kelly Roman - my name - and had him drawn to look like me, so I could extend the concept all the way to the book jacket. This also had the effect of amplifying my emotions during the writing process. I found myself tearing up while writing scenes in which the protagonist interacts with his father, and depressed and angry when writing scenes between Kelly and his dark mentor, Sun Tzu. These relationships, I realized after writing the script, reflect the light and dark aspects of my relationship with my father in a way I don't think would have occurred otherwise.
None of this would have been possible if I had not worked with as gifted and hard-working an illustrator as Michael DeWeese, who took my script and storyboards and turned them into spectacular works of art that bleed emotion as much as blood.
My favorite graphic novels are intellectual and ambitious, but they would be boring if they were not also fun and a bit nasty. I highly recommend writing a graphic novel and casting yourself as the protagonist. I can pick up the book whenever I want and witness myself killing people and sleeping with monsters of biotechnology. It's been a thrilling ride.