Thursday, January 12, 2012

Two Graphic Books: The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings

Today I offer a two for one review because both of these graphic texts are from the same publisher with similar concepts which is to take a classic text and put its teachings within the context of contemporary life. 

The Art of War by Sun Tzu as adapted by Cullen Bunn and Shane Clester, with illustrations by Shane Clester, begins with a “mob boss” trying to determine how to protect his territory.  I was immediately put off by this because, while I appreciate the idea to put traditional martial arts wisdom into a contemporary and “real life” context I can’t imagine why the first choice the editors made was to apply Sun Tzu’s teachings to being a better godfather.  Other real life situations used to illustrate the classic text include running for political office, playing a video game, getting lost in the desert, making a critical decision, etc. 

In spite of the peculiar choice to use criminals as examples for how to apply the principles outlines by Sun Tzu, most of the comic is more based in reality than not.  On the back cover the publishers ask if the reader wants “to be more competitive but don’t have time to read the whole book?”  I despair at the thought that people would answer yes to this question because there are enough translations of Sun Tzu’s texts that make the traditional text more accessible.  However, I can appreciate that many people are intimidated by classic texts and I also understand how comics can be used as gateways to reach reluctant readers. 

In that context, of assuming that the target audience is the reluctant and not merely the lazy reader, I would definitely recommend this comic as a good introduction to the Sun Tzu’s teachings.  The artwork is strong, done in shades of grey and black and white.  Evocative although they are not highly sophisticated, they complement the text very well.  The book concludes with a quiz for the reader to assess how well they understood the material.  Of course, I’d like to believe that anyone who really enjoyed reading this comic would want to read the classic text, in translation.  I know it inspired me to read it.  I’d tried before but lost my copy in a move so I have a request at my local library for a copy and you can probably expect me to review that in the near future. 

The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi as adapted by Cullen Bunn, with illustrations by Mark Dos Santos, is also a look at a classic martial arts text contextualized in contemporary and real-life situations.  Unlike the previous comic, more of the teachings are illustrated in feudal Japan, complete with samurai and swords.  The contemporary situations are more tightly interwoven with the classic text’s teaching. 

Throughout this colorful comic, the traditional teachings are predominant with none of the characters who people the frames talking.  This actually proves to be more effective than how the text and contemporary context are used in The Art of War.  Musashi’s wisdom sparkles throughout and if some of his teachings aren’t immediately applicable, a reflective reader will take the time to consider the text, meditate on its meaning, and try to be open to how the text can be applied in whatever situation the reader is facing. 

Over all, both books are good and although the former is easier to see as useful the latter is the better comic creation.  I’ve been wanting to read the original text for a while so, once again, I found myself inspired to read the original text.  I’ve put in a request at the library.  And I sincerely hope that other readers will want to do the same.  If neither blew me away, neither comic disappointed me altogether.   

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