Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Boxers & Saints

Author Gene Yang is an award-winning, celebrated graphic novel known for combining elements of biography, reality, legend, and fiction in works such as American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile, Prime Baby, and Level Up. Ambitiously, he has undertaken a similar path in not one but two graphic novels released concurrently. Boxers and Saints focus on the Boxer Rebellion, a period from 1987 to 1900 where Chinese peasants banded together to expel foreigners who they perceived as weakening Chinese culture. These books focus on two sides of the conflict, sharing some common characters whose stories overlap in mundane, consequential, and heartbreaking ways.

Boxers is the more colorful of the two books. It follows the story of Bao, a young man whose village and family start having run-ins with foreigners and assorted roving hooligans. He ends up a part of a band called the Big Sword Society. These men have learned a way to channel ancient spirits through training and ritual, and when they are possessed of these spirits they are formidable and almost unbeatable in battle. Bao is possessed and haunted by Ch'in Shih-huang, the first emperor of the Ch'in Dynasty. He becomes a leader and debates this spirit often in his mind, conflicted by traditions, justice, and the realities of conflict that seem unfair and unjust. In the end, Bao makes some decisions that could be seen as destructive and reckless though they are tactically advantageous. Highlighted here is the transformative power of warfare, for both good and ill, and how there are no easy answers (or true heroes) in many of these situations.

A page from Boxers

The protagonist of Saints is a young girl who does not even have a proper name. Four-Girl has no status and no standing but she finds validation, friendship, and a name (Vibiana) through Christianity. These Christians were a small and endangered group in China at the time, because their faith was an emblem of the foreigners who were seen by the "Righteous and Harmonious Fists" (the Boxers) as enemies of the state. Like Bao, Vibiana is also visited continually by a spirit, in her case St. Joan of Arc. She struggles with her faith in these troubled times, and she finds herself in the group that Bao's band is hunting and fighting, which adds poignancy and emotion from a much different angle than in Boxers.

A page from Saints

What I appreciated most about these books, apart from the taut plotting and excellent illustrations, was how though provoking they are. Much ambivalence accompanies this (or any) conflict, and there are no easy answers here and no pure right side. Reviews I have read point to many of the books' positive features. Crystal called both "a beautifully illustrated and well told tale that you won’t want to miss." Ay-Leen the Peacemaker commented about both books' "emotional impact" and concluded that they combine for "an ambitious work that makes for compelling reading." Elizabeth Burns from the School Library Journal added them both to her Favorite Books Read in 2013.

Yang speaks about both of these books in this video interview as well as in this print one with GeekDad.

Boxers and Saints are both published by First Second. If you click on the titles in that last sentence you will find previews and much more for each book.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copies!

ADDENDUM 9/16/2013: Boxers and Saints made the long list for this year's National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category: http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2013.html#.Ujcgl4nD9dj

ADDENDUM 9/20/2013: There is another good interview with Yang at Good Comics for Kids: http://blogs.slj.com/goodcomicsforkids/2013/09/19/interview-gene-luen-yang-on-boxers-saints/

ADDENDUM 11/17/2013: An excellent interview with Yang at The Comics Reporter: http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/cr_sunday_interview_gene_yang/ 

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