Review: Boxers and Saints, Gene Luen Yang

Before I get started with this review, it’s time for PRAISE PLEASE, a segment I do sometimes because I need praise like oxygen. I decided that in 2014, I was going to read 20% non-white authors. I got a slow start because by the time I resolved this, I already had ten reviews scheduled or in need of writing, and they were all of books by white authors. However, in the first third of the year, my books have been 40% by authors of color. Half POC authors would be best, but I am still pretty pleased with myself.

(I’ve been surprised how overwhelmingly American my reading is, though! 65% American so far! I really thought I read more British authors than that.)

If you have been anywhere around the blogosphere over the last year or so, you’ve probably heard of Boxers and Saints, Gene Luen Yang’s companion-novel comics about the Boxer Rebellion. In Boxers, a village boy called Little Bao witnesses destruction, death, and abuse of power at the hands of Christians in China (both foreigners and native converts to the faith). Believing that he is possessed by the spirits of the gods, Bao organizes his friends and, later, men from many other villages into an army of “Boxers” to fight off the Christians. Vibiana, the protagonist of Saints, is an unwanted daughter whose interest in Christianity begins because she’s hungry and they feed her. Then she begins to see visions of Joan of Arc, and she tries to right injustices where she sees them.

People have made the joke before that many of the technical Academy Award categories boil down to “most”, not “best” — who did the most costume designing, who did the most acting — the idea being that the more a movie calls to its sound editing, its costume design, et cetera, the more likely it is to win that category. So I’m alive to the fact that I only mention coloring when it’s doing something unusual, and it doesn’t actually mean that the color folks for Hawkeye and Boxers and Saints are any better at their job than the color folks who aren’t being flashy all the time.

That said, I loved what Lark Pien was doing with color in Boxers and Saints. Day to day, Little Bao and Vibiana’s lives are drawn in dreary colors, grays and browns. But the visitations of the gods — Joan of Arc for Vibiana, warrior spirits for Little Bao — are drawn in vivid colors.

It’s hard to imagine a better representation of what these spirits mean to Vibiana and Little Bao: An alternative and a choice, in lives that have offered them very little opportunity to choose for themselves. That Little Bao gets caught up in the righteous fervor of the Boxer Rebellion, and Vibiana in practicing Christianity, makes perfect sense when cast in this light — they both yearn to be able to bring meaningful change to their lives and the lives of those they love, to be part of something greater than themselves.

In particular, Yang is brilliant at depicting the worsening atrocities of which Little Bao finds himself capable as the rebellion goes on. At first he’s joyful to be part of something greater, but the other side of that coin — he quickly finds — is that the something greater can have a life beyond simply what he wants. The spirits that possess him ask more and more of him. His own anger on behalf of those harmed by missionaries and British soldiers leads him to commit murders that feel both wrong and necessary.

I’m probably the last person in the blogosphere to read Boxers and Saints, but in case you are lagging behind as well, I’ll take this opportunity to further recommend them! They’re very user-friendly in medium (the comics panels are laid out in a way that’s easy to follow, with very little tricksiness that might mess up comics newbies) and in content (I didn’t know a ton about the Boxer Rebellion before beginning, and I never felt lost as to the broader context of what was happening). They’re the best YA historical fiction I’ve read in some time — strongly endorsed!

If you’ve read these, do you think they have the capacity to be a comics gateway drug a la Persepolis and Maus? I can very much see that happening, and I like the notion because it gets lame after a while to keep on recommending those two comics and only those two comics to nervous comics readers.

  • No, no, **I** am the last! I even picked it up once, and put it back down. Must pick up again and proceed directly to check out line….

    • Gin Jenny

      If your library has it in! Part of the reason I was so late to the party was that my library kept having only one of the two volumes in at a time, and I wanted to read both of them together.

  • You’re not the last! I just read them this weekend. I totally agree with you, I absolutely loved the color and the artwork. I’m not a graphic novel newbie, but I think you’re right that they would be perfect gateways and are probably already becoming that for some people, from what I’ve heard.

    • Gin Jenny

      Oh good! It’s nice to see something else being added to the canon of comics gateway drugs — I feel like the standard two have been Maus and Persepolis all along. They’re great but they aren’t the only comics in the world.

  • Nope, I’m the last! I have been waiting for what seems like FOREVER for my library to get these. Still waiting!!

    • Gin Jenny

      Pooh! Hurry up, library!

  • This is such a good post, and I couldn’t agree with you more. RE: comics gateway drug, I vote yes! Like you said, the panel layout is very accessible and the pages aren’t over busy or confusing.

    Also, well done on the diversity of your reading. I’m not doing so well myself, so I think I might devote a month or two to books by authors of colour to rectify that.

    • aartichapati

      Do it, Ana! I think it will be liberating to you to see how easy it actually is, much like it was for Jenny 🙂

      As for the gateway drug, I think you both may be correct. I admit I did not really like these books but that doesn’t mean they are not a good intro! However, I have not read either of the other gateway books, so must remedy!

    • Gin Jenny

      What I’ve found is that it’s easy as long as you’re constantly paying attention. It’s working out for me partly because I’m seeking out reviews of books of POC authors, and partly because I’m being more mindful of which books by white authors I’m adding to my list. I think it’s making for a better-quality TBR list all around.

  • I haven’t read it. I have read those other graphic novels though, and a good one on Feynman (not a gateway). Recently I read Stitches, and I can’t decide if that’s a gateway or not. ….Yes?

    • Gin Jenny

      I can’t remember if I’ve read Stitches or not! (Ridiculous state of affairs, I acknowledge.) So I can’t say.

  • I so very rarely read comics because I can’t seem to shake the idea that they’re not “real books”. And yet I hold no grudge against magazines, which aren’t books either.

    • Gin Jenny

      Read a few. You’ll quickly get over it, I promise. I got over that hump after graduating high school because I wanted to have read everything Neil Gaiman ever wrote, and that turned out to be a lot of comics. I used my graduation money to buy the entire run of Sandman, and by the time I was through, I had let go of that “not real books” thing completely.

  • You are not the last person in the Blogosphere to have read these- I still haven’t! They sound amazing though, I’ll have to change this soon!

    • Gin Jenny

      They are, they’re really good! Strongly recommend.

  • I am getting in the “still haven’t read these” line as well. And I do admire your diversity goal, and how well you’re managing that. I didn’t make it a formal goal, which is good because I’d have a big fat “F” so far (not even an “E” for effort, sadly). but you’ve reminded me I can do better.

    • Gin Jenny

      I’m really pleased I made it a formal goal! I’ve read a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up otherwise. The People in the Trees is my favorite book of the year so far, and I probably wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t been doing this goal.

  • *shovels on heaps of praise* Go you! That is an amazing number you have there. I clearly need to make reading authors of color a priority. Apparently, it’s not going to happen by itself.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yep, it doesn’t. What I’ve found is that although it’s not that hard to make it happen, it won’t happen on its own. I have to keep being mindful of it.

  • And here I thought I was the last person that hadn’t read them. I almost bought them last week and then got sidetracked by others. Next time I won’t let that happen.

    Props on your amazing diversifying of your reads!!

    • Gin Jenny

      Thank you!!!

  • I feel a bit awkward to say I haven’t read a single graphic novel in my life… I’ve seen these ones around though and the drawing looks nice. I will definitely read a graphic novel at some point and it’s exciting to ponder over what should be the first one.

    • Gin Jenny

      Gosh, really? Well, if I were going to recommend one to start with, I’d probably still say Persepolis. It’s really fascinating, and the layout of the panels is pretty straightforward. Fables is also a fun one.

      • Really! 🙂 I have read fair amount of comic books and manga, but none of the books readers consider “graphic novels”, I think. From what I’ve seen, I have liked the drawings in Persepolis (kind of minimalistic and should be easy to follow), so I might just take that recommendation 🙂

  • Praise praise praise for exceeding your goal! Keep it up.

    I haven’t read these, but I think Yang’s work is a marvelous introduction to comics for newbies. Plus, if they already like Avatar: The Last Airbender, then you’re already halfway there.

  • Way to go on being all diversified! I’m afraid to look at mine. I’m such a mood reader that I feel like if I put any constraints on what I can choose, I’ll just stop reading and be a vegetable. But that’s probably being a little melodramatic:) Point being, good show!
    I’ve been eying this for a good long time and have no good excuse as to why I haven’t picked them up. I like history and learning things and pretty artwork. Sounds like I’d get all three with this one!

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  • You have a ton of praise coming from me as you are one of my favorite bloggers! 🙂 Yes, I do think Boxers and Saints can be a gateway drug for people who want a smart read.

  • Lu

    ALL THE PRAISE! You’re doing a great job on your goals. Mine are looking pretty shabby, this halfway point through the year. I still have SO MANY BOOKS on my shelves that I promised myself I would read, but I’ve been finding any and every excuse.

    This comic is so smart and such an interesting example of what comics can be, that I think it really does fit in with Persepolis and Maus.