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.