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.

The English, Jeremy Paxman

Before we get to my thoughts on this book (short version: not as enjoyable as Watching the English), let’s take a moment for a little segment I like to call PRAISE PLEASE.

I am tearing it up re: reading and disposing of my huge stacks of TBR books. It is my most successful reading project ever, and I only started it a couple of weeks ago. I have read half of two books and decided I never wanted to finish them. I have elected to discard two books that I feel would only piss me off anyway (Perelandra and That Hideous Strength). And I have read six of the books. So this project, which has run for about a fortnight as of this writing, has disposed of ten books already so far. (Update: Between the first draft of this post at the start of this week, and now, the end of the week, this number has been bumped up to twelve altogether.)

Praise please.

In Watching the English, a book about what the English are like, the author frequently referred to the much better-known (and, she implied, better full-stop) book on the same topic, Jeremy Paxman’s The English. I got it at a book sale for two dollars and have been intending to read it ever since. And now I have, and I think Watching the English is a better book. It as least more consonant with my own impressions of the English, and it doesn’t do that thing Jeremy Paxman is prone to where it makes enormous leaps from a specific instance of something to a huge generality. Paxman can be cheerfully self-satisfied in an arena that maybe he shouldn’t be so pleased about, and bitterly self-critical of another arena that maybe is not so bad — in both cases, it’s a problem of the qualities he highlights being not quite so unique to the British as he’s claiming.

For instance, this, about British people forming mobs at sporting events:

The problem is not exclusively English — Dutch and German fans have developed their own versions of the sickness in which puffy-faced young thugs proclaim their loyalty by kicking or stoning anyone who speaks a different language or wears different colours. But the truth is that the English gave the world soccer. They also gave it hooliganism.

Which, just, no they didn’t. They did not. The world had hooligans long before England came into the play. Still, though, I don’t know that much about international football matches and what fans from different countries have acted like, historically. I’d be willing to be convinced of this claim. I am amenable to many arguments that seem insane on first glance. But you have to prove it; you can’t just make a claim, quote some randos from history who also thought England was thuggish, and withdraw. You could do that for any quality in any country.

Or like this about racism:

Generally the English can be proud of their achievements in the field of race relations. Sudden, large-scale immigration was not something that was thought through, and, without wanting to minimize the real problems that can still face members of ethnic-minority communities, the tensions could have been a great deal worse.

Again, sure, maybe! But prove it to me. The Brixton riots? Those happened; why aren’t they a consideration? Is there census data showing the integration of England versus other countries? Anything would be less maddening than leaving it, as Paxman does, at “The country’s exuberant youth culture is largely colour-blind.”

It was particularly frustrating to me because Paxman is able to make a good case for his points, and he sometimes does it, but often not. I was in for believing what he said about the dominant narrative of Britain being this tiny underdog triumphing over impossible odds. That is a narrative. Britain likes that narrative. (I like that narrative too, it gets me teary-eyed.)

Well, never mind. I am sure you have paid no attention to any of these remarks because you are so VASTLY IMPRESSED with my book-cull reading project. That is fair, although I shall modestly acknowledge that I started with a bunch of the shorter books rather than leaping straight into the huge bulky ones. But you should feel free to praise me anyway.