Gene Luen Yang has made a big name for himself in the graphic novel community, earning himself acclaim and awards for his ever-growing body of work. His latest release is a two-book set, “Boxers & Saints”, that tells two very different stories from the same time period, intertwined with historic and mystical elements.
“Boxers & Saints” brings us to China at the turn of the 20th century during a time of great change and upheaval. Focused on the formation of the Boxer Rebellion and the events thereafter, each book in this set gives us two pieces of the puzzle. While they may be taking place in the same timeline with the same events happening, the stories are loosely tied together, but in the end are both tragic tales. “Boxers” gives us the side of Little Bao, a young man whose love of Opera aids his mental transformation from a weakling into the eventual leader of the Big Sword Society. During his struggles, he learns that he is channeling the spirit of a mysterious presence that he is not familiar with, and solves the mystery of who he is and what he will become.
In “Saints”, we meet “Four-Girl”, an abused and mistreated girl who takes her anger and frustation out into becoming a “devil”, which leads her ironically down the path of Christianity (to become a “foreign devil” like the British imperialists) to start a new life as Vibiana and down her own path of martyrdom as she takes solace from Joan of Arc. Both characters go down drastically different paths, and meet only twice in their lifetimes – first, as children, and later towards the conclusion of their tales.
Yang’s writing always blurs the lines of humanism with socio-political messages, and this book expertly continues that difficult divide. It’s hard to tackle a book that deals heavily with political themes and to not favor one side of the argument, but through the strong and often-stubborn characters of Bao and Vibiana, Both characters make difficult decisions to consciously change their situations, both deluded into thinking it will be for the best, but the outcome for either is debatable.
The setting for this book is a piece of history that most Americans may only vaguely remember hearing about in their Middle School history classes, if they learned about it at all. Setting it in this time period makes for an interesting chain of juxtapositions. First, you have the characters themselves, displaced in their own worlds so much that they take up new mantles to delude themselves into becoming the person they think they want to be. Second, the visions they see that lead them to make the choices they do are just as opposite as the two protagonists are (but one of them might be a spoiler, so I will not say much else about that). Ultimately, it is these two major juxtapositions that lead us into the biggest ones of the pair of books – that of the Chinese traditionalists against the “secondary devils”, which were Chinese people that converted to Christianity.
Yang’s artwork is simple but bold lines, stark blacks for a stark world, but with subtle hints of thinner line work when needed for a brief moment of clarity. The color palette is often pale and cold, with the warmth coming through with the characters fantasies. They live in a bleak world that lacks compassion, and through their transformations they get the love that they desire so much. No one in “Boxers & Saints” is perfect, everyone is flawed (especially the protagonists), and this is what makes the book so interesting. How do you invest yourself into two characters that seem both confused at their roles in life, yet sure that what they are doing is the right thing and only way to accomplish this path they forged.
Thought-provoking, startling, chilling, depressing – these are all adjectives that came to me while reading this set. While the themes are nothing new for Yang, the way he depicts things with his art and mature writing set this apart from his previous books. Yang has never sugar-coated any of his words, but “Boxers & Saints” takes what Yang has done before and add a new level of depth that is unnerving at first due to the subject matter, but by the end leaves the readers in a similar state as the characters on the final page of the tale.
I definitely recommend “Boxers & Saints” for so many reasons. An intimate look at a period of time in China of mass violence, pain and sorrow, you will leave the book wondering who really were the winners and losers of the Boxer Rebellion. You can pick up the “Boxers & Saints” Boxed Set from Amazon.com for just $25, which is an amazing deal on a pair of must-read books, and certainly one bound to win Yang a few more awards.