Boxers and Saints
Comic books have faced a long struggle to acceptance. From the early hysteria that comic books would cause any reader to suddenly become a nefarious criminal a la Reefer Madness to the incredible rising popularity of the superhero movies, it’s a medium that has moved from reviled to part of the popular culture. And yet, there’s still a stigma attached to saying you read them, particularly as an adult. But we’re moving forward and a sign of that is the fact that this week, Gene Luen Yang was appointed as an Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress. This is an amazing indication of the educational value of graphic novels for teens and younger audiences and Yang is perfect for the role. So this week for Graphic Reviews, it seemed the right time to highlight one of Yang’s recent works, Boxers and Saints. In Boxers and Saints, Yang brings the Boxer Rebellion to life through the stories of two Chinese teens. History can be dry and boring but by telling the story of Little Bao and Vibiana, Yang makes the Boxer Rebellion feel vibrant and as compelling and horrifying as the real life events. The series is composed of two volumes, Boxers and then the companion story, Saints. Yang displays his own talents as both writer and illustrator, with colors by Lark Pien.
Unless you’re pretty familiar with Asian history, the Boxer Rebellion may be as unfamiliar to you as it was to me. Essentially, a Chinese secret organization known as the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists arose in 1900 in an effort to combat what they felt were insidious Japanese and Western influences in their country. Through physical exercises, they believed they were impervious to bullets and tried to cleanse China of foreign influence by killing foreigners and Chinese Christians as well as destroying property tainted by Western influence. This isn’t just a mob of uneducated peasants however and Yang does a great job of showing the frustrations and injustices experienced by the Chinese that led to them revolting against anything perceived as foreign. In Boxers, Yang shows us the world of the Chinese peasant from 1894-1900. Little Bao’s family makes a living by farming and when his father is crippled by a group of foreign soldiers, Little Bao decides to take a stand against the “foreign devils” as well as the “secondary devils,” the Chinese who have converted to Christianity and both support and are supported by the foreign missionaries and soldiers. Little Bao believes that the gods of the opera, Chinese spirit heroes and guides, inhabit his body and those of his fellow Boxers and give them the strength to take back their country. Throughout Boxers, Yang shows the evolution of Little Bao from a young peasant boy trained in kung fu to the leader of a rebellion that was born out of injustice and yet leaves violence and death in its wake. In Saints, Yang focuses on a Christian convert, a young Chinese girl born with the name Four-Girl (because her grandfather hates her and refuses to give her a real name) and after her conversion, takes the name Vibiana. Vibiana starts to see visions of Joan of Arc and is compelled to join the Christians, both Chinese and foreign, as they first deal with the Boxers and then flee from the violence. Vibiana’s story intertwines with Little Bao’s in surprising ways and does an incredible job presenting the other side of this conflict.
Writing historical fiction for teens is a challenge. History is not inherently entertaining unless you present the human side of it, make the characters feel real to the reader. Yang does a fantastic job with this. Little Bao starts as this character who you can identify with. He’s hardworking, loves his family and loves the plays put on at the fairs every summer. And like most young kids, he envisions the heroes and gods speaking to him. It’s easy to see how he would want to stand up for his family and his countrymen and protect them from people who want to take advantage of them. And as the story progresses, Little Bao gets more and more entangled in this fight for China and ends up doing some pretty terrible things. By the end, Little Bao isn’t exactly what you’d call a hero and yet he’s still compelling and intriguing as a character. What I most admired about Boxers and Saints though was that Yang showed both sides. It’s easy to show a conflict as black and white. But by showing Vibiana’s transformation from unwanted daughter to a reluctant convert to a girl who believes in her faith, Yang presents the human side of a violent and dangerous time. As far as historical fiction for teens go, Boxers and Saints deserves recognition for being nuanced, entertaining through the silly humor at moments of Little Bao and Vibiana and disturbing in its depiction of the slow acceptance of violence.
The artwork for Boxers and Saints also deserves recognition. The illustrations by Yang take a much more comic than realistic approach and this allows Yang to depict the violence without it being overwhelming. Yang shows how Little Bao’s visions of the opera gods and heroes allow him to commit violence and feel justified and epic in doing so. In the scenes in which the Boxers fight foreigners and even eventually kill Chinese Christians, the Boxers are represented as these heroic godlike figures which helps to explain their belief that they cannot be killed by bullets. This is particularly helped by the colors by Lark Pien. The tones of Little Bao’s day to day life are muted and neutral but when he becomes a god with the other Boxers, the colors are beautifully vibrant. The same scheme is used with Vibiana when she has her visions in which she is talking to Joan of Arc. It creates this otherworldly sensation with both characters and contributes to the intense feel of the story.
Now that graphic novels are starting to be used in classrooms, Boxers and Saints is one that I feel needs to be read. As historical fiction, it does an amazing job bringing a conflict to life and showing readers more than just one side of it. And it isn’t one I’d just recommend to teens. The illustrations and coloring help tell the stories of Little Bao and Vibiana along with Yang’s writing and it makes Boxers and Saints feel more like a movie than a book. If you’re curious about Asian history or even just want to see historical fiction done perfectly in a graphic novel, I’d highly recommend picking it up!