December 3, 2013

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Boxers and Saints

Written and Illustrated by Gene Luen Yang
Published by First Second

In Boxers, a young man named Bao watches as foreigners and their Chinese allies work to undermine and destroy his village's way of life. Drawing inspiration from the Opera Gods and believing himself to be the living avatar of a former ruler, Bao gathers more and more around him, taking the fight right to those who would oppress them.

Things aren't quite so easy, however, as even a God can die when faced with doubt and superior numbers. As Bao doubts his faith, desperate actions are taken in the name of revolution in this historical fiction of the Boxer Rebellion.

Meanwhile, Saints tells the story from the perspective of a young woman who is neglected by her family (to the point of not even getting a proper name). Drawn to the kindness of Christians, she converts, only to find out that the new religion isn't perfect either. Seeing visions of her own in the form of Joan of Arc, the renamed Vibiana will have to figure out where her loyalties lie, even as Saint Joan did, so many centuries before, as Yang looks at the Boxer Rebellion from a different set of eyes.

Combined, these two graphic novels, which were a finalist for the National Book Award, form dual look at a little known moment in Chinese (and world history), written and drawn by a man with an ability to appreciate both sides, given that he is a Chinese-American and also a Christian. Because of this duality, Yang manages the difficult task of creating these opposing protagonists without ever making the reader feel like we are to side with one faction or the other. Instead, we are allowed to make our own judgments based on the meticulously researched facts presented to us.

Of the two books, Boxers is the more visually dazzling, because of the presence of the Opera Gods. The first time they show up in force, Yang gives them a full-page splash, as their spirits rise from the earth in lavish costumes and masks. Compared to the blending of yellows, browns, and muted colors that come before them, the appearance of the Gods is striking, and every time they go into battle, the results are eye-popping.

Yang does not hesitate to show (or in some key cases, withhold) violence, but he's careful not to sensationalize it. We'll see spears driven straight through chests, bloody swords, or bodies with gaping wounds, but they are understated and factual. We aren't meant to revel in the deaths of anyone in the stories of Boxers and Saints. They are victims of cultural pressures and forces at a level beyond their understanding. When Bao sees the bodies of his friends and family among the dead, the fact that they are lifeless and marked up with wounds hits the reader full in the face.

Saints, on the other hand, is given a very different visual look and feel. Yang keeps it effectively in sepia tones, varying the shade but never breaking into bright coloring the way that Boxers does. Vibiana's world is still just as full of life as Bao's, and her story echoes his by featuring encounters with the vision of Joan of Arc. She speaks to Joan about her doubts and fears, looking for answers that the saint is maddeningly reluctant to give. Vibiana wants her path to be the same as this hallowed girl, but Joan reminds her that she must take her own path, which is not the one of the warrior.

As we follow Vibiana's story, pieces of Bao's narrative weave in and out. While he finds nothing but cruelty in the Christians he encounters, they show Vibiana a path to identity--if she plays her part. When the two finally meet, if you've read Boxers first, you know what happens, but that makes it no less poignant. Like Joan, Vibiana wonders if she's taken the right path, and Yang gives just enough information for the reader to make their own choice.

Both books have great little touches. For example, Europeans speak in gibberish, that Yang doesn't always choose to translate. His panel work is extremely consistent, using a grid that changes as needed, but mostly working under a six-panels per page rhythm that keeps the story moving smoothly. There is a bit of flatness to Yang's art that sometimes takes away from the power of the story, especially in group shots. However, he more than makes up for this with expressive eyes and gestures, saying so much in just a few looks. Overall, Yang's craft shows as a long-form storyteller, doing all the right things (varied character designs, recurring themes, plot arc, and so on) that made this an award-worthy set of books.

Boxers and Saints is not non-fiction, but it's awfully close. I rarely encounter a book so steeped in period history that takes the time to get it all right, not just use the backdrop as a plot. Kaoru Mori might be the only person who's done it better than Yang does here, in Emma and A Bride's Story. I realize I have not read every comic that came out in 2013, but I believe firmly that Boxers and Saints belongs on any such list that gets created. It will definitely be on mine.