Friday, May 25, 2018

Boxers & Saints - Gene Luen Yang

Summary: One of the greatest comics storytellers alive brings all his formidable talents to bear in this astonishing new work.

In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.

But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.

Boxers & Saints is one of the most ambitious graphic novels First Second has ever published. It offers a penetrating insight into not only one of the most controversial episodes of modern Chinese history, but into the very core of our human nature. Gene Luen Yang is rightly called a master of the comics form, and this book will cement that reputation. (Summary and picture from

My Review: The really awesome thing about Boxers & Saints is that it is two separate graphic novels, but they work together as companion pieces.  The main characters in each book make an appearance in the other.  You could easily read one or the other and have a complete story.

Or rather, you actually won't.  

Because what I really, REALLY love about Boxers & Saints, is that there's always another side to every story.

You start with Boxers.  The Boxer Rebellion took place in the late 1800s, when groups of vigilante Chinese people rose up against foreigners, opposing western colonization and religion.  We follow Little Bao, a boy who has seen the darker side of this colonization, how these foreigners (whom they call devils) destroy China's beloved gods, change their culture, and harm their people.  

Then you have Saints, where you follow Four-Girl (later Vibiana) as she converts to Christianity (at first believing she can become a 'true devil' as she believes is her destiny, which is a humorous, if not also heartbreaking, sidestory), with visions of Joan of Arc to help her as she discovers her true path.

Read either one alone, you have a straightforward story.  Read both, you have understanding.

What Yang has been able to so successfully accomplish with Boxers & Saints, is seeing how one side affects the other.  How the Boxers see the conflict vs how the Christians see it.  They both have (what they believe to be) good reasons for their actions.  Yang is able to humanize both sides by following a main character in each that we can root for and love, even despite the horrible things they might do.  While fictional, they become real people that allow us to see into a real conflict that took place.

And that's another thing I love about stories like this--they open your eyes.  Stories in general are a way for us to see and learn things we may not be familiar with, but stories like this, that adequately show both sides, each of which could be equally villainized, teach us that we shouldn't always jump to conclusions, that we should examine everything before we make judgement or condemnation.

The art of both novels is simple, but also defining, and I love the use of color in each volume.  In Boxers, there are bright colors, especially when the ancient gods come, while in Saints, the color palate is more muted, with golds as our highlights.

Where this could easily become a dark, dreary story of bloodshed and hate, Yang is skillfully able to intersperse humor and light into both stories, which is needed and enjoyable, but does not lessen the harsh truths these tales need to tell. 

My Rating: 5 stars

For the sensitive reader: this is the story of a rebellion, a war.  In Boxers particularly there is much bloodshed (many innocent people included) and some minor language and adult talk, though nothing too graphic.  I'd recommend it for an older child audience, though if read with a parent or adult, it would be good to introduce the concept of seeing both sides of a situation for a younger audience.

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