If you read graphic novels, at all, and you don’t know who Gene Luen Yang is, then you’re probably failing at life. He was the first person ever to win the Printz for a graphic novel with American Born Chinese, and his duet, Boxers & Saints, was a 2013 National Book Award finalist. So, in other words, he’s pretty legit.
Boxers & Saints is the story of the Boxer Rebellion from two different perspectives that occasionally intersect: Little Bao, a goofy young boy turned revolutionary leader; and Four Girl/Vibiana, a reviled fourth daughter turned Chinese Christian. Both stories are tinged with magical realism in the form of visitations and, in some cases, possession, by Chinese gods and great war leaders of the past.
While both volumes are solid ass reads, I felt much more captivated by Little Bao’s story, perhaps because it was slightly more nuanced and contained a more sophisticated character arc. When Red Lantern, a young revolutionary who roams the countryside wreaking vengeance against “Foreign Devils” on behalf of the increasingly oppressed Chinese, arrives in Little Bao’s village, he secretly takes Little Bao under his wing. He teaches Little Bao Kung Fu and eventually sends him off the to the obligatory crazy master to manage a bean garden until he’s ready to be possessed by a god and go the fuck forth and vanquish. He puts together a posse of revolution-minded warm bodies for more gods to possess, and eventually the grass-roots rebellion makes its way to Peking to oust the foreign presence in China once and for all.
At the outset, Little Bao is a wholly likeable character. He loves operas, he loves his father, he plays war with extracted teeth with some little boy (gross out). I was stoked when the sparks of revolt ignited within him, and ESPECIALLY excited when he became a revolutionary super hero. But as he becomes more immersed in the rebellion, you witness him slowly lose touch with his humanity, relying more on guidance from the god who possesses him rather than on his own moral compass, until in the end he is just as monstrous as the foreign interlopers he fought against. It’s a pretty straightforward “war makes monsters of us all” story, but it’s a story that is really well told.
Four Girl/Vibiana’s story, while still hella good, just doesn’t have the punch of Little Bao’s. Four Girl is treated like a blight on her family, and the repeated abuse she endures causes her to run away from home and join a band of Christian missionaries. She begins having visions of Joan of Arc, and uses these visions to guide her to a pretty fucked up end. There were a few things I loved about this perspective; namely, I loved that her spunk and obsession with being a devil is what led her to Christianity; she kept hearing the Christians being referred to as “devils,” so she thought, bingo! THIS is how I will become one! So good. She’s actually a more interesting character than Little Bao in terms of personality, but her story just isn’t quite as grand in scale. I also appreciated this alternate viewpoint of the Christian presence in China; Four Girl, longing to feel loved and like she actually belongs, finds a place for herself with the Missionaries, which is a very common, very human story, which makes her eventual persecution all the more heartbreaking.
The magical realist element was, in my opinion, more seamless in Boxers than it was in Saints. In Boxers there is no doubt as to whether or not this magical possession is occurring, and the panels depicting the gods falling upon the Europeans and Chinese Christians were truly beautiful. In Saints it was never one hundred percent certain as to whether Vibiana was actually having visions, which serves as a neat parallel to Joan of Arc’s story; both women were convinced of the reality of their visions, and therefore allowed themselves to be guided through their own very solid realities. However, even though it served as a cool parallel, at times it felt like her visions were more intrusive than a cohesive part of the story.
Overall this is a great magical historic graphic novel. It tells a very personal version of a very fucked up period in history, and even has a handy dandy further reading list at the end. Golly I just love it when authors do that.
In closing, the Red Lanterns were a fucking badass Boxer girl gang that I had never heard of and I’m really glad that Yang chose to include them because now I want to learn more!
I honestly can’t think of any good music to accompany this one, so if you have any suggestions I’m all ears. In the meantime, here is the gorgeous book trailer from the publisher:
Where I got it: my MAMA.