One of my favorite comics to recommend for young adults is Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. It’s a great example of non-linear storytelling, it uses humor to make important points, and it’s a compelling look at the issues of identity and assimilation in America. It was the first graphic novel to be ever be nominated for the National Book Award, and the first graphic novel to win the Printz.
And American Born Chinese deserves all of those accolades. Yang’s latest work, however, Boxers & Saints, blows it out of the water.
A two book set, Boxers & Saints tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion, each from opposite sides of the conflict. If you don’t remember the Boxer Rebellion from history class (and I wouldn’t be surprised – though it was a terrible conflict with many casualties and far-reaching consequences for China, it’s not covered extensively here) it was a violent uprising against the foreign powers that had begun to make incursions into China. Also targeted were Chinese Christians, who were perceived as having betrayed their country. In response to these perceived threats to their culture and way of life, young men (and women!) from the countryside began to form fighting groups – who also believed that certain rituals bestowed upon them the power of the Chinese gods, including invulnerability to foreign weapons. They attacked foreign soldiers and Chinese Christians throughout the countryside, eventually converging on Beijing, holding the foreigners under siege for 55 days.
In Boxers, the first half of the set, Yang tells this story from the point of view of one of these young men, Little Bao. No one knows precisely how the group, known as the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists – “Boxer” was the term the foreign armies gave them – first came to gather. This is Yang’s interpretation, as well as an exploration of what motivated the group to make the choices it did. He successfully paints a picture of a group of young people who are oppressed and starving, who are watching their way of life being destroyed. The reader might not approve of every choice, but it’s easy to understand where they come from.
Yang’s art has cartoony, rounded edges that might seem jarring at first with the serious subject matter, but that I found to help humanize the characters and made them more sympathetic. At the same time, it helps to underscore the larger than life, unreal nature of the conflict. In Yang’s telling, the Boxers’ supernatural powers are quite literal – they become possessed by the gods of the Chinese opera – Little Bao’s “spirit soldier” is Ch’in Shih Huang, first emperor of China (and a bit of a crazy person, truthfully). Ch’in Shih Huang represents both what Bao hopes to achieve by running the foreign influence out of China, and the darker, uglier side of what it takes to get there.
Saints tackles the Boxer uprising from the other point of view, that of the Chinese Christians. The protagonist is Vibiana, who converts to Christianity initially to escape her oppressive family. As she spends more time in the mission, however, she begins to explore her own calling. Like Little Bao, she has a supernatural visitor who symbolizes this calling – Joan of Arc. However, Yang is deliberately vague on which aspect of Joan parallels Vibiana’s journey until the heart-breaking conclusion.
Saints is much smaller and less colorful than Boxers. I had the privilege of seeing Yang speak about the books last week at the Brattle Theatre, and he said that the “clarifying question” that guided his writing of Saints was one of humility – the more muted color palette reinforcing that theme. (The amazing Lark Pien colored both of these books – Yang suggested her Long Tail Kitty as a great book for kids, so I’ll have to review that soon!)
The two books can be read alone – but tie together in ways that make them far more powerful as a set. An overarching theme of unity and compassion wed the two books. Yang does an excellent job of illuminating the complexities in this struggle – I could neither fully root for nor condemn either side – but I was glad to have the chance to get to know them both better.
Recommended age: The publisher, First Second, says 10+. I’d say maybe, depending on how sensitive your 10 year old is. Though much of the violence is just off-panel, it’s there. You should also be ready to have some tough conversations afterwards.
You might like it if: You’re a history buff, you care about social justice, you like supernatural heroes, you like sobbing at the end of books
And here are my signed copies of the books! I do love a good sketch: