Belief is in the Eye of the Beholder

Title: Boxers & Saintscovers

Author: Gene Luen Yang

Publisher & Release Date: First Second, September 2013

The Hook: If you haven’t heard of Yang’s American Born Chinese, welcome to the world of graphic novels! We have a lot of fun here. In November, Boxers & Saints was named a National Book Award Finalist. BoxersSignedYang is an advocate for comics in education and is just generally all kinds of awesome – check out how he signed my copy (eeee!):

The Lowdown (from jackets): “China, 1898. Bands of foreign missionaries and soldiers roam the countryside, bullying and robbing Chinese peasants. Little Bao has had enough. Harnessing the powers of ancient Chinese gods, he recruits an army of Boxers – commoners trained in kung fu – who fight to free China from “foreign devils.”

“An unwanted and unwelcome fourth daughter, Four-Girl isn’t even given a proper name by her family when she’s born. She finally finds friendship – and a name, Vibiana – in the most unlikely of places: Christianity.”

Overall Impressions:   Yang has tightly wrapped myth, belief and history around a very raw humanity. Before reading this, I only had a very vague idea of what happened in the Boxer Rebellion, and it was sad and maddening to see the human faults on both sides – roving lechers and looters, the greedy, the opium addicts, and people too blinded in their own faith to recognize the value in others‘.  Family obligation, pride and mercy drive the characters, too, though, in ways that will still resonate with a modern reader. This was a hard review to write, in fact, because I want so much to convey how much I love this set.
Little Bao steps from role to role as a little brother, a son, a leader, and a warrior. He has a boyish eagerness to prove himself, to claim the blessings of the gods and see justice done, and in the beginning his journey with the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist (the eponymous ‘Boxers’) does seem to be blessed. As the fighting gets more serious, Little Bao exhibits a disturbing ruthless streak – the reader is still rooting for him, but now to find the right path to save his people without sinking into the dark vision of the brutal first Emperor.
Vibiana, as the scorned youngest daughter in a wildly biased societal system, channels her rage and frustration into her conversion to Christianity. Her initial choices are naturally childish and selfish, but she slowly finds her way after receiving visions of Joan of Arc. She never loses her prickliness and pride, but her actions during the attack of the Righteous Fist speak loudly to her growing compassion.
The collision of the two separate arcs give each other context beyond what Little Bao and Vibiana individually experience. Both struggle with their role in life, reaching for the idealistic vision presented to them initially and then left holding the often brutal consequences, where good and bad are found on both sides, sometimes even in the same person. 

The Highs: These are nuanced people, not cartoons (ironically) – there’s more emotional depth in seemingly simply drawings than other authors give characters with whole paragraphs of description backing them.

Learning aspects of Chinese society in snippets of conversation rather than being subjected to walls of explanatory text.

The parallels that are drawn between the journeys of Little Bao and Four-Girl/Vibiana as they struggle with society’s expectations and their own beliefs.

The art:   I’ve always liked Yang’s clean lines and expressive characters, and he achieves a wonderful balance here – the art being as much a part of the storytelling experience as the words. Colorist Lark Pien relies heavily on muted tones of brown and red for dull peasant life, with the effective use of color to highlight the supernatural visions of Little Bao and Vibiana. It’s really a pleasure just to hold.

And finally, the small piece of hope left even as everything is burning.

Buzzkills: It’s a grim time in history, and judgments aren’t clear or easy; if you want clearly defined heroes and villains, you’re not going to find them here.

The Source: Green Bean Books, Portland, during the Wordstock conference.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or visions of glory were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

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