Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Writer & Artist: Gene Luen Yang
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Whatever most of us know about China’s Boxer Rebellion (1897-1901), if anything, comes from the two-part crossover episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel set during the historical uprising. Joss Whedon’s take on the era used the event more as a dramatic background than to inform the story meaningfully, and it’s doubtful that writer/artist Gene Luen Yang took the adventures of Darla and Spike as inspiration, but there’s clearly something about the binary nature of the Boxer Rebellion that attracted both creators. Yang’s response was to write and draw two comic books — Boxers & Saints —that address the story from opposing sides with overlapping narratives. Both chapters’ covers and spines fit together to create a single image formed from the main characters’ faces, plus their spiritual guides in the background, urging them on with a sword.
The books work separately, but they’re stronger together, producing a well-rounded picture of the parties involved. In Boxers, Little Bao, born in a rural village, comes to revolution through his love of Chinese opera and his early negative experiences with European influence. He ends up leading a band of fellow nationalists who believe they are possessed by the spirits of their gods as they fight. Saints follows Four-Girl, equally impoverished and isolated, who finds her way to Christianity (the Boxers targeted Christian missionaries and converts as examples of the Western imperialism they fought against) through the kindness of a priest, cookies, and some encounters with Joan of Arc.
These brief summations of plot make the books sound like homework, and they may well be assigned as such, but Yang is alive to the possibilities of cartooning. The goofy facial expressions and physical comedy that abound help lighten the bloodshed, and a quick flip through the pages shows plenty of smiles. Saints is especially impressive for creating a comedic story around circumstances that rarely lend themselves to that context.
If you have to read only one, Boxers is the more complete entry, as suggested by its 329 page count, compared to the 170 in Saints. Whereas the latter sticks almost entirely to monochromatic (but beautiful!) coloring, Boxers is punctuated by flares of brighter color that delight the eye and lend a powerful rhythm to its march. You would be remiss, however, to stop with only one volume, and you would also miss important plot details shared in the overarching narrative. Even if you read both, you will hunger for more. Let’s hope Yang works double-time on his next project.