Graphic Novel Review: Boxers & Saints

If you have not had the opportunity to read Gene Leun Yang’s graphic novels, you really should. His eye for detail and for bringing the mystical into a story is interesting to experience. American Born Chinese is becoming a fixture in many classroom, and it should be. That graphic novel is storytelling at its best. His latest books are two stories of China that are really one story, told from two perspectives, in two different graphic novels.

Boxers focuses in on the Chinese resistance to Christian missionaries and Europeans who came to “tame” China (and reap its wealth, too, of course) in the late 1800s. The graphic story centers on Little Bao, who emerges as a leader of the resistance forces who seek to throw the white invaders out of China and retain their Chinese cultural identity. Saints is the companion book, viewing the same events through the eyes of a young girl who sees the Christian faith as the true path forward, seeing progress in the new religious views and savagery in those who remain fixed in the past.

I wish Saints were as powerful as Boxers, but I fear not. Yang seems to have focused much more of his creative energy on the story of resistance, and the story is wonderfully told, with deep characters, motivations and illuminating artwork that brings the reader not only into the mind of Little Bao but also into the heart of China, with all of its deep history and cultural pride. Be warned: there are gruesome battles in these books, and are not for the feint of heart. The violence is part of the setting, however, and Yang is not one to toss blood and gore into a story just for the heck of it.

Saints is the weaker of the two books, thinner in both size and in story. A young girl, an outcast in many ways in her own family and village, finds faith in the Christian missionaries, and finds companionship in the spectral image of Joan of Arc, who visits the girl (Vibiana, her name after her conversion) regularly to inspire her faith and her heart. While Vibiana is a character to care for (there are funny, telling scenes at the start of the story that provide a rich insight into who she is), the story of her growth and her role in the stamping out of the resistance movement lacked the development of Boxers, in my mind.

But Yang’s move to wrap these two stories around each other was intriguing. We catch glimpses of both characters in the other story from time to time. I read Saints first, and had that in my mind as I read Boxers. But I wonder if my experience would have been different if I had read them the other way around?

Peace (in the story),

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