Thursday, April 17, 2014

Two sides of the same coin

Gene Luen Yang's companion graphic novels, Boxers and Saints, got a lot of attention a few months ago when they came out.  I finally got them in at the library and promptly read them in what I feel was probably the wrong order.  I read Saints first because it arrived first.  But after finishing both books and seeing the covers linked above, I understand why the series is called Boxers & Saints, rather than Saints & Boxers because there was a lot more alluding to Saints in Boxers than there was the other way around.

I feel like that paragraph was probably really difficult to understand if you haven't read the books.  So, moving on.

Boxers & Saints is a graphic novel set in China during the Boxer Rebellion.  The context of the story is that there are many Europeans who are flooding into China, bringing their foreign culture and ways and religions with them.  This wreaks havoc on the Chinese population, some of whom convert to Christianity and appreciate the foreign goods, and some of whom think the Europeans are ruining their way of life.  Yang's story tells the history from both points of view.  Little Bao suffers firsthand from the British invasion; his father is beaten and never quite recovers.  On the other hand, Four Girl never found a place for herself at home as she was considered bad luck.  So she escaped to the church and made a home for herself there.

I really like the idea behind these novels.  In history, there aren't many facts, just opinions that are voiced more loudly than others.  And even stark facts hide so much nuance and gray areas.  I love that Yang tackled this head-on by showing two people on opposite sides who were likable and easy to empathize with.  I also like that he showed the damage done by both sides.  There were a lot of things that led up to the Boxer Rebellion, but the outcome was a lot of pain and fear and loss on all sides.  Yang does not sugarcoat that reality at all.

I also think Yang did wonderfully with his use of color in the stories.  Four Girl's story was told in black and white, maybe with some sepia thrown in.  And Joan of Arc in bright yellow.  Little Bao's was a riot of color in contrast, with bold, vivid frames really bringing his story to life.  And the facial expressions that Yang can portray in his drawings are exquisite - you can definitely see exactly what each character is feeling!

I didn't love either of these books, though.  Overall, I enjoyed Boxers more than Saints, but I found both books a little lacking.  In Saints, for example, Four Girl didn't represent the Christian side well to me at all.  She basically just wanted cookies, so she started talking to a Christian.  And then her family kicked her out of the house, so she joined the church.  And then she didn't really believe in the Christian God or do anything that made herself stand out to me as someone worthy of a story.  She had visions of Joan of Arc, but I don't think there was much of a strong correlation between Joan and Four Girl.

In Boxers, Little Bao had a much stronger character.  His motivations in joining the Boxers were understandable, and I empathized with the difficulties he faced as a leader.  Overall, I found his story much better developed and interesting than Four Girl's.

I'm really glad I read these books because I have been interested in them since they came out.  What a fantastic and creative way to tell one story through different lenses.  I think we should all try to learn history this way - by reading accounts from different sides and learning what motivated and drove people to act as they did.  While I didn't love the stories themselves, I really applaud the effort and hope that Yang does more like this, or inspires other authors to do the same.  So many historical events that I would love to see put in context!  Such as:

  • The American Civil War
  • Partition in India/Pakistan
  • Arab Spring
What events would you like to see brought to life in this manner?


  1. Anonymous4/17/2014

    Oh, I loved so much that Four Girl wasn't devoted to Christianity and that she just wanted a home. That makes what happens to her all the more poignant. Also! I think it emphasizes that people join a cause or a religion for a lot of different reasons--not necessarily because they are zealots or even true believers. It was an interesting choice.

    1. That is a very good point! I didn't think about it that way. But I still don't think Vibiana felt like the church was home. She was just kind of there and weirding everyone out ...

  2. He really does things brilliantly. I can't wait to see what he does next!

  3. I should check if the library has any new graphic novels

  4. I really enjoyed the other two Yang books I read so I will probably pick these up too.

  5. Anonymous4/18/2014

    Oh, what an amazing idea to have other authors do something similar. Can Gene Luen Yang do them please? He did such a great job with these ones. I agree that Vibiana's motivations and faith aren't as clearly drawn as Little Bao's, but still, overall I thought the books were great. And yes! The colors! How gorgeous were they?

    1. Such pretty colors! And so good at expressing emotion.

  6. I wonder if reading Saints first didn't skew your opinion? I liked the way it completed Boxers... I'm not sure that the other way around works as well.

    I would love to see more worldwide history brought to light in this manner... I think Western-European/American history too often fills our collective consciousness in place of the rest of the world. Early history - Mesopotamia, for example - could be really interesting.


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