Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (book review)

This month book club is reading graphic novels.  I've been waiting a while for this genre to come up, not only because I obviously love graphic novels, but because I don't know that we can really link them all together and call them a "genre".  There's so much diversity in subject matter, art, etc, that I think it will be a challenging discussion when we eventually sit down and try to figure out what ties our works together and what generalizations we can make about what is more an art form than a genre.

Anyway, this month I read the 2-volume Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang, who is also the super talented author of American Born Chinese, which I highly recommend if you haven't already read it.

I'm a big fan of the covers

Despite having taught high school history for a time, I have only a passing knowledge of the Boxer Rebellion, mostly to do in connection with imperialism in general.  My knowledge of the internal tensions and politics within China at the time is almost nil, so I was really glad to read this work not only from an entertainment perspective, but also from an educational one.

I would recommend reading these in the order suggested by the title of the combined work.  Some things are otherwise given away in Saints, or would be difficult to understand the importance of without first having read Boxers.  The two are essentially inseparable, and only happen to be bound separately.

Children Bao and Four-Girl are the protagonists of these two stories.  In Boxers, Bao is mistreated and neglected by his brothers until conflict with both "foreign devils" and "secondary devils" (Chinese converts to Christianity) leads Bao to train in martial arts, and eventually lead his brothers and the members of The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists in rebellion.  In Saints, Four-Girl's story runs parallel to Bao's.  Also a mistreated and unwanted child, Four-Girl yearns for basic recognition and a real name, and eventually finds the belonging she desires in Christianity.  Bao and Four-Girl cross paths innocently as children, but find themselves on opposite sides of a war by the time they are teens, with tragic results.

Gene Yuen Lang does a marvelous job of presenting both sides of this conflict, but I found Boxers to be a much stronger work than Saints.  I found Bao to be the more developed and complete character, with more time spent on the development of his character and exploration of his actions and motivations. The believability of the characters also extends to many of the secondary protagonists. Perhaps it is simply because Saints is a shorter volume, but I found it to be lacking in character development and storyline compared to Boxers.  I found Four-Girl to be much more static and her story less intriguing than Bao's.  Together they work well, but I really wish that as much development had occurred with Four-Girl as with Bao, it would have made for a better balance between the works.

The art of Boxers and Saints is very much in Yang's style, it is an extremely clean and almost minimalist at times, but highly expressive.  His use of colour to contrast the mundane from the supernatural is excellent, and minor characters are drawn with as much personality as the protagonists.  Architecture and landscapes are simple but appropriate and well-done as well.

Overall, I feel that Boxers and Saints is an excellent work, and I wish it had been available when I was teaching high school history.  Although this was a brief topic in the curriculum, I feel like these graphic novels give a good overview of the issues and parties involved, and would make for excellent, engaging reading for students studying this section of history.  I highly recommend this work for anyone who enjoys history, graphic novels, or just a very good story. 

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