One of the two most complex and beautiful graphic novels by Gene Luen Yang and Lark Pien, the two volume set Boxers & Saints covers a period of global history all but forgotten by the west. As the Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and their troops divided China during the early 19th century, a secret society rose up to fight the invaders. The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, also known as the boxers, believed the souls of dead heroes would fill them and help their cause.
From the first pains of abuse and discrimination to the actual embodiment of these poor country folks by the souls of mighty warriors, Yang’s primary colors and deceptively simple drawing style pulls readers deep into a complex and passionate story. Opening with a remembrance of his last perfect spring, Boxers follows Little Bao. Purified by a crucible of frustration and rage after watching injustice after injustice against his family, this farmer’s son becomes a leader, a hope, and a god of fire ready to drive the foreigners out of Peking.
Because Yang allows his metaphors to have interactive lives within his stories, the artist portrays Little Bao and other characters as the entities they believe themselves to be. His style, as always, is highly controlled, uncluttered, and expertly balanced. The tightly controlled palate underscores the intention behind even the most minor color choice.
Yang is at his best during Little Bao’s many dream sequences. Each follows the same pattern: Little Bao treads in a vast sea, watching vignettes from his life play out on the shore before descending to the ocean floor for an audience with Ch’in Shih-huang, the First Divine Sovereign. It would be easy to the think after seeing half the sequence that Yang’s skill rests in his ability to tell a moving story with no dialogue. But the succinct conversations in the second half proves that like with his colors, every word is carefully chosen for maximum impact.
With all the character transformations, it’s easy to forget that Boxers isn’t a superpower fantasy or mythology. It’s easy to forget that these were real people and real lives with modern, real consequences. A well-curated list of books about the Boxer Rebellion included at the end of the book encourages further reading.
All wars have two sides, and Boxers tells just one side of this war. Fortunately, it comes packaged with Saints. Whenever possible, pick up both books together because closing one volume made this reviewer want to open the next.
Merriam Jones, writer of Cards & Stars, regularly reviews random items of interest for Isotropic Fiction.