Boxers & Saints – Graphic Novel Reviews

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Whitney Graceby Whitney Grace
Staff Writer
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First Second SaintsGene Luen Yang made his name in comics by winning the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award for his graphic novel American Born Chinese. One can always count on his books to provide insight into Chinese culture, mythology, history, as well as offering compelling insights to those of us who are “outside looking in.” Instead of focusing on a modern day character dealing with two worlds, Yang takes his readers to China during the Boxer Rebellion. Yang wrote two separate books that that entwine two characters and their respective parallel stories. The companion books tell the story from two different factions involved in the historical rebellion. Saints tells the story of Four Girl aka Valdenia from the Christian perspective, while Boxers is from the point of view of Little Bao and how he created a “rebel” army.

In Saints, Four Girl is an unwanted daughter, who is never properly named. She wants to have purpose in her life just like her male cousins, but finds that tradition does not allow her to pursue her desires. Things change for her when she learns about Christianity and how it gives her the identity she desperately strives for, especially a name. Now called Valdenia, she begins to see Joan of Arc’s ghost. Valdenia takes it as a sign that she is meant to be God’s warrior.

Boxers is about third son Little Bao and how his love for fantastic Chinese operas and loyalty to his father drives him fight the Christian missionaries. The missionaries encourage people to forgo heritage, often at the cost of their fellow countrymen. Little Bao sees that his home is being overrun by foreign devils and he wants them out. Using a ritual and his passion, he summons spirits from Chinese mythology. The spirits embody Little Bao and his army; they are able to fight the foreign devils, only to leave a trail of carnage behind him.

Valdenia’s and Little Bao’s paths only intersect twice: once when they are children and another when they are adults and fighting each other. They connect through other characters: a Jesuit priest and an acupuncturist are the most notable. Beyond these small points, each story diverges into distinct and stand-alone books. If you read only one of pair, the storytelling is so strong you would not need to read the other, but it helps to get a complete picture.

This is the mark of the best kind of storytelling. Arguably Yang has never written a bad book, the reason being is he understands that the best stories are usually character driven with events and place supporting their actions. It does follow the method of telling both sides of a war, but the added supernatural elements take it out of total realism. That being said while Little Bao and Valdenia have their share of sorrow, the spirit appearances bring hope and awe to the usual depressing war story. Think of it as a little bit of the superhero formula thrown in.

Fans have to love Yang’s artwork, because unlike a lot of work involving Asia it does try to emulate Japanese manga. Yang’s style is totally original and enhances the story. He draws inspiration from simplified character designs that pack a big bang for the heavy themes riding on their shoulders. The coloring is another of the art’s strengths with solid colors filling in shapes emphasizing the story.

Boxers and Saints can be read alone, but you would be missing so much if they were not read together.

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