Boxers & Saints, First Second Publishing, $34.99 as a set; Boxers $18.99 , Saints $15.99 separately
Gene Luen Yang presents in his new two volume story, Boxers & Saints, two tales that present the reader with food for thought about the power of religious/spiritual faith and belief for individuals within cultures and countries , and the problems that religion as manifest destiny had in the pre-20th century world. Do not let such heavy thoughts, however, put you off; rather, let me reassure you these are two stories that are a nice blend of drama and humor, the pain of love and the impact of loss, demonstrated through the characters in both the physical and the spiritual. Gene Luen Yang is a good storyteller, and as as a bonus, as it is a piece of comic art, both volumes are well designed and beautiful to look at.
Boxers & Saints follows two young protagonists, Little Bao (Boxers) and Four-Girl (Saints), each looking for their place in the world as they mature, eventually having to make hard decisions driven by belief leading up to and during the Boxer rebellion in China at the very end of the 19th century. The Boxer rebellion is the backdrop and the catalyst ( i.e., the problem that sets much of the action in motion in the story), but it is not the story, rather, it is about the people. I make a point of this as good historical fiction (which I believe these stories are) creates the world based on fact, but never overshadows the fiction or the story the author is trying to tell. Good stories are always about the people–it is how we connect to stories, create context, and a good writer knows this. Worth noting is something nice Gene Luen Yang does that I appreciated. He provides a suggested reading at the end of each volume about the Boxer rebellion, something I am more use to seeing in higher academia than most comics or OGN’s. So to creators (or those who are in the throws of creating) out there please feel free to do this in your works as it helps the reader to go out, if they so choose, to get some more context to come back to your story and approach it perhaps differently on a re-read.
The stories of Little Bao and Four-Girl do intersect in each volume, coming to a climax for both quite late. I enjoyed recognizing the shared, inter-cut moments from both texts, and the author uses such moments for certain emotional impact rather than just as a nifty narrative trick. The real coup in how Gene Luen Yang is telling his stories here are they come out so well balanced, hitting the right moments of drama, humor, and shock.
Gene Luen Yang’s artwork is for me reminiscent of what I liked about Jeff Smith’s Bone. Boxers & Saints is composed as a mix of Charles Schulz-esque (or expert cartoonist) characterizations, beautiful use of color (especially for the rendering of the spirits in Boxers), shocking moments of violence, and a command of sequential pace. His style utilizes the power of facial expressions and gesticulation, working outside of realism (it is historical fiction but it is also a fantasy), designing different color palettes for both volumes, but never sacrificing or diminishing the focus upon the importance of making sensible choices about narrative pace. Is it like a good film/theater director? Yes, a good director, a good actor, a good writer, etc.., the whole show. Some comics creators need help…Gene Luen Yang does not.
You can buy either book (or together), and I think you would be satisfied with either story. Boxers is longer, but Saints is the most touching, as the story of Four-Girl deals not only with the questions of religion and faith, but also the story of gender roles in a society. There are some important moments about gender roles in Boxers, one in fact that intersects into Saints, but the deeper look does occur with Four-Girl. Boxers & Saints will probably leave you with some questions for others about how and why we believe in this or that type of faith (or at least it did for me), and any books that promote such discussions are always a good thing.