Review: Boxers/Saints by Gene Luen Yang

I’ve thought for a few days about how to review this.  I read both books enthusiastically, but afterwards was a little let down by them.  It’s complicated, and at the very least, the books give you a lot to sort though.  This seems to be one of the big comics-as-literature releases this year and since the author’s first book was well-acclaimed, I thought I’d check these out. 

This is a rather hefty book set; Boxers is over 300 pages, and Saints is about 170.  You can buy them individually, but both stories carry slightly more weight if you read them both.  Besides, the book spines and covers fit together and they come in a hard case if you get them at once.  The stories are set within the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion, a major event in late Chinese history (around 1900) where the Chinese attempted to remove the foreign powers out of the country.  It’s not a history lesson at all, so a slight understanding of the history beforehand might make the story a little clearer.  The one book, Boxers, follows a young man who becomes a leader for the Chinese against the foreign, while the second, Saints, follows a converted Christian girl who becomes a missionary of sorts.  Both follow ‘hero’s journey’ of sorts.

The books are eclectic.  I really can’t position them with any tradition in particular.  The graphic style is quite classic animation, almost Disney-like.  The story integrates fantasy elements (for example the page from Saints posted above), but it isn’t magical realism, and it isn’t Disney talking animals.  Characters see fantastic things, and you could argue it’s meant to be questioned whether it’s reality or not, but then they get historical information from them which they couldn’t know otherwise, so I guess it’s really happening.  In comparison, I was thinking about the film Pan’s Labyrinth, which really kept things ambiguous.  I really prefer that ambiguous approach, and both books do sometimes treat it that way.   But these books do not consistently do that.  So I wondered if they were possibly aimed at an all-ages fantasy audience, like Bone, but there are opium references and the foreigners are called foreign-devils, which bring up lots of questions which are unlikely to be all ages.  There are romantic subplots, but nothing overtly sexual, and nothing explicit, but there is (clean) graphic violence, like bullets to the head, making it an American PG I guess.  So, the audience is who exactly?

There were a number of things that I liked about this book.  I love the setting.  China’s interesting, and I haven’t seen a lot of stories of China set between, say, the 12th century and the current day.  It’s like people romanticise classical times (ie. Romance of the Three Kingdoms) or just make something modern (and please keep in mind I don’t live in China nor read Chinese, so there is probably lots I’ve missed).  I love the colours.  The Saints book is very drained of colour, while Boxers becomes very vivid.  It’s very smooth and readable.  Another thing is that Yang goes out of his way to create characters of depth and complexity.  They make mistakes, they can be stubborn or selfish, and not just in a simplistic Lion King-plot advancing sort of way.  And the thread between the two books is fairly clever.  The two books are entirely separate, but they overlap for a few pages at the very beginning, and a few pages at the very end.  With that, it’s probably better to read Saints first, for the sake of not spoiling the ending.

So, I recommend them, though the books try so much stuff that it is hard to say they’re successful at all of it.  They don’t push far enough in any one way to make the books superlative.  But, aiming for the moon and simply reaching the upper atmosphere is an incredibly respectable achievement.  Based on that, they are a good addition to a comics’ library.  I’ll definitely follow what Yang attempts next.  Pick them up, or at least request them from your local library.

First Second Books, $34.99 U.S.