Sunday, February 09, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #40: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

There are problems most people would kill to have -- but that doesn't make them any less problems. Take Gene Luen Yang, who burst forth (after a decade-long career, as usual for most such burstings-forth) in a huge way with American Born Chinese almost a decade ago. ABC won the Printz award, it was a National Book Award finalist, it was on dozens of "Best of the Year" lists, it sold massive numbers of copies. And so Yang had the problem every creator wants and dreads: the expectations and love of a huge audience, wanting to see what he does next.

Well, what he did next was the minor story Prime Baby, as a stop-gap or experiment or just because it was the story he wanted to tell right then. And then there were some shorter comics stories with his sometime collaborator Derek Kirk Kim, coming together with older work in the book The Eternal Smile. But big comics stories inevitably take a long time -- each page has to be not just conceived and written but drawn. And so Yang fans waited -- perhaps consoling themselves with reissues of his pre-ABC work, like the omnibus Animal Crackers.

Finally, in 2013, seven years after American Born Chinese, Yang was back with his next major work: two interrelated graphic novels, Boxers and Saints. Both tell stories beginning in the north of China around 1900, before and during the ill-fated Boxer Rebellion. Both focus on young, passionate young people, unhappy with the violence and unfairness they see in the world around them. Both have visions -- both see supernatural entities that tell them to continue on their chosen paths. Both want to make the world better. And, for those us who know the history, both are inevitably headed to unpleasant ends.

Four-girl, the heroine of Saints, has the simpler, shorter story: she was born into a large, well-off family, the only surviving child of a semi-disgraced father and a peasant mother, and inherited all of the hatred and superstition of all that misfortune. That's why she's "Four-girl;" her grandfather refused to even give her a name, and her family considers her already a devil. So she has nowhere lower to go, and when the "foreign devils" arrive -- well, who better to help a girl devil than a foreign devil? So she learns the ways of the Christians, and begins to have visions of a young woman in bright gold armor, whom Father Bey tells her is Joan of Arc. Christianity promises not only to purify her sins -- something her family and local religion insist is impossible -- but to actually give her a name. And so Four-girl becomes Vibiana. She's not sure what her purpose is in life -- to be a warrior leader like Joan? to protect her new friends from the rampaging Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist?

But, like so many women in so many times and places around the world, Vibiana does not get to choose her life or her purpose. At the end, she does have a choice, and she chooses well. But the chaos that the Boxers -- that Society, rampaging through the countryside, equally attacking foreign Christians, Chinese converts as "secondary devils," and the corrupt forces of the weak central government -- has sown leads only to more chaos, death, and massacres.

Boxers follows Little Bao, a young man from the same region as Four-girl -- he sees her in one early scene, and several events are shown from different points of view in the two books -- who is devout in his faith in the traditional Chinese gods, and outraged at local convert bandits and their corrupt foreign protectors. He and his fellow villagers become steadily more radicalized by those "Christian" bandits and soldiers, and begin to train and fight against them. Soon, Bao has founded the Society, and is leading a great army of Brother-Disciples to Peking, as much pushed forward by the movement as he is leading it. And the principles of that Society have warped and changed along the way -- Yang doesn't overtly call attention to this, but it's clear that they keep drifting further from their ideals.

The Boxers want to purify China, and like all movements of purification, there must be blood to wash away the impurities -- blood of the foreigners, and the secondary devils, and so on. Of course, the foreign soldiers are equally bloodthirsty -- and have better weapons.

Bao's vision is of a god all in black, and for the longest time he doesn't know who that god is. (All of his compatriots have similar visions; the Boxers believe that the spirits of the gods enter into them before battle, making them invulnerable to bullets and other Western weapons.) Eventually, he learns: it is Ch'in Shih-huang, the first Emperor, the man who united China from warring warlord-led states into a single great nation. It's a huge legacy, but Bao is arrogant and self-concerned enough to believe in it: he thinks he can drive out all of the foreign devils and make China strong again.

Bao's plans don't work out any better than Vibiana's do, as we know from history. The foreign devils were too strong and the Chinese too weak and divided, and the march to Peking was the end for the Boxers. If you only read Boxers, you will have one idea of Bao's fate, but his story continues past that point in Saints.

Yang tells these two stories with equal weight and compassion: neither Vibiana nor Bao is wrong, though they're on opposite sides of a war. There are clearly evil men on both sides, but Vibiana and Bao are trying to do right -- though Bao, as a man and a leader of a paramilitary group, has far more scope to do evil and foment evil than Vibiana does. Boxers and Saints form one complete picture: they shouldn't be read separately, but together. (Or even iteratively: Saints and Boxers and then Saints again.)

In the five hundred-plus pages of comics in Boxers and Saints, Yang more than lives up to the promise of American Born Chinese: these are deeper, more resonant, more universal stories, with more vibrant characters and stronger moral dilemmas, than the relatively thin soup of assimilation and representation of American Born Chinese. Though even these stories shy away from something that could have been a core issue: when you have visions from your God, do you have to believe them? Does your God have your best interests at heart? Can you fight back against your God? What do you do when your God calls on you to slaughter innocents?

But even slipping those theological issues, Boxers and Saints are mesmerizing, brilliant stories from a master storyteller, a diptych of a horrible, nasty time in human history where no one came out well and human dignity was in short supply.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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