Graphic Novel Review – Boxers
Boxers is the first part of a dual graphic novel written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang and colored by Lark Pien. The same duo worked on Gene Yang’s breakthrough work, American Born Chinese, which was released in 2006. Saints is the name of the companion graphic novel. Boxers and Saints were published by First Second Books in 2013.
The story starts with a young country bumpkin named Bao soaking in the sights of the theatre shows during an annual festival. He stands next to the effigy of the local harvest god each time he watches the operas, until a foreign Christian missionary comes into town and smashes the idol. Coincidentally, a flood and bad harvest follow, and the villages’ only hope becomes a travelling kung fu master who provides for them and also recruits the village’s young men into an extremist group rising against the foreign Christian protectionism by the Chinese government. The kung-fu master is killed in a small uprising, and Bao, who had been his favorite disciple, learns a mystic technique to increase the strength of he and his companions. Bao and his ever increasing band of young men go on to form the Society of the Harmonious and Righteous Fists. Together, they start the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.
Yang conforms to the same general style that is found in American Born Chinese. Thickish ink strokes, no shading in the colors, and this installment of the graphic novel pairing makes quite a vibrant use of those colors. The mystic technique that Bao learns transforms the practitioner into a god or deified historical figure, such as Guan Yu. Once the entire Society learns this technique, panels become awash with the entire spectrum of the color wheel in wide shots. The radiance serves to contrast the low saturation of the companion book, Saints.
Religious extremism and vengeance are the core topics of the novel. Propaganda, lies and misrepresentations of the other side’s practices serve to fuel the hatred of Christianity that many of the characters have. Bao understands many of the lies he hears to be lies based on their absurdity, but he eventually becomes so consumed with vengeance that he has his confidante repeat these obvious lies as he enacts a violent crusade. Misogyny also rears its head in the religious faith of the Chinese of this story, as characters are very wary of a woman’s Yin overcoming them. The lies told about Christians often have to do with exposure or freedom of women’s bodies and body parts, which both gives the Society a reason to hate them and meet them in battle, as some members are fooled by stories of nude women being strapped to cannons. The sexism present in many religions is criticized in both novels, with more humor added in Saints.
Gene Luen Yang’s love for Chinese history shines through this book and is reflected in both Bao and his love interest. Yang spent several years studying the Boxer Rebellion and includes his bibliography at the end as suggested reading. The story only gets a medium rating due to the straight forward direction of it and the “no shit” factor involved with the story’s parable.
Boxers over at Amazon