Don't let the appealingly cartoony look of Boxers & Saints fool you. Terrible things happen in this graphic novel. Old men get beaten up. Women and children get killed in rather heartless fashion. And, worst of all, the senseless death that happens in the 500-page opus is based on actual events. But, goddamn, is it ever beautiful.
Boxers & Saints tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion in China, a tumultuous two-year period from 1899-901 where Chinese rebels tried to expel European foreigners and missionaries from their country. In terms of violence, much of the worst stuff happens off-panel but there's still a ton of chilling imagery that shows what happens when a society has to grapple with physical and spiritual invasions.
The story unfolds from two very different viewpoints. Seemingly small events in the lives of the main characters who cross path briefly — a daydreaming boy named Bao and Four-Girl, left without a name because her parents feel like she's bad luck — lead them to become parts of massive moments sweeping across China. A harsh but small act of disrespect from a missionary priest lights the fires that spur Bao and others to earn martial arts. A simple desire for a real name and a new family lures Four-Girl into the Catholic faith, bringing her into bloody reckonings with members of the family that rejected her.
Much of Yang's work has been concerned with the construction of identity that happens when Eastern and Western cultures collide. But this feels different, especially when it comes to the awful instances where characters from either side of the battles reveal the racist thoughts they have about each other. B&S feels like he's trying to get at something foundational. I asked Yang where the idea for the project came from. "I first became interested in the Boxer Rebellion in 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized a group of Chinese Catholic saints, many of whom were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion" he replied over e-mail. "Religion and culture are deeply important to how we as human beings create our identities. The Boxer Rebellion expresses the ways in which these fundamental parts of ourselves can both clash and converge."
Yang's previous work has been a lot more gentle and B&S is the goriest thing he's ever done. And he said he had some hesitation about depicting this level of violence. "Boxers & Saints is by far my most violent project. I did have qualms about depicting so much blood, but in the end I felt that I had to in order to stay true to the source material. In most instances, I tried to make the gore more palatable by drawing it in a cartoony, simplified way. There are a few scenes, however, where I really wanted the reader to have a visceral reaction to the violence. In those scenes, I added more detail than I normally would."
Yang captures the mix of zeal, doubt, overconfidence and fear in both Bao and Four-Girl and, more impressively, manages to make readers understand how other characters might feel the same way. Though Bao's well-intentioned nationalism eventually leads him down dark paths, the character rarely feels like a villain or a caricature. And Four-Girl's initially naïve entry into her new faith gets hammered into something tougher, as she comes face-to-face with persecution from her countrymen.
What Yang does so well in Boxers & Saints is capture the sweep of history from the viewpoint of the individual. But he does it without slavishly recreating specific events. Yang filters the conflicts through a layer of magical realism. That means the reader sees the warriors of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist as they were talked about: nigh-invincible warriors imbued with the spirits of the gods of myth. And Four-Girl's yearning for a belief system where she wouldn't be seen as worthless manifests itself as conversations with Joan of Arc. The gods of Chinese myth and legendary French warrior girl are metaphorical representations of an existential crisis that haunts two people and will leave a nation forever changed. Boxers & Saints is one of the best graphic novels released this year. It's gory, depressing and difficult to read at times but very, very much worth it.