Review by Matthew Nielsen
Instead of just reviewing one graphic novel, I reckon I’ll review two! Boxers & Saints are two stories by Gene Luen Yang set before and during China’s Boxer Uprising (the uprising from 1899 to 1901). Both books share numerous characters while taking place on different sides of the events. The Boxers wished to fight foreign influence (such as cultural oppression, opium, and Christianity) whilst the Saints wish to remain steadfast in their beliefs and convictions.
Yang does a decent job showing the many sides of the story. I wouldn’t use this as a pure historical source, but more of a rough impression of the historical events. For example, one particular scene has a handgun that looks a bit too modern to be there, a Colt/Browning 1900 (cutting-edge technology at the time, and probably too advanced for that situation) while the other guns there seem to be revolvers and rifles (possibly bolt-action rifles). However, the story did spark my interested in the time period, and I will surely be looking further into the Boxer Uprising. Seeing as how the story includes definite uses of fantasy and vision, making every scene fully realistic probably isn’t all that necessary.
So is the writing any good? I’d say it’s pretty good indeed! Both tales start with a peasant youth growing up in a life of hard agricultural work and confusing society. As the historical events unfold, the two protagonists go through many emotional changes and intense ups and downs. I especially loved how other languages are portrayed. See, as the book is set in China, all of the Chinese speak normally and clearly. However, when a foreigner speaks, their speech is quite poor. Furthermore, when they speak their native language, it is shown in familiar but illegible shapes. These are then translated via caption boxes when necessary. It’s a charming feature that helps the reader see things from the Chinese characters’ perspectives, and I’d like to see more of this technique in other books I read.
As for the artwork, we have bold line art with block colours and little to no shading, depending on the situation. It reminded me a bit of the animated show Daria. Despite normally enjoying detail and shading in artwork, soon I got used to this style, and especially appreciated the way faces and expressions are drawn here. The faces provide a great deal for humour and emotional scenes. I find myself cracking up whenever someone makes a silly or neutral face in the background. Compared to another Yang book, American Born Chinese, I feel that the artwork in Boxers & Saints is better.
In short, I recommend giving these a read, especially reading them in the order of Boxers first and Saints second. I also recommend reading them back-to-back, and not several months in-between, so that the characters remain fresh in your memory.