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Historical graphic fiction isn’t really on my reading radar. I keep forgetting how good graphic novels can be when you go slow and take in the illustrations with the same care as the text. Read every word. Look within every panel and let the medium work your mind in a different way.

Boxers by Gene Luen Yang is half of a 2-volume work about the Boxer Rebellion, Boxers & Saints. I haven’t read it’s companion book Saints yet, but I love the concept. Boxers portrays those who fought on the Boxer side as the protagonists and Chinese Christians are the villains. Saints flips the perspective so Boxers are the antagonists.

Boxers by Gene Luen YangLittle Bao once looked forward to spring festivals all year and to the opera most of all. Our hero’s love for opera should brace the reader for a story with the highest highs and lowest lows.

China, 1898. Life changes pretty quickly when a foreign priest comes to the small village to enforce his own brand of crooked justice and destroy a statue of Tu Di Gong, one of the old gods. Floods follow and life in the small villages becomes dire until Red Lantern, a healer practiced in Kung Fu shows up. Gradually the villagers train to defend themselves while members of the Big Sword Society travel to other small villages to train others, protect villagers and hide from the Imperial Army. From here you grip the book a little tighter and marvel because now you’re in what feels like a Samurai tale, especially if you’ve recently watched Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai film.

The Boxer Rebellion is something I know nothing about, but the story of an Imperial Power’s actions to destroy a country’s culture, traditions and religion in an effort to control them is not unique. That’s to say, it’s not difficult to follow this story even though it deals with a complex time where the clash of beliefs resulted in brutal attacks on both sides. For me, the unexpected conflict was that many of Boxer’s countrymen converted to the “Devil’s religion”. While Imperial soldiers play their role, many battles saw Chinese people fighting each other.

There’s a magical element to Bao’s progression from scrawny village boy to leader of the Righteous Fists. Prior to fighting they perform a ritual of inhaling ash and exhaling themselves to invoke the Old Gods, who arrive swinging and ready to fight with everything they are. These scenes stunned me. I had to flip back and re-read them a few times because the poetry of having old gods fight for their continued existence sparked the most incredible illustrations. They were so good they took me out of the story and I had to work to get back in.

Boxers & Saints

A lot happens and happens pretty fast. You have to linger on the pages, process the panels otherwise it’s like swallowing chocolate truffles whole and not fully appreciating each layer. Why would you do that?

I liked what this book is trying to do. I loved how true the narration stayed to Bao’s perspective. The reader isn’t given any more context than he is as to why foreign forces and influence are suddenly stomping on his family, his identity, his entire way of life. You feel his confusion at injustice turn to rage. My only gripe is that the pacing felt off and I wanted to know more about these Old Gods. The last third felt rushed and the end came so abruptly that I didn’t care and wanted to.

I’m looking forward to the other side of the story, Saints, in which we get to learn about the young girl with the face like an opera mask. It’s easy to see why this was nominated for a National Book Award. Surprising that Gene Luen Wang is the first cartoonist to be a finalist, considering how popular graphic novels have become over the years. My favorite graphic novel is still Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, but Boxers is one I’ll remember.