Back in grad school, I had my first experience with Gene Luen Yang's work when we read his most famous graphic novel thus far, American Born Chinese. Though disparate in subject matter, Boxers does have something in common with his prior work, the magical realism that Yang brings to bear even on historical or contemporary subjects. In Boxers, Gene Luen Yang manages to pack quite a punch with his spare prose and straight forward drawings.
Though I learned about the Boxer Rebellion in college, I'll admit that my memories thereof are limited at best. Based on extensive research (okay, I checked Wikipedia), Yang actually fits in the main historical points without being at all tedious or lecturing. Basically, Yang has perfected the ability to teach without seeming like he's teaching, which is ideal for the intended audience. He conveys the difficult times that led to the rebellion, the drought and the negative impact foreigners were having in China, through the lens of the life of one young boy who grows up to head the rebellion.
Little Bao did not start out as a remarkable boy. He lived in the shadow of his older brothers and had his head in the clouds, fancifully imagining himself the character in an opera. With Little Bao's optimism, to some degree never shed throughout his journey, Yang captures the wholehearted believe the Boxers had that they would be victorious. In no way did they imagine that their gods would let them lose or that foreigners could truly take over China.
Remember how I mentioned the fantasy angle? Well, in Boxers, the beliefs in local gods, the beliefs being challenged by the conversion to Christianity coming with the influx of foreigners, are manifested physically. Yang literally pits the old gods versus the imperialist forces. Through a mystical process, Little Bao and his friends are able to transform themselves into gods of China, and fight with a strength much bigger than their own bodies and kung fu training give them. It's a bit strange, but I think Yang makes it work, and this technique adds a lot of color and vibrancy to the otherwise fairly spare Boxers, highlighting the colorful culture that is being suppressed.
However, Boxers does not preach. Yang, unsurprisingly given the dual nature of this release - Boxers being paired with Saints from the other side of the conflict, presents a balanced view. He makes it quite clear that horrible acts are perpetrated by both sides. If anything, Yang shows how horrible war is. Little Bao, once so innocent and fanciful, does brutal things, as so all of the Boxers. Bao must choose between love and war, and each time he chooses war and China. Boxers is surprisingly dark, intense and bloody, but done in a style that I do not think will overwhelm most readers.
The Final Verdict:
Gene Luen Yang's Boxers confronts subject matter not covered enough in western culture with an even, honest hand. He adds in fantasy to the history, making for a more metaphorical and more visually exciting read. The focus on visual over narrative storytelling will make this a great read for both more reluctant readers and those at a higher reading level.