Commentary: An Advanced Look at Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints

By Derek Royal

In September, publisher First Second will be releasing two new books by Gene Luen Yang, Boxers and Saints. These two graphic works are being publicized as “an innovative novel in two volumes” that tell the story of young protagonists caught up in the violence surrounding the Boxer Rebellion, although each book will present the conflict from different perspectives. The events in Boxers will center around the actions of Little Bao, a peasant who rallies an army of young men to fight against the European forces overrunning parts of his homeland. His story will tap heavily into Chinese myth and tradition. The sister volume, Saints, will present the turn-of-the-century conflict from an entirely different perspective. It is the tale of Vibiana, a young Chinese woman who converts to Christianity and whose family finds refuge among European missionaries. What’s more, she yearns for spiritual purpose in life and ultimately receives her inspiration from Joan of Arc, whose ghostly presence appears to her in times of need. Vibiana’s Western-related visitations are complemented by the Chinese narratives that informs the exploits of Little Bao, whose story is closely linked to Romance of the Three Kingdoms as well as Journey to the West. Indeed, both Vibiana’s and Little Bao’s stories will intersect and work in tandem to create a larger, more panoramic whole.

First Second has provided a taste of these two narratives in a special publicity flip book that contains 16-page sections from each of the texts, with an excerpt from Boxers on one side, and one from Saints on the other. This is a clever way to present a preview of these upcoming books, and it would be interesting if Yang had decided to publish both books in a flip-book similar fashion. However, given the specifics of each book — Boxers will run for 336 pages, while Saints will have only 176 — such a presentation would be unwieldy and, in terms of balance, unfeasible.  Here is a sample from each of the two books:

Boxers

Saints

Gene Luen Yang is the author of American Born Chinese (a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Printz Award) as well as the collection Animal Crackers and, along with Derek Kirk Kim, The Eternal Smile. Both Boxers and Saints will be published separately, but they will also be available together in a special boxed set.

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