Boxers is but one volume of the graphic novel collection, Boxers and Saints written and drawn by Gene Luen Yang. Put together they tell a fictionalized version of the Boxer Rebellion from two very different points of view. Boxers tells the story a peasant boy who rises to lead The Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist (the titular Boxers) in a nationalistic uprising against European control over China. Saints is about a Chinese Christian girl who experiences visions of Joan of Arc during the rise of the Boxers. At the time of this writing I have not read Saints, because I want to analyze one without the other to see how my thoughts and views one might change with the influence of the other, and also because the review would be super long, probably. This paragraph is getting long so let me try to wrap it up by discussing the art. I’ve kinda struggled to pin down the proper word for Yang’s artwork. Minimalistic comes to mind, but doesn’t feel appropriate, rather I think a better word would be simplistic, yet still having this incredible beauty to it, and maybe that’s part of the point, to give the outward appearance of simplicity to hide the true complexity of everything. Its actually that complexity that endures Boxers to me and why I highly recommend it to everyone, but that’s getting into spoilers. So the short non-spoiler point is: Boxers is a super good magical realist historical graphic novel that will get you thinking and is well worth your time. Now for the spoilers.
*HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!*
Complexity. That’s as close to a one word reason as I can give for why I like Boxers so much. I’m willing to admit its not the most complex thing, and has its flaws, but its nice to see a historical event handled with such nuance, when it feels like my options for history based narratives are whitewashed versions of events, romance that simply uses history as a costuming theme, or outright lies (see: Anonymous the film). So to have a work doesn’t just shy away from, but delves into moral ambiguity is really refreshing, especially when said work is a graphic novel and is aimed at adolescents. So how is Boxers so complex? Well rhetorical asker, let’s explore that by talking about two other works that came to mind in my reading of Boxers: Julius Caesar And Ms. Marvel.
The protagonist of Boxers, Little Bao, grew up in a small village watching the operas staged each spring during the market. The operas told of legendary heroes and gods and demons and epic battles and all the awesome stuff great myths are made of. Then, later in the story, Little Bao learns a ritual that turns the ritual performer into some mythic figure of Chinese legends, with the exception of Bao himself, as he turns into the 1st Emperor of China. Don’t think on the whole turning into mythic figures thing too hard, like I said before, Boxers and Saints is magical realist, so this stuff is just accepted by everybody and dwelt on by no one. (Although there’s probably a whole conversation in this book being magical realism.) Still though, the whole situation reminded me of Ms. Marvel and Kamala Khan, but Boxers seemed to have a different take. In Ms.Marvel, Kamala Khan is inspired by many things, among the joy of saving others, her upbringing, her idol, and even her faith to some extant to go out and help people and do good. Little Bao wants to do good as well, but due to crimistances he takes a darker path. Kamala and Bao both try to follow their predecessors, but while Carol Danvers sought to save Earth, Bao is stuck with the 1st Emperor urging him to “save China” and “do what he must” because “now has to think about China before all else”. So Bao decides to do what he must for China, which results in him ordering massacres of foreigners, burning churches, and even straight up murdering somebody. But yet its hard to forget that he’s still human. All the while he’s leading the Boxers, he still messes up, he gets envious, he falls in love, he tries to spare people, but his ideals make him do some very nasty things. To understand why, and how responsible Bao is, we need to look at Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
While Caesar provides the title, I personally think that its Brutus who’s the real tragic hero of Julius Caesar. There’s simply far more that’s tragic about Brutus, and he doesn’t die half way through the play. Brutus’ tragedy comes from his love of Rome, he’s a true patriot and is dedicated to the ideals he thinks Rome stands for. In a happier story Brutus would be rewarded for his honor and patriotism, but instead he’s manipulated by more cynical and ambitious people to do horrible things in the name of the country and ideals he loves. I see this, to some extant in Little Bao. His country is overrun with foreigners who have special privileges and can do as they please. They’re destroying his once great homeland and are turning his people into slaves by spreading their own religion and making his people turn their back on their own heritage. Its no wonder the foreigners are called “foreign devils”, after all they’ve humiliated a once great empire, carved her up for their benefit, are destroying the empire’s heritage, and ruined lives by introducing powerful drugs. This is the world Little Bao grows up in, and add to that the humiliation of his father, the death of his kung fu teacher and brother, the constant urgings of a millennia old despot who believes that war and bloodshed are the only ways to make China free and strong again, and its easy to see how Bao ends up doing what he does. However none of this is to say that Bao isn’t responsible for the choices he makes, he is, and the narrative even makes that you know Bao isn’t in the right. In the end Bao makes his choices, and has to face the consequences. Bao’s tragedy lies in his love of country and desire for revenge, and I think its a story worth telling, it gets to the heart of extremism and examines why people do such horrible things, and it does it while giving us a complex view of a complex event.