Boxers by Gene Luen Yang

I love graphic novels.  I love that they force the writer to be minimalist with text and that a talented artist can make even a cartoonish sketch reveal emotional depth that comes across as corny when a less talented writer tries to put it into words.  I love how the size and position of the cells on the page can change the way we feel about the story being told.  Yang has a classic comic style.  His story is presented in rectangular frames with minimalist backgrounds and expressive facial features.  He doesn’t make the reader work too hard to follow the story line, which is just fine since this story is rich enough to stand on its own.

Boxers is a graphic novel retelling of the Boxer rebellion from the perspective of Little Bao, a young boy from a small village.  Bao, upset by the humiliation of his father at the hands of foreign militia men, is driven to become a soldier for the cause of Chinese nationalism.  After learning Kung Fu and an additional secret ritual that calls ancient gods to battle Bao becomes the leader of a quickly growing group of warriors bent on taking back their country from Western influencers.

If this were all that Boxers had to offer, it would have been enough.  I love a good Kung Fu story with the traditional elements of secret nighttime trainings and a son avenging his father’s honor.  Throw in some magical realism and I’m hooked.  But, Boxers is so much more than that.  In Boxers, Yang has captured the ambivalence of a young man thrust into a leadership role that he wanted, but could not possibly be prepared for.  Little Bao is confronted with hard choices and makes them with a certainty that he immediately second guesses.  He is led by the strength of his seemingly undying convictions and is conflicted when these same convictions evolve as only a young person can be.  Boxers is a sympathetic and unflinching look at familial, religious and nationalistic identity and the truth that sometimes people do terrible things for “good” reasons.

The companion book, Saints, told from the perspective of a Chinese convert to Christianity, is in my ever growing pile of books to be read.


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