Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Boxers and Saints. By Gene Luen Yang.

Religious people, particularly Catholics, have never distinguished themselves by an ability to see both sides of a story. However, in Boxers and Saints, Catholic Gene Luen Yang proves he is an exception, unravelling the events of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in Beijing from two contrasting perspectives, in two books, sold together as a box set.

'Boxers' tells the story of Little Bao, leader of the rebellion, and 'Saints' the story of Vibiana, a Chinese Catholic girl, caught up in the struggle. Gene Luen Yang shows the same events through different eyes and perspectives, and through the windows of two opposing world views and philosophies.

Yang’s parents were from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and during his early years in America, reinforced their culture by telling him traditional Chinese stories, and you can sense his love and respect for traditional Chinese beliefs, with their gods, customs and rituals, and in 'Boxers' he is able to express this freely, without any Christian commentary.

Yang’s artwork is what I would call ‘Indie’ and sits alongside cartoonists such as Seth and Chris Ware. His drawing is not slick or technically accomplished, and is slightly stylised, using a muted palette of colours. This does not mean the images cannot be beautiful: the full colour plate on page 212 of 'Boxers' is wonderfully composed and expressive, beautifully conveying the blowing wind in the banner and long grass.

The books build to a conclusion where the two tales converge, and some kind of hope and salvation emerges from this bloody tale.

Yang brings both the traditional, Chinese, mythical spirit world together with visions of Christian saints and appearances of talking animals. Both characters are guided by beings from another dimension, as Yang points out similarities between the two cultures and faiths, as well as making for great story telling.

Yang shows that neither side can claim a monopoly on truth, bravery, sacrifice or justice.

Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See www.mikestonelake.com

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