Faith has always been in the background of Gene Luen Yang's comics. Identity, especially racial identity, was at the forefront of his breakout book American Born Chinese, but even in that book there were references to Christianity. In his new Boxers/Saints, Yang at last tackles faith as the primary subject of his comic while also addressing his usual questions of identity along with examining gender, love, nationalism and patriotism. Boxers and Saints are separate books that intersect at key points that take a fictionalized look at a real-life event: the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in China. The crux of the event was that at a time of famine and drought, there was a wave of foreign missionaries sweeping China as well as opportunists working in their name who were essentially nothing more than bandits. The Chinese government was in a weakened state and did little to stop the wave of foreigners from essentially plundering their country and spreading a foreign faith. Yang actually sticks pretty close to the facts in telling the story of Bao, a young man who learns kung-fu from a member of a secret society that opposed bandits and protected villages. From his point of view, the government was ineffective, the foreign Christians were devils and it was time to stop them. He took up and spread the secret society and later renamed the group "Boxers" (Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists).
Yang brings to life the Boxers' belief that through a specific ritual, they would be possessed by gods and warriors from the past. It doesn't take long for Yang to establish Bao as an unreliable protagonist and eventually a tragic one. Bao is fighting a war but is uneasy with killing innocents, for example. Yang takes a while to reveal the identity of the spirit who possesses Bao and speaks to him in his dreams: Ch'in Shih-huang, the first emperor of China. This is the man who united, through bloody conflict, the seven kingdoms of China into one nation and built the Great Wall. As the book unfolds, just what the former emperor was willing to do to achieve his goal of unity becomes more and more unpleasant, as he even had to arrange to have his father killed. The narrative push-and-pull of Boxers is just what Bao is willing to do for China. When he spares a train full of Christian children and women, Ch'in tells him that he made a mistake. He would turn out to be right, as Bao's brother was later shot and killed by one of those girls. Bao not only has to steel himself against his natural inclination toward mercy and the noble edicts of his society, he also has to overcome his love for a fellow rebel who is a powerful warrior in her own right. His inability to definitively choose one or the other winds up dooming his movement and his love.
Yang is quite open about being a devoted Catholic but doesn't flinch in depicting the violence and corruption inflicted in the name of the cross in China. Bao has to betray promises, family and his core beliefs more than once but can't go all the way to do what the Emperor wished of him. Even when it seemed like he was ready to cross a line, he still was ready to backtrack and run away with his love at the last second, until he betrayed her as well. By trying to please everyone and failing to stick to his beliefs, he failed. Yang clearly has sympathy for Bao and wants the reader to sympathize with him as well, but it's clear that he's not meant to be an admirable figure. It's also clear that Yang is a humanist in the sense that he values compassion, love and family over more abstract and reified concepts like patriotism.
If Bao is a protagonist generally well-liked and respected for much of the book until he ultimately fails, then Four (later Vibiana) is precisely the opposite sort of character. She's the protagonist of Saints, which essentially looks at the rebellion from the point of view of a Chinese national who had converted to Christianity. Considered to be "secondary devils", they were slaughtered alongside forgeigners by the Boxers. Considered to be bad luck, she was given no name but "Four" or "Four Girl", and four apparently is equated with death. She spent her childhood as an outcast and even called a devil but the grandfather she so desperately wanted to please. Eventually, she became interested in Christianity through her acupuncturist (though she never got stuck, and was more interested in the cookies she ate there than the lessons related to Christ) precisely because she wanted to become a devil, a villain.
When she is beaten by her family for converting, she goes off with a wandering priest (earlier seen destroying an idol and surrounded by Catholic thugs in Boxers) to start a new life. There's a fantasy element at work in this book as well, as Joan d'Arc appears to her in visions and talks to her. Yang relates the crazy story of Joan's life more-or-less in the background much like he relates the larger historical details of the Boxer Rebellion, giving the reader just enough to understand what's going on without shoving a long history lesson down their throat. Despite the fictional and fantastical elements of the story, it really is amazing how close Yang sticks to the facts as they are known, not sparing the brutalities of either side.
When Four is baptized, she takes on the name Vibiana and is restless, trying to find her true vocation as a Christian. When she learns of the Boxers killing Christians, she hits upon Joan's presence as a sign that she's to become a warrior maiden. For a moment, it appears as though she really is going to be Bao's opposite number. Instead, Yang uses this fractious, obnoxious and hard to like character as a tool to convey the most humane aspects of Christianity: love, mercy, compassion -- even in the face of certain death. In Boxers, Bao kills Vibiana but the details of the act are not shown. It takes nearly 500 pages for Yang to get to the heart of this book and his own beliefs when we revisit this scene from Vibiana's point of view. She refuses to renounce her religion and is willing to die for it. She is not a killer or warrior, and she gets this point when she sees Joan burning at the stake: Vibiana is a martyr, and her death does not go in vain. That's because of the last-act twist Yang throws in: she teaches Bao the Lord's Prayer, which he recites to a foreign soldier to demonstrate that he's a Christian. He's allowed to leave, and so Vibiana has protected at least one person.
Was this heavy-handed storytelling? It absolutely was. Was it earned, however? Again, it absolutely was. What Yang is trying to get across is not judgmental or preachy; rather, he pushes the idea that even in the face of annihilation, the core Christian concepts of mercy, compassion and love are to be cherished above all else. What separates this book from Yang's earlier work is that he was quite restrained in his storytelling and entertained multiple points of view. Indeed, though it's obvious to me what Yang thought was the "right" set of actions in the end, a reader with a different point of view could easily take the information presented to them and come to a different conclusion. For example, if Bao had been harder-hearted and single-mindedly did whatever it took to drive out the foreigners, then his rebellion might have succeeded and the lives of millions of Chinese citizens might have been vastly improved. One thing that Yang doesn't show is that after the rebellion, China was brutally punished and plundered. A utilitarian ethicist would point out that a few brief moments of individual compassion and weakness may well have cost the lives of millions. A Christian might answer that a kingdom born in blood would die in blood, and that's very much what happened here.
Visually, Yang's general restraint and simplicity served him very well. He cut way back on the slickness that impaired my interest in some of his work, a slickness that I consider to be the general house style of First Second. With Lark Pien as his colorist, Yang uses a generally simple and cartoony line and has most everything colored a light brown to reflect the dirt and drought surrounding the peasants in this story. Brighter colors appear only in two instances: when the gods descend and inhabit the bodies of the Boxers, Pien goes bananas with a dizzying array of colors assaulting the reader much as the Boxers assault their opponents; and when Joan appears to Vibiana as a golden image. In addition to demarcating fantasy from reality, that use of color serves to drive action and highlight dramatic sequences. Used sparingly, it adds to the sense of restraint Yang uses throughout his epic. While I think Yang is a storyteller who will also set out to hit certain narrative themes and hit them hard, he demonstrated in Boxers/Saints the ability to add layers of ambiguity, subtlety and humanity to his already sharply honed abilities as an action storyteller, character-based writer and humorist. It certainly feels like his PhD project in comics, especially given the way he managed a complex narrative and multiple characters, and I'm curious to see what he tackles next.