This pair of gorgeous graphic novels center around the Boxer rebellion in China, which culminated in the summer of 1900. In Boxers, we follow the story of Little Bao, a third son of a village peasant. He’s not respected, to say the least. It’s partially because he’s the youngest son, but also because he adores opera, which is not something a son of a village peasant should love. He longs for respect and finally gets his chance to feel it when a young man by the name of Red Lantern shows up. Red Lantern teaches the village men kung fu and ends up taking Little Bao under his wing. This becomes crucial when Red Lantern is killed by the imperial army and Little Bao takes over his duties as leader of the rebellion. Their mission? To enact justice on behalf of those who are being bullied by those who have power.
However, what starts out as “justice” soon becomes a crusade to rid the land of foreigners, mostly Christians, and those Chinese who have converted to Christianity. As Little Bao becomes increasingly ensconced in this crusade, he becomes more uncomfortable with it. And it just so happens that along the way, he meets Vibiana, a Christian convert.
In Saints, we see Vibiana’s side of the story. We discover that her conversion is more an act of desperation rather than true devotion. A fourth daughter of a deceased father, she is often neglected and beaten at home. She finds refuge in the home of Dr. Won, the village acupuncturist, who introduces her to Christianity. Soon afterward, she sees visions of Joan of Arc, which she doesn’t understand but finds comfort in. After one particularly brutal beating, Vibiana leaves her family and goes to work in a Christian orphanage, where she meets Little Bao.
Both sweeping and intimate, these graphic novels — both tragedies — pack a powerful punch. Even so, there is much to think about. Yang does a superb job not only showing the horrors of war, or the decisions of a leader, but also that there are many different sides to a story, and that every truth is a valid one. The ending is tender and horrible and left me wondering about the nature of faith, devotion and fanaticism.
Rated: Moderate for a lot of (graphic, since it’s a graphic novel) violence.