Saturday, June 27, 2015

Read These Comics! - Boxers & Saints and a bit more

Last Wednesday, my local comic book store had a signing with Gene Luen Yang. He's the current writer on Superman and has done numerous creator-owned projects like American Born Chinese and today's specific recommendation, Boxers & Saints. It was a great opportunity to meet him, and he was really gracious to everybody who showed up for the signing. I got a chance to talk with him a little bit about the historical and mythological subject matter that his work deals with, and that sort of a thing is always a plus when it comes to signings.

I was intrigued by Boxers & Saints when I first heard about it, but it took a while for me to finally pick it up. What finally prompted me was when he was announced as the new Superman writer, as I have been picking up that title anyway. The thing that got my attention about this particular work though was that it covered a little piece of history that most folks don't know about - The Boxer Rebellion.

I first learned about it when I worked for, and I was writing brief text summaries of the various military engagements that involved the United States. It's still there, and I'm fairly certain that's the text that I wrote for it. In a nutshell, it was a war where a secret Chinese society, with the awesome name of The Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, declared war on Western and Japanese influences in their country and attacked not just the foreigners but Chinese converts to Christianity. Eventually it would come to an end when an international coalition, including the United States, eliminated the "Boxers" as the society came to be known. (One disadvantage of the Boxers? They believed that bullets couldn't harm them. Turns out they were wrong.)

Lang's comic is actually two graphic novels, the first one titled Boxers and the second one Saints. The two just go together and you can usually find them sold in one slipcase. The first one tells the side from one of the Boxers and the other from a Chinese convert to Christianity. When I told Gene Yang about how I really liked that technique, he told me that it was due to his ambivalence about who the "good guy" was. Personally, I think that any honest telling of a war story will find it hard to create such clear-cut distinctions.

But just like any good war story in particular or good story in general, the appeal is in creating sympathy for both characters, even when you feel that they're making bad choices. The thing is, I can completely get why those Boxers wanted to do what they wanted to do. Who the hell were all those foreigners coming in and imposing their will on the Chinese? And what was up with this foreign religion and its complete disrespect of all their gods and customs? They basically reacted the way anybody else would, although they took on a violent solution, fueled by religious fervor.

At the same time, I can sympathize why some of the Chinese would convert over to the new religion of Christianity. I'm no Christian myself, but the religion definitely has an appeal compared to a lot of others, whether you think it's for good reasons or not. And more importantly, nobody wants to be persecuted for their beliefs, whether they're the traditional ones or newer, foreign ones.

One thing I also got to tell Mr. Yang was that I really loved how he incorporated Chinese mythology into the stories without making it feel like a textbook lesson. References to the gods are seamlessly blended into the overall story that both serves the theme and informs the reader. The same thing happens in Saints although with a lesson about Joan of Arc.

After finishing both volumes, you're left with that same feeling of ambivalence that the author described to me, and all that death and war seems like such a waste. That might be a common theme for war stories, but it's really the only honest one.

I don't know if I'll get a chance to write about it, but if you like this particular work, then I also highly recommend American Born Chinese. It's mostly autobiographical, and anybody who has ever felt like an outsider can relate to it. (But probably more if you're of Chinese descent, no doubt.) Just like Boxers & Saints, it also incorporates a good deal of Chinese mythology while not feeling didactic.

As for his first issue of Superman? It looks like it's off to a good start. I don't know if it was his plan or not, but the story picks up on recent events where Kal El not only has a new power where he essentially flares like a star (only to lose his powers for about a day until they recharge) but he also has had his secret identity revealed to the world. In other words, no more Clark Kent. Not sure how they'll put this genie back in the bottle, but I think that there are definitely some interesting possibilities if he's gotta be Superman 24 hours a day. Gene Luen Yang has showed that he can tell a good story with his own characters, so I trust him to do the same with the Man of Steel.

You can probably guess which guy has the last name of "Johnson" and which one has the last name of "Yang".

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