Gene Luen Yang’s breakthrough graphic novel, “American Born Chinese,” was hugely ambitious: a modern coming-of-age story filtered through the transformational powers of mythology and caricature. “Boxers” and “Saints,” his two new, intimately connected graphic novels, are even more ambitious — and far grimmer. Set at the end of the 19th century, against the backdrop of China’s Boxer Rebellion, they’re historical fantasies that gradually curdle into historical tragedies, with a cruelly averted love story at their center.
Little Bao, the protagonist of “Boxers,” is a peasant boy with a head full of the gods and heroes of Chinese opera. He joins up with the Big Sword Society, a group of fighters trying to protect Chinese villages from “foreign devils.” Vibiana, his counterpart at the center of “Saints,” is a peasant girl who, converted to Christianity by missionaries, dreams of being a maiden warrior like Joan of Arc. Yang hints at a romance between Vibiana and Bao, whose stories repeatedly intersect. Then he progressively grinds that hope into dust, as his characters are driven to ruin by forces beyond their control and convictions that prove worse than useless.
Both books are marvelously crafted. “Boxers” begins like the kind of legend the rebels might have told themselves, with its scrawny young hero seeking out the magical Master Big Belly to earn his sword, then conjuring up visions of gods as he single-handedly slaughters a cohort of imperial troops. Likewise, “Saints” (colored in sepia tones, aside from a handful of religious visions) has the tone of a fable at first, as the girl who will become Vibiana is advised by a raccoon on how to become a “devil.”
Yang’s bold, lucid artwork emphasizes that his characters see themselves and the world in clear-cut, cartoonish terms of good and evil, which makes it doubly shocking when their ideologies lead them into moral disasters and their visions of glory give way to meaningless carnage.
Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.”
BOXERS & SAINTS
By Gene Luen Yang
First Second. Two vols. $34.99