Gene Luen Yang’s already earned widespread acclaim for everything for such works as American Born Chinese and writing the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels for Dark Horse. His most recent work is actually two works in one, that take two perspectives on a historical event that’s often forgotten in American culture.
Boxers and Saints is a set of two graphic novels from First Second Books that examines the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 from two sides in China – the “Boxers,” the rebels who sought to purge China of foreign influence, including missionaries, they felt were overtaking their culture, and the “Saints,” the Chinese who fought against the Boxers, and were later canonized by the Catholic Church.
Yang’s take on the Boxer Rebellion splits the story across two volumes from both points of view, and offers no easy answers as it examines a painful conflict and a difficult time in history from teenagers caught in its wake. It’s already earned massive acclaim, including earning Yang a second National Book Award Finalist honor, and was picked as one of the best Young Adult books of 2013 – graphic or otherwise – by the New York Times.
We called up Yang to talk about his work, the unique cultural connection between the Boxers and modern comic book fans, how the books were almost presented, and his next graphic novel, a unique take on a superhero 99.9 percent of readers have never heard about.
Newsrama: Gene, I saw you at San Diego and you talked a bit about the origin of Boxes and Saints, but I was wondering if you could rehash it for our readers – I believe you were saying something like, “The Boxer Rebellion is about a two paragraphs in your history textbook in America…”
Gene Luen Yang: Yeah, that’s right. I actually didn’t know much about the Boxer Rebellion before I started working on this project. It’s one of those things where you have a vague idea that it happened, but I was about in the same place as everyone else when I started.
Nrama: Well, there’s about 10 books listed “for further reading” in the back of Boxes and Saints, so I’m assuming you read all of those…
Yang: Yeah! (laughs) I mean, I’ve been interested in the Boxer Rebellion since about the year 2000, and I’ve been gathering books about it – the rebellion itself, and the time period, what the relationship between East and West was around the turn of the century.
I did a fair amount of research before I started writing and drawing the book. This was my first foray into historical fiction, so it was hard to know when to stop! At some point, I had to call it a day and move on with the actual writing and the drawing.
Nrama: Having made a half-hearted attempt to write historical fiction, I know that feeling – “What would the characters wear? What would they eat? What kind of slang would they use? What type of buildings would they live in, what would the light sources be, what type of furniture would be there…” It can drive you insane
Yang: Exactly, exactly. I went through all that! I think the fear is once the book is out, someone who knows more about it, someone will call you on the details. And it’s already happened a bit. (laughs) But I’m not writing history – I’m writing fiction, historical fiction.
If I’m writing about a modern-day suburb, there’s going to be details of the home and furniture, and if I’m writing about a historical period, those details, those pieces of the world are going to be there as well, but they’ll be simplified, because I’m cartooning it.
I’m not trying to recreate this era, I’m trying to create a fantasy set in this period. That’s how I was able to get myself up to writing and drawing.
Nrama: One thing that was also very intriguing to me about the book was how you’ve talked about how the Boxers in a way are analogous to modern fanboys, and their struggle relates to some of your own heritage and experiences.
Yang: Yeah, I came to the Boxer Rebellion in the year 2000. I grew up in a Chinese-American Catholic Church in the Bay Area, and in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized the 120 Chinese Saints. This was the very first time ethnic Chinese had been recognized by this Western church in this way, so it was a big deal in my home church, you know?
But when I looked into the lives of a lot of these canonized Saints, I realized a lot of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion. And many of them were perceived as traitors to their culture – if you were a Christian or a Catholic and of Chinese descent, you were seen as someone who had turned his back on his own people to embrace this Western face.
So I really felt that the Boxer Rebellion as a whole captured some of the tension that I feel at times, growing up as an Asian-American, who pulls from both Eastern and Western tradition. That was what was personally intriguing to me about the Boxer Rebellion.
But I also see some parallels between the players in the Boxer Rebellion and people who are involved in modern-day pop culture. For example, on the Boxers’ side, the people involved were these young men who saw this foreign aggression in their homeland, and they felt really embarrassed by it. So they decided to deal with it by looking to their pop culture.
Back then, the pop culture was these traveling Chinese operas. These traveling acting troupes would go from village to village and perform in their visits the most exciting Chinese opera. And the Chinese villagers would watch these visits and feel inspired by them. The operas were a lot like modern-day American superhero comics; they had these colorful heroes with amazing superpowers fighting mystical bad guys.
These Boxers became so impassioned, so inspired by these characters that they wanted to be like them and dress up like them, like modern-day cosplayers. So they came up with this ritual that they believed would call down these Chinese gods from the skies, and these gods would take over their bodies and give them superpowers. And with these awesome superpowers they could drive off European soldiers, and European missionaries, and Chinese who were loyal to them.
So that’s one side, one link I see between the Boxer Rebellion and modern-day popular culture, the Boxers’ side. And then there’s the other side, the Chinese Christians’.
The Chinese Christians, around the turn of the century, many of them were outcasts. They were people who had a really hard time finding a place for themselves in Chinese culture. A lot of them were women, and women weren’t treated particularly well in Chinese culture back then. A lot of them were outcasts, or criminals, or were indigent beggars. They were just people who couldn’t find a place for themselves in the stories that surrounded them.
So what did they do? They looked to foreign stories, these religious stories of these Westerners. And I got to say, I see a lot of parallels between them and modern-day American manga fans. I work at a high school, and we have an anime and manga club. Now, it’s not true of all our members, but there’s a significant portion of young men and women who are in that club who maybe have trouble finding a place for themselves in the American high school that’s surrounding them.
So what do they do? They look to the stories of the other. They look to these Japanese stories, and they look for reflections of themselves in these stories.
So I think that the Boxer Rebellion was more than 100 years ago, there’s pieces of this world that I recognize as a comic fan, as a geek.
Nrama: And in the two books, you get both points of view, and it’s difficult to root for one over the other. It’s really a no-win situation.
Yang: Yeah. I think with Boxers and Saints, part of the reason the two volumes are of different lengths is that it’s not a perfect match-up. Like, a better match-up would be if I told the Boxers’ stories in one volume, and then the stories of the Europeans in another. Those would be more matched up.
But with the Boxers, and then the Chinese Chrisitans, the Boxers were more active all the way through. The Chinese Christians, all they tried to do was hold on to this identity that they had built for themselves, where they tried to incorporate East and West. And they died.
I think that’s why the books turned out the way they did – I didn’t want to condense one or try to expand the other. It just felt right the way they were. But ultimately, the guiding question with the Boxers’ story is “What does it mean to be a hero?” I wanted it to feel like a Chinese war epic – long and bloody and colorful and really sad at the end. (laughs)
But with the Chinese Christians, that book’s question is, “What does it mean to be a saint?” So that has to be quieter and shorter and more humble. And it’s mostly black-and-white all the way through, instead of the color in the other volume, because I wanted it to feel more intimate, more small and humble all the way through.
Nrama: And there’s been controversy over their being recognized as Saints for opposing the Boxers, which, coming from a Catholic background, I would imagine is…I don’t know if “confusing” is the right word, but very provocative for you.
Yang: Definitely. The conflict between Eastern and Western culture is…for me personally, growing up in that Chinese Catholic Church, the Catholic faith and Chinese culture were very much intermingled. When they were talking about Christ, it was in Chinese. And beyond that, I think for many of the folks in my community, the Catholic faith became a way for them to hold on to what they felt was truest in Chinese culture.
A lot of the priests that served in my community had escaped to America after they had spent sometimes decades in these communist reeducation camps. During the Cultural Revolution the communists came in, and what they wanted to do was eradicate all sense of traditional Chinese culture.
So in this weird way for these Catholic priests, they used their faith as a way to hold on to where traditional roles and Christian roles overlapped when they were sent to those camps, and they brought it with them to the United States.
You look at the history of Chinese Christian Churches in America – when you converted to Christianity at the turn of the century, you were very much making a statement about your homeland. If you were an outcast in Chinese society…you were trying to get away from it, in a sense, you were trying to escape from it.
But as time went on, when you get into the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s, these Chinese Christian Churches in “Chinatowns” really became centers where Chinese culture was preserved. For Chinese-American kids, the place where Chinese was spoken the most, where they celebrated New Year’s festivals, were in these Christian churches. They became a way not of eradicating the culture, but preserving it.
It’s all about culture and religion and the relationship between them, which is just very complex, but very interesting to me.
Nrama: How long did it take you to put this project together as a graphic novel? You mentioned earlier you first became interested in the subject matter in 2000…
Yang: I finished American Born Chinese in 2005, so after that I started actively researching the Boxer Rebellion. I spent about a year going to my local university library and looking at stuff, and then went to an archive in France to look at old black-and-white photos from that era, and then I started writing in…2007, I think. So this has probably been the most involved project I’ve done.
Nrama: Was there any pressure to do this as maybe one volume, or release both volumes a year apart or something similar?
Yang: I actually finished Boxers a few years ago, and figured First Second would just release it. But Mark Siegel, the head guy at First Second, it was actually his idea to do them as a simultaneous release and a box set.
I originally wanted to do release Boxers as a standard First Second book with a spot-varnish cover and French flaps, and then release Saints with a little more rough paper, a cover that felt more cardboard, to capture that theme of being humble. But they wanted to have them both look good. (laughs)
I feel happy! I feel really honored they put together such a beautiful package for my books.
Nrama: What’s coming up for you?
Yang: So right now, I’m working on The Rift, which will be the next three Avatar: The Last Airbender books, which will be out in 2014. And I have a superhero book coming out from First Second, my first superhero story, The Shadow Hero.
Nrama: What made you want to do that type of story?
Yang: It’s actually a revival of an obscure Golden Age concept I saw on a Golden Age blog for pubic domain concepts – there’s this one Golden Age hero whose name is “Green Turtle” who showed up for five issues from an obscure publisher, but he was created by one of the first Asian-American comic book creators, Chu Hing.
There’s hearsay about how Green Turtle was created – at that time, comics were selling in the millions, so publishers were throwing anything against the wall that would stick, and the rumor was Chu Hing wanted Green Turtle to be of Chinese descent, but the publisher didn’t want that. So what Chu Hing did was make it so Green Turtle’s face was always obscured – looking away from the camera, or a piece of furniture blocking part of it.
Reading these stories is a weird experience – it’s like the artist and the publisher are at war in a way. It was canceled after five issues, so we never found out the Green Turtle’s real name or origin. So that’s what this book is about in a way. It’s coming out in 2014, Sonny Liew drew it, I wrote it, and we’re basically going to tell the Green Turtle’s origin.
Boxers and Saints is available in bookstores and comic shops now.