Gene Luen Yang Explores Chinese History with "Boxers & Saints"

An assortment of poverty-stricken, starving, powerless teenagers invoke the gods to help them fight back against their oppressors and reclaim the freedom being stolen from their people. Infusing each teen with speed, strength and combat skills, the gods carry them victoriously through battle after battle, earning them a fierce reputation and unexpected allies. The weight of war, violence and loss begins to change each of the kids, as the stakes for their victories increase. Sounds like any number of superhero stories, right? Well, it is, in a way -- except that it's based on the heartbreaking reality of the Boxer Rebellion, which tore China apart in 1900. "American Born Chinese" creator and Eisner Award-winner Gene Luen Yang's newest project explores the horrors of war and the importance of cultural strength in a diptych, "Boxers & Saints," published by First Second Books.

Pairing up again with "American Born Chinese" colorist Lark Pien, Yang tells the story of Little Bao and Four-Girl, two Chinese children growing up during the religious oppression of the Boxer Rebellion. "Boxers" is told from Little Bao's point of view -- fighting against the Christian missionaries -- with "Saints" following Four-Girl's opposite experiences in finding a much needed home in the Christian church. While the stories have points of intersection, they are not dependent on one another to complete rich storytelling. Although set in an incredibly controversial period of history, Yang adds his characteristic charm, humor and depth, creating highly relatable characters reflected in the brilliant and stark pallet of Pien.

CBR News spoke with Yang and Pien about their experiences on the ambitious graphic novels.

CBR News: I thought it was really cool that you dedicated "Boxers" to the Art Night Crew. What's the story behind that?

Gene Luen Yang: In the mid-'90s, a group of cartoonists in the Bay Area started meeting once a week to draw together, talk shop and critique one another's work. The group included Lark Pien (who colored "Boxers & Saints"), Derek Kirk Kim, Jason Thompson, Jesse Hamm, Ben Catmull, Jesse Reklaw, Jason Shiga, Andrice Arp, Thien Pham and a bunch of others. We called it Art Night. I haven't gone in years. I think it's a whole new group these days, but it's still happening.

Art Night was enormously important to me. I never went to art school, so Art Night was like my art school. I learned so much by hanging out with those guys, by seeing how they worked, by getting their feedback. And plus, many of my closest friends came out of that group.

What was The Boxer Rebellion, and what about it inspired you to tell these stories?

Yang: The Boxer Rebellion was fought on Chinese soil in the year 1900. It was the very end of China's "century of humiliation." The Europeans and the Japanese had established what were called concessions, areas in every major Chinese city that basically functioned as colonies. A group of poor, starving teenagers felt deeply embarrassed by this foreign incursion, so they came up with a ritual that would call the Chinese gods down from the heavens. The gods would give them superpowers. Then, armed with superpowers, the teenagers ran through the countryside fighting of foreign soldiers and Chinese Christians. The teenagers became known as the Boxers because their martial arts reminded the Europeans of European boxing.

I find the Boxer Rebellion fascinating on so many levels. There are a lot of parallels between it and the modern world, especially what's happening in the Middle East. I also think it embodies a conflict that Asian Americans, especially Asian American Christians, sometimes struggle with, a conflict between Eastern and Western culture.

RELATED: 'Boxers & Saints' named National Book Award finalist

Several books that you've written and drawn yourself -- "American Born Chinese" and now "Boxers & Saints" -- have a thematic commonality in the clash between East and West. Where does the desire to explore this come from? Who are you hoping to reach with these stories?

Yang: Well, I hope my books aren't just about the East and the West clashing. I hope they're about the relationship between East and West, both the ways they conflict and the ways they come together. In "Boxers & Saints," for instance, I wanted to explore the commonalities between Western stories of Christ and Eastern stories of the Goddess of Compassion. Being an Asian American, I've lived in both cultures. I grew up with Eastern culture at home and Western culture at school. It's a big part of who I am. Since I try to write from my own life, that's what comes out.

These books have a very strong message about the costs of violence and the legacy of war, both on a micro and macro scale. Is it difficult writing characters that are going to have such high prices to pay for their actions?

Yang: "Boxers & Saints" is by far the most violent book I've ever done. I couldn't get around it. The Boxer Rebellion was a brutal, bloody conflict. It cost thousands and thousands of lives on both sides. I didn't want to sanitize it too much, you know? I felt like I needed to capture that at least some of that brutality on paper but it did weigh on me. After I finished drawing "Boxers" and before I started on "Saints," I took a break from the Boxer Rebellion. I did a much happier, lighter book that First Second will release in 2014.

In spite of the violence and horrors that take place during the book, it never stops being approachable, funny and hopeful. How do you strike that balance?

Yang: I'm glad you read it that way! Me, I just felt kind of sad when I was working on it, almost all the way through.

I grew up wanting to be a Disney animator. When I was little, I tried and tried to draw in that Disney style. And while my cartooning goals have changed, some of that influence still lingers in my drawings. Maybe that's what's coming through?

There is a strong magical presence in each book, with Little Bao and his army turning into gods, and Four-Girl's encounters with the raccoon and visions of Joan of Arc. Is this magic real, or does it only exist in the character's minds?

Yang: You know, I'm not sure. I'm never able to answer that question. People have asked me that about "American Born Chinese," too. Was the transformation that the protagonist went through real, or was it in his head? I guess I want to leave that for the reader to decide.

The female characters in these books are opinionated and powerful. Was this true to the historical period, or did you adjust the gender roles?

Yang: Maybe that's because I'm surrounded by opinionated and powerful women. And girls -- I've got daughters at home.

Gender roles in China around that time were complex. On the one hand, women don't fare all that well within the traditional Confucian understanding of the world. And in Chinese superstition, Yin -- female energy -- is often regarded with suspicion. On the other hand, Chinese legend has figures like Hua Mulan and Mu Guiying, women who are honored for their courage and military prowess. They are to China what Joan of Arc is to France.

Also, the most powerful person in turn-of-the-century China was a woman, the Empress Dowager Cixi. The way I portrayed the Red Lanterns -- the female Boxers -- was true for the most part. They were sometimes mistrusted, but the rumor was that they were much, much more powerful than the male Boxers.

Are there any other historical events or time periods you plan to write about?

Yang: I mentioned that lighter project I did in between "Boxers" and "Saints." The title is "The Shadow Hero," and it's historical fiction -- or at least it's historical fiction-ish. It's a revival of an obscure Golden Age superhero named The Green Turtle who's fallen into public domain. The whole story is set in 1930s Chinatown, so I did some historical research to prep for it.

I'm working with Sonny Liew on this one. I'm doing the writing; he's doing the drawing. I have to tell you, his pages are absolutely gorgeous. I can't wait for it to come out.

Lark, how did you come to color "Boxers & Saints?"

Lark Pien: Gene asked me to color this project and I said okay! Coloring for Gene is fun. He doesn't ever threaten to whip me or throw me down the stairs! If I do happen to fall down on the job, it is "by accident."

The colors in "Boxers" are dramatic and vibrant while the palette in "Saints" is more muted. Was that your decision? What inspired it?

Pien: Gene made the decision early on to make the two books look really different. "Boxers" was colored first; it was challenging to integrate a reality-based palette (browns for the impoverished landscape) with a bright and fantastic palette (Chinese opera costumes = unbridled rainbow anarchy.) I tried to find a balance between these two palettes that would also compliment Gene's clean, cartoony style of drawing.

Then came "Saints." Originally, "Saints" was going to be monochromatic and flat and on a different kind of paper. Gene wanted it to feel like an old journal or diary. I'm not sure we pulled that off -- it feels like an old-timey film to me. First Second also weighed in with comments, and the treatment for Joan of Arc changed considerably. Instead of flat color I ended up employing a mix of transparencies, shape cutting, color holds, textures, highlights and shadows, and other painting techniques.

I hope the final books read as something uncomplicated and unified.

What is your process like for deciding on the colors of each character and scene?

Pien: Gene was still drawing the latter half when I was scheduled to start with coloring and he wouldn't tell me how the story ended! I wanted to know because sometimes that affects how things are colored. I mean, what if you're painting everyone with beach tans and in the end you find out they're in Siberia?! Anyway, with enough needling I got him to reveal the rest of the story, and that helped me decide on the colors.

I wanted Little Bao's outfit to be slightly awkward, a little more kid-like and transitional. As a character, he's someone who has got something to prove still. His brothers have tops and bottoms that are weighted more evenly (lighter shades on top, leggings darker for better grounding.) Gene started me off with references for the gods and soldier uniforms. I was given a lot of room in interpreting the villagers.

The Stronghold church colors are modeled after my grandpa's Buddhist temple here in Oakland. As a kid, I thought the colors were really crazy but now as an adult I think there's something about this combination of colors that is a distinctively Chinese aesthetic.

For you art nerds, the parchment texture in Joan's scenes is 100% grocery bag. I put a grocery bag on the scanner, tweaked its levels and used it as the base. Generally, readers don't seem to mind but sometimes the repeated pattern of a digital brush distracts me. Gene especially did not call up and demand real grocery bag pulp over digital brushes -- if he did it would have been weird.

What is your favorite part of the books?

Pien: From "Boxers," any parts with the slanted panel fighting frames -- they are fun to read. From "Saints," Four-Girl leaning out her window talking to Joan while the troops just stand there waiting is really comical to me [pg. 91.] I want to name that panel "Girl Talk."

What other projects are you working on?

Pien: A couple of children's books: "Long Tail Kitty Book 2" and "You Are Magic." I'm also working on one long graphic novel! "Long Tail Kitty" and "You Are Magic" will be out next year. I also have a large oil commission featuring a mob of imps. It is the size of two doors which equals sore arms.

"Boxers & Saints" will be released on September 10. You can see the products of Pien's sore arms at www.larkpien.blogspot.com.

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