Gene Luen Yang On The History And Art Behind ‘Boxers & Saints’ [Interview]
Multiple Eisner Award winner Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese, Level Up, Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise) is about to release his most ambitious comic project yet. Together they're Boxers & Saints, a pair of graphic novels (available both together and separately) that tell the story of China's Boxer Rebellion from two opposing, but connected points of view. For Yang, the son of Chinese immigrants and a practicing Catholic, it's a personal work of historical fiction that delves into a turbulent and deadly time in China's history when young kung fu-practicing peasants organized to combat colonial powers, Christian missionaries from the west and Chinese Christians who had converted. ComicsAlliance got in touch with Yang to see how he navigated this complicated history and what artistic decisions went into telling these two intersecting stories.
ComicsAlliance:You're a Catholic and have said you were initially inspired to begin working on this project 13 years ago when Pope John Paul II canonized 87 Chinese Catholics, many of whom were killed during the events of the Boxer Rebellion. As you dug into history and into the role religion and politics played in the conflict, you've said that you felt conflicted. Now that you've completed "Boxers" and "Saints," has your perspective changed at all?
Gene Luen Yang: I was deeply struck by our common humanity. The Chinese and the Europeans thought of one another as very much “the other,” but there were so many parallels between the two. For instance, among the Chinese, rumors circulated that the Europeans would kidnap Chinese babies and pluck out their eyes to make medicines. This was cited as evidence of the Europeans’ inhumanity. Yet, within Chinese religion was the story of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, who gives up her eyes so they can be made into medicines for her father.
Among the Europeans, rumors circulated that the Chinese would sacrifice their own children to their heathen gods. This was cited as evidence of the inhumanity of the Chinese. Yet, central to European’s religion was the story of Jesus Christ, a son who was sacrificed by his own father.
CA: While kung-fu is a big part of Boxers & Saints, you don't fixate on it or delve into the fighting style from an instructional standpoint the way a lot of comics that deal with martial arts do. Was that ever a consideration?
GLY: In my research, I learned that the Boxers’ kung fu wasn’t all that formalized. The vast majority of them didn’t belong to some age-old martial arts tradition. They were basically poor, starving teenagers doing the best they could to figure out how to fight, relying more on their mystical beliefs than formal training. This allowed me to concentrate on what interested me most: character arcs, social dynamics, religious stories.
CA: The divine forms the protagonists take in Boxers are really cool and fun to watch in action -- especially in the more righteous fighting scenes. What did you have the most fun drawing while working on these books?
GLY: I got these big coffee table books about Chinese opera from the local library and I loved looking through them. I loved studying the intricate costumes and figuring out how to “cartoonify” them. I wanted my versions to evoke American superheroes. I wanted to blend traditional Chinese imagery with a Jack Kirby/Bruce Timm sensibility. I’m clearly not as good at drawing action – or pretty much anything – as those guys, but it was fun to try.
CA: One of the major points of contrast between Boxers and Saints is the coloring by Lark Pien. Both stories feature fairly muted, desaturated color palates, but Boxers is by far the more colorful of the two. What was the thinking behind these choices? Are they a reflection of the characters' respective points of view or are there more layers more to it?
GLY: Lark is amazing, isn’t she? She did an awesome job coloring my stuff, but she does stuff on her own too. Check out her kids’ comic Long Tail Kitty, if you haven’t already. It’s beautiful.
Boxers is a story about heroism. What does it mean to be a hero? The Boxers themselves went on this epic journey, travelling from village to village all the way to the capital city. I wanted it to read like the comics version of a Chinese war movie, long and bloody with a tragic ending. It had to be colorful. It had to show the Boxers as they saw themselves, as otherworldly heroes.
Saints, on the other hand, is about sainthood. What does it mean to be a saint? Historically, the Chinese Christians’ story is much more limited in scope. They didn’t go on an epic journey. They clung to these identities they’d built for themselves, identities that drew from both the East and the West. Then they died. The scope is completely different, so I knew this book would be shorter, quieter, more humble. I had to signal to the reader that the two books weren’t competing on the same level, and Lark’s colors were a big part of that. For Saints, we tried to draw from American autobio comics. We wanted that sense of intimacy.
CA: I noticed that the characters you used to fill the word balloons of English-speaking characters when a character can't understand them weren't random and actually seemed to be part of a character set. Are these real characters from another language I'm not familiar with or a font that you created for use in these stories?
The European and American characters all speak in scribbles. I actually used the scribbles to represent multiple Western languages: French, Latin, English. And you’re right, they’re not random. I created a font made up of scribbles, and then I typed out the dialog of all the non-Chinese characters using that font. It’s basically just a code. One scribble is A, another is B, etc. If you wanted to, you could decode the scribble dialog to see what those characters are really saying.
CA: Even though the Chinese characters in Boxers hate many of the foreigners they encounter and criticize their appearances, you draw them the same way in both books and don't caricature anyone. Is that at all a commentary on the folly of human prejudice or more just a way to visually unify the shared world the books take place in?
GLY: I wanted all my characters to look cartoony without being caricatures. I felt like I was right on the border with a couple of them on each side. I’m glad you didn’t think I crossed the line. I think I briefly played with the idea of representing the European characters differently in the two books, but decided against it. I guess it goes back to that common humanity I talked about earlier.
CA: Besides page count, did you notice any differences in your workflow between Saints and Boxers? Was one easier or more difficult than the other for you?
GLY: Boxers was more time consuming simply because it was longer, but Saints was definitely harder. I think it’s just hard to talk about faith in general. Religion is such a contentious subject these days, and understandably so. I really relied on my non-religious friends for feedback. I wanted to write a story that most people could relate to, regardless of religious background.
Also, the Boxers went on a physical journey. There were interesting things to illustrate all the way through. The protagonist of Saints goes on a spiritual journey, and it’s a spiritual journey that’s foggy and confusing for most of the book. How do I convey that in a compelling way through a visual medium like comics? I was pretty worried about it. I finally convinced myself to dive in by thinking, if I’m gonna fail, I can at least try to fail in an interesting way.
CA: You're prolific in all of the disciplines involved in making comics. You write, you illustrate, you color, and you collaborate with others. Does your basic approach to all of these disciplines flow from the same source, so-to-speak, or is it more like switching between gears to you?
GLY: I general don’t color my stuff—I’m pretty horrible with color. Usually, I’ll get one of my cartoonist friends to help me out. The difference between working on your own and working with a friend is control. If I’m doing all the writing and drawing, I control the book all the way through. If I’m working with someone else, I have to hand off the project at some point. I’m trading control, but hopefully I’m trading to gain something.
I have stories in my head that I’m just not capable of illustrating. For instance, Sonny Liew and I have a project coming out next year called The Shadow Hero. It’s a superhero story set in 1930’s Chinatown. Sonny drew the crap out of that book. His art is shockingly good. It’s a much, much stronger book than the one I could’ve drawn on my own.
CA: Are you a "method" artist at all? Do you physically try any of the things that happen in your comics? I basically want to find out if you played marbles with human teeth like the kids did in Boxers.
GLY: Ha ha. No I’ve never played with human teeth before. Though when we were little, my brother and I used to play marbles with fish eyeballs at Chinese restaurants. If you chew a fish eyeball down (don’t judge until you try it) you’ll get this tiny, perfect, translucent sphere. Perfect for marbles.
CA: I've read that you only do comics work that you really believe in. Have there ever been any projects you passed on or abandoned in the early stages because you weren't feeling them?
GLY: Did I say that somewhere? Ha ha. I guess it’s true. But that’s the advantage of clinging onto a day job. I haven’t yet had to take a comics job solely for the money. I have had to turn down projects. Sometimes it’s because I’m not feeling them, but often it’s because I just don’t have the time. And I’ve definitely abandoned a lot of my own ideas, mostly because they’re stupid. When they’re your own ideas, it sometimes takes a while before you realize they’re stupid. I have to wait until that initial sheen of faux genius (you know what I’m talking about – the one that makes you go, “This is the best idea ever!”) wears off before I know to abandon it.
CA: On top of making comics, you also have a full fledged career and all the demands that come with it. You seem to have harmonized everything, though, and are consistently releasing new material. Was this a difficult balance that you had to learn how to strike or have you always been disciplined work-wise?
GLY: Eh. I think “harmonize” is pushing it. I’m part-time at my day job these days, so I have a decent amount of time each week to work on comics. When I used to work full-time, I’d wake up early and go to sleep late to get stuff done. I don’t think I could’ve kept that up for too long.
When I first started doing comics, I lived with these guys, these college friends of mine. I told them to ask me how far I got on my comics at the end of each day. If I didn’t get far enough, I told them to make me feel guilty. And it worked. I got my first comic done in a year.
I don’t live with those guys anymore, but I can still hear their voices in my head. So maybe that’s what drives me. Guilt.
CA: You did a lot of research for both of these stories and even supply readers with a nice "further reading" section at the end of both books. What's your hope (if any) for Boxers & Saints in terms of their potential uses in the classroom or other educational settings?
GLY: I love it when teachers tell me they’re using my books in their classrooms. I was a classroom teacher for over a decade. I know what it’s like. I know how hard it is to keep students engaged.
It’d be awesome if teachers use Boxers & Saints in their classrooms. The Boxer Rebellion doesn’t get all that much attention in American history courses, but it still affects our world today. The 1800’s were traumatic for China, and the events of the 1800’s affect China’s relationship with the West. My guess is that as China grows in economic prominence, American students will pay closer attention to events like the Boxer Rebellion. And if Boxers & Saints can be a part of that? Awesome!