Category Archives: First Second

Review: BOXERS & SAINTS by Gene Luen Yang, published by First Second


Like a lightning strike, Gene Luen Yang’s new graphic novel, “Boxers & Saints,” is charged with energy. It is pure comics in the sense that it is immersive, dynamic, and holds you with a powerfully consistent pace. Much in the way that Jeff Smith’s comics command the page, you enter a very animated and colorful world when you read the work of Gene Luen Yang. And speaking of colors, Lark Pien provides a palette with an artist’s sensitivity. This is a most remarkable hero’s journey that, at once, is familiar and quite different and specific.

This is a story about China being thrown into the modern age with all its bloody consequences. It is told in two volumes. The first volume is the main story focusing on the Boxer Rebellion as seen from the vantage point of a rebel leader, Little Bao. The second volume is a look at those Chinese citizens who accepted the Christian faith as seen from the vantage point of an average young woman with grand aspirations, Vibiana. You can place both books facing up and you have half a portrait of Bao and half a portrait of Vibiana that together provide a full picture to a complex story. These two characters never get to know each other. Their lives only briefly touch. The reader gets to see how they connect in a profound way.


“Boxers & Saints” takes graphic novels to a new level. It’s that good. While we hear endless theorizing on the potential of the comics medium and what has yet to be surveyed in this new art frontier, here we have a work that is grounded in the best comics tradition of precision and consistency and, as a bonus, seems to effortlessly break new ground. You have two stories, of different scope yet equal in their impact. They can be read separately but, together, prove to be a powerful whole. This is something of a first: two volumes, one ostensibly the main story at 325 pages; and the second volume that fills in some essential gaps as a parallel story. And, at 170 pages, it carries a similar impact as the first volume. I have not seen anything quite like this before. Maybe you have. But at such an exceptional level? No, I don’t think so.

The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) is the focus here. And while this is also a story of self-discovery, it is very much a valuable, and highly accessible, history lesson. Take a look at the Boxer Rebellion and you get a deeper sense of the heart and soul of China and where it’s coming from today. If not for this event, the superpowers of that time, on a path to take over China, would have had no motivation to pause and control their urge to plunder. Considering such a volatile topic, Yang manages to immerse himself in the subject and pluck out gems of wisdom.

A French political cartoon depicting China as a pie about to be carved up by Queen Victoria (Britain), Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany), Tsar Nicholas II (Russia), Marianne (France) and a samurai (Japan), while a Chinese mandarin helplessly looks on. (Wikipedia)

A French political cartoon depicting China as a pie about to be carved up by Queen Victoria (Britain), Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany), Tsar Nicholas II (Russia), Marianne (France) and a samurai (Japan), while a Chinese mandarin helplessly looks on. (Wikipedia)

The way Yang sees it, there’s something to be said for the Boxer rebels mirroring today’s geek culture. The Boxer youth learned about the Chinese gods through opera, which was the pop culture of the day. That is precisely what we see our main character, Little Bao, wrapped up in. He loves opera! He can’t read or write and is essentially ignorant, like all his peers in the village he lives in. However, he has a window into culture and the rest of the world. It is through regular viewing of these popular street performances that he learns about Chinese gods, much in the same way that comic books provide a window into the world of myth. And it is this passion that leads Little Bao to want to be like his heroes, similar to the passion demonstrated by today’s cosplay.


It’s that deep love of Chinese gods that gives Little Bao his sense of identity and the inner strength to fight for his country as a Boxer rebel leader against the “foreign devils” with their various interests and agendas. Christian indoctrination is the key point of conflict.


But things are never that simple. Once you’ve seen one imperialist, you’ve seen them all, but Yang asks the reader to consider another point of view. While any Chinese citizen who embraces the Westerner’s Christianity is looked upon by the Boxers as nothing but disloyal to the people’s cause, we read the story of one Chinese girl’s Christian faith in volume two. With as much sincerity as Little Bao, the girl only known as Four Girl finds her place in life. It’s not with her abusive family. It’s among the Christians. She joins the faith and becomes Vibiana.

There’s a fleeting moment early in volume one when Little Bao sees this girl and instantly senses some connection. He spots her while she is making a devilish grimace of her face. He has no idea what it all means and concludes that he is destined to see her again. It is one of many perfectly timed moments in this book. What Yang does to briefly connect these two precious lives coming from opposite ends is magical and powerful. Together, Little Bao and Vibiana provide us with a whole story, a face to China, and a window for the reader.

Below is a quick video recap:

“Boxers & Saints” is a two volume set published by First Second which you can visit here. And also be sure to visit Gene Luen Yang at his website here.

1 Comment

Filed under China, Comics, First Second, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Young Adult

Review: BATTLING BOY by Paul Pope, published by First Second


“Dad,” is a word you read a lot in Paul Pope‘s new graphic novel, “Battling Boy,” published by First Second. Our original hero was Haggard West, the proud dad of Aurora West, and the defender of the City of Acropolis on good ole planet Earth. And then there’s Battling Boy’s dad who is not from anywhere, not anywhere close anyway. As Battling Boy says himself, this is a “place which hangs suspended above the silver spinning lightning cloud.” It’s up to Battling Boy to help save Acropolis, a city under siege by all kinds of monsters. If you’re sensing that this is a way cool superhero story, one with a fresh new energy we could all use more of, then you’d be right.

Aurora West in Paul Pope's "Battling Boy"

Aurora West in Paul Pope’s “Battling Boy”

Battling Boy and his dad

Battling Boy and his dad

“Battling Boy” is Paul Pope’s baby and that is exciting news. Paul Pope is the ultimate dad in this graphic novel, yes he is. Some Paul Pope fans just know the guy from his amazing artwork. Other fans just know him from “Batman: Year One Hundred.” And then there are fans, myself included, who have been following his work for years. Pope has always loved the urban, the offbeat, and the other-worldly. His work is immersive, hypnotic, and just plain knock-your-socks-off cool. He loves and respects the comics medium and carries on the tradition of masters like Milton Caniff and Jack Kirby.


Have you ever seen the 1974 Stanley Donen film, “The Little Prince”? It springs to mind when I think of how masterfully Paul Pope has delivered a sense of wonder in this comic, similar to Gene Wilder having us believe he’s a fox–without the aid of even a hint of whisker or fur, just through sheer talent and skill. He just is a fox. That’s the kind of magic we don’t see nearly enough of from superhero comics.


Why should superhero comics, in general, be so predictable? Demographics seem to hold the key, right? Comics most in tune with a formula seem to always sell the best while, in fact, quality has no need for test marketing and never goes out of style. You cannot test market how Gene Wilder conjures up a fox any more than you can test market how Paul Pope conjures up a fox.


Paul Pope has always had that magic touch. He is in tune with his senses and what the reader will enjoy without having to force it. We begin with a bouncing soccer ball in the very first panel of this story. We proceed to see the ball bounce out of sight and one boy being coaxed by his pals to retrieve it. Some more panels in, and we find the boy’s mom calling out for him. We next see the boy and, above him, some odd bits of tattered cloth. Then, just a bit higher, a strange limb comes into view. Finally, a monster sits on a wire above, about to pounce on the boy. What seemed a gradual pace, keeps moving faster.

This monster is part of a gang which is part of a whole network of monsters. Haggard West, a burly figure with an aviator’s cap and an arsenal of gadgets, arrives to save the day. But it will be up to his daughter, Aurora, to live up to his legacy. Later on, we come across a similar scene with a bouncing ball. This time, it’s a fireball and we’re on some other planet. This is where Battling Boy steps in. He is 12 years old, ready for his rites of passage. It has been decided that he will go to planet Earth and save the City of Acropolis from its monsters. It’s a tall order but somehow Battling Boy will need to find a way to do the right thing. It is the sort of story that Paul Pope can tell very well and perhaps one that he will inspire others to tell as well.

“Battling Boy” is a 202-page full color graphic novel published by First Second and comes out this October. Visit our friends at First Second here and you can purchase it here.


Filed under Comics, First Second, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Paul Pope