'There Are Always Two Sides': Gene Luen Yang On 'Boxers & Saints'

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There are always two sides to every conflict, and with First Second's “Boxers & Saints,” Gene Luen Yang explores characters on opposite ends of the Boxer Rebellion. Little Bao, a Boxer, and Vibiana, a Chinese Christian convert, take turns being both protagonist and antagonist.

It’s Yang’s first historical work, and while it’s darker than fans of “American Born Chinese” might expect, it still retains multiple instances of Yang’s well-known humor and light-heartedness. Yang spoke to MTV Geek about his inspiration for this sweeping and epic new project, the historical basis for the story, his use of magical realism with Chinese gods and Joan of Arc, and what other projects he has up his sleeve.

MTV GEEK: Why did you decide to write about the Boxer Rebellion?

GENE LUEN YANG: I first became interested in the Boxer Rebellion in 2000. I think it only gets about a paragraph in your average American textbook, so I didn’t learn much about it in school. But in 2000 Pope John Paul II canonized a bunch of Chinese Catholic saints. I grew up in a Chinese American Catholic church, and they were excited about it. When I learned about the lives of these newly canonized saints, I realized many of them had been martyred during the Boxer Rebellion.

What I found was really fascinating: the Boxers were these teenagers who felt really embarrassed by the foreign presence in their homeland. The Chinese government was really weak then and couldn’t defend itself, so the European powers established what were called concessions. They were small communities in Chinese cities. So these teenagers out in the countryside came up with this ritual where they’d call the Chinese gods from the sky and get possessed by them. They would get superpowers, and with these superpowers they’d go around the countryside fighting off the foreigners and the Chinese Christians.

I saw a whole bunch of parallels between the Boxer Rebellion and what was going on today. I also felt more and more ambivalent about it. I couldn’t decide who I felt more sympathetic toward. That’s why the project is two books, with the protagonist in one being the antagonist in the other. I think the “Boxers” book was easier for me to envision as a comic, because they were on this epic journey. These teenagers basically gathered into this army and marched to the capital city where they had a showdown with the Europeans and Japanese. On the “Saints” side, it was a lot trickier. The Chinese Christians stayed in their villages, they tried to defend themselves as best as they could, and then they died. A lot of their struggle was internal. They struggled with doubt, they struggled with who was right and if they were being taken in by these foreigners. That was definitely harder, and I think that’s why the books ended up in different lengths.

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GEEK: What is your writing process like?

YANG: For about a year I went to the local university library once a week to do research and take notes on what I was reading. After a year I outlined both books. I started scripting “Boxers.” When I finished scripting it, I drew “Boxers” and scripted “Saints” at the same time. Then after I was done drawing “Boxers,” [laughs] I felt sad and overwhelmed, so I took a break. I wrote a script for a superhero book that will be coming out next year. After I was done with that, I drew “Saints.”

GEEK: How much of “Boxers & Saints” is accurate to history, and how much is inspired by your own imagination?

YANG: There’s definitely historical pieces in it. Nobody knows for sure how the Boxer Rebellion started, because it started among the poor and poor people’s history is often unrecorded. There is a book I relied pretty heavily on called “The Origins of the Boxer Uprising” by Joseph Esherick. I took pieces of what I found there. The main character is fictional. He has a mentor named Red Lantern Chu, and he’s based on a historical figure. There was an cooking oil salesman who was also a martial artist who traveled from village to village and he was pretty prominent early in the movement. The main character also has another mentor named Master Big Belly. He’s based on a figure who was mentioned in the book. There was a martial arts master who would go from village to village, and rumor had it he had this mystical eye in the middle of his belly. When I read that, I thought, “That belongs in a comic.”

On the “Saints” side, the main priest, Father Bey, is an amalgamation of these different Catholic missionaries. There’s also an acupuncturist named Dr. Won in the book. He’s based on one of the canonized Chinese saints. Saint Mark [Ji Tianxiang] was an acupuncturist and also an opium addict, just like Dr. Won. He struggled with his addiction for decades, and back then they didn’t have the same understanding of addiction we have today. His parish priest refused him the sacraments in the last thirty years of his life, and he was martyred in the Boxer Rebellion. I think . . . I’m not positive about this . . . but I think he’s the only addict to be canonized.

GEEK: In the story, you have the Boxers literally taken over by gods. Did you put Joan of Arc in “Saints” to parallel that?

YANG: Yeah, yeah. I’ve always liked Joan of Arc. She’s a really fascinating individual, and as I learned more about the Boxers, I was struck by how similar they were to Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc was this teenager and her country had been invaded by the British. Like the Boxers, she had a spiritual experience that empowered her to go fight against these foreigners. Just like the Boxers, the odds were very much against her. So I included Joan of Arc because I was struck by this common humanity between the Europeans and the Chinese.

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GEEK: What was the most challenging part about writing “Boxers & Saints”?

YANG: This was my first time doing historical fiction and I was really intimidated. I wasn’t sure when to stop doing the research. I didn’t think I could learn enough to accurately create the world. I was driven by the fear that some expert would call me out . . . which I’m sure is going to happen. At one point I just thought, “I need to stop or I’ll never get this book out.” Then I realized my books that take place in present day aren’t suburban America in every detail. I’m trying to create a cartoon world that’s based on suburban America. So that’s what I tried to do with “Boxers & Saints.”

Another hard thing was balancing these two books. Cinematically speaking, I think it would have been easier to match the Boxer story with the European soldiers or the Indian soldiers that were brought in to put down the Boxers. They would have had similarly epic narrative. Figuring out a way to balance the Boxer story with the Chinese Christians was difficult.

GEEK: What was the most rewarding part?

YANG: I learned a lot. I really want to do another historical fiction, or maybe even a nonfiction piece.

GEEK: What do you want readers to take away from it?

YANG: I would hope that they would be inspired to learn more about that particular part of history. The other thing I hope is that it will inspire people to learn both sides of every conflict.

GEEK: What else do you have going on?

YANG: The project that I did between “Boxer & Saints” was “The Shadow Hero,” which is illustrated by Sonny Liew, an artist who lives in Singapore. He did some of those Jane Austen adaptations for Marvel. “The Shadow Hero” is about this Golden Age hero. Back in the 1940s, comics were selling in the millions and publishers were trying to jump in and get rich. One of those publishers was Rural Home. They had a Chinese American artist working for them named Chu Hing. Rural Home asked him to create a hero, and he created a hero called Green Turtle who fights the Japanese on Chinese soil. He wore a turtle mask and turtle cape. The rumor is Chu Hing really wanted the Green Turtle to be Chinese American, but the publisher didn’t think that would sell. If you read those books, the hero almost always has his back facing the camera so you can’t see his face. When he turns around, his face is obscured. The rumor is that Chu Hing did it that way so he could imagine his hero as a Chinese American.

The comic only lasted five issues, so we never find out his origin story. That’s what Sonny and I are doing: we’re telling the origin story of the Green Turtle and establishing him as a Chinese American hero.

I also write the comics for “Avatar: The Last Airbender” for Dark Horse. They’re a continuation of the original series, so the first book picked up right after the very last episode. We do three books a year. Currently we have a miniseries called “The Search” and the next volume of that will be out in October.