American Born Chinese writer and artist Gene Luen Yang is no stranger to adolescents grappling with big questions. But now he’s taking his insight for the humor, drama, and pain of young adulthood from history. His latest graphic novel Boxers & Saints follows the parallel tales of two Chinese teens who grow up through the Boxer Rebellion. The two-book collection, which hits shelves Sept. 10, views the early 20th century rebellion on both sides of the struggle, from the perspective of the Boxers and the Christian converts.
Yang, who also writes the Avatar: The Last Airbender series of graphic novels, spoke to EW about his latest ventures and how he needed a superhero-sized breather while tackling such a devastating and defining event.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about the inspiration for creating Boxers & Saints.
GENE LUEN YANG: The Boxer Rebellion is this war that occurred on Chinese soil in the year 1900, and I first got interested in it in 2000. I grew up in a Chinese-American Catholic Church in the Bay area, in Santa Clara. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese saints. This was the very first time that Chinese citizens had been acknowledged by this deeply Western church in this way. When I looked into the lives of these saints, I realized that a lot of them had been martyred during the Boxer Rebellion. After the Vatican made their announcement, the Chinese government launched a complaint against them saying that the Vatican was actually honoring a bunch of traitors. I think a lot of what interests me is this clash — it’s not just a clash. It’s a clash and a coming together of Eastern and Western cultures. I feel like as an Asian-American, that’s so much of who I am that when I see it reflected in the outside world it really intrigues me.
It’s interesting how you approach the Rebellion in the style of magical realism that is evident in your other work. Yet it is still a work of historical fiction.
The magical realism is basically what was happening in the Boxers’ minds. They really believed that they would become the gods, that the gods would imbue them with power. They believed they were bullet-proof and could do all these crazy things. They were kind of like modern-day superheroes. They really believed that they had those powers.
The main character in the Saints book, Four Girl, is inspired by one of my relatives, who is a convert to Catholicism. Like Four Girl, she was born on a bad day according to the Chinese calendar, and she had this grandfather who just hated her because of that. He felt like she was bad luck because of the day she was born. She had this little sister that was born on a really good day, so the grandfather always loved the little sister and not her. So, he had the bowl of candy in his office, and if she went to go get it, she would get in trouble. If her little sister went to go get it, it would be fine.
Even Four Girl’s personal story is based on something real?
Yeah, and eventually as an adult, she converted to Catholicism. Now, she doesn’t connect those two. She doesn’t connect these things, but when she tells me about them, I feel like the connection is really obvious. She felt oppressed by Chinese culture, by these Chinese beliefs, so she escaped into this Western worldview.
The way you present the Rebellion shows that no one is 100% right or wrong. What’s your take on the Boxer Rebellion, and did it change throughout the writing process?
I felt very ambivalent about it all the way through. I still don’t know if I could pick a side. What I found really intriguing were the commonalities between the two sides. For instance, the Boxers were young men with strange spiritual beliefs fighting this patriotic fight. They were basically fighting for their country. The people they were fighting against had this story of a young woman, Joan of Arc, who was basically a Boxer, who was basically the same as them. She had strange spiritual beliefs. She was motivated by them to defend her country against a foreign aggressor, so there’s that parallel.
The story doesn’t end on the happiest of notes, but I’m sure it’s difficult to come up with a traditional happy ending for story set during a violent rebellion.
Yeah — I actually felt really depressed about working on it. I finished Boxers first, then, I worked on the Saints. Between the two books, I did a superhero book with a friend of mine that is coming out next year. That’s much more happy because I felt like I couldn’t live in the Boxer Rebellion for that long. When you look at that incident, it’s hard to find any sort of happy ending to it.
What’s the superhero book that you were working on between books?
I’m doing it with a friend of mine named Sonny Liew. He’s a Singaporean artist, so I did all of the writing and he’s doing all of the art. It’s called The Shadow Hero. It’s a revival of a superhero from the 1940s. Back then, comics were selling billions of copies every month, so all these little publishers started popping up to try to take advantage of the full rush.
One of these small publishers, I don’t know if they even lasted a year, was called Rural Home. They had a Chinese-American artist working for them by the name of Chu Hing, and I think he was one of the first Chinese-Americans working in the American comic books scene. Rural Home asked Chu Hing to create a superhero for them, and he created this guy called the Green Turtle. This is all here-say. I haven’t been able to confirm it, but the rumor is that Chu Hing really wanted the Green Turtle to be a Chinese-American superhero. The Green Turtle is an American superhero fighting on Chinese soil against the Japanese. Chu Hing really wanted him to be Chinese-American, but his publishers didn’t think that would fly in the marketplace.
So, the way Chu Hing dealt with it was in those original comics is that the Green Turtle almost never faces the reader. It was like he was rebelling against his publisher in the art itself. Chu Hing only did the black-and-white art, so the publisher colored the Green Turtle’s skin bright pink, almost to emphasize “this guy is definitely Caucasian.” So on the page itself there’s this fight. All the way through the five issues, the Green Turtle constantly says to his sidekick named Burma Boy, “Let me tell you about my origin,” and then he gets interrupted. So throughout the five issues, you never find out how the Green Turtle became the Green Turtle. That’s what The Shadow Hero is. It’s me and Sonny actually telling our version of the Green Turtle’s origin story, and we establish him as a Chinese-American superhero — as the first Chinese-American superhero.
How did you come across such an amazing story?
It was on a blog, a Golden Age comics blog. The art is — it’s just crazy. You just don’t see superhero comics like that, where you never get a clear shot of the hero’s face.