The Common Good
September-October 2013

Comics & Faith with Gene Luen Yang

by The Editors | September-October 2013

In the September-October 2013 issue of Sojourners magazine, senior associate editor Julie Polter interviewed award-winning comic book author and artist Gene Luen Yang about his new two-volume graphic novel, Boxers & Saints.

Set during China’s Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Yang’s comics illustrate the complexities of faith and fanaticism through the stories of two young people caught in the violent uprising against Westerners—foreign officials, merchants, and missionaries—as well as Chinese Christian converts. Boxers tells the story of Bao, a boy who becomes a Boxer leader (among the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists) after witnessing ongoing abuse by Westerners; Saints follows Four-Girl, an unwanted daughter who converts to Catholicism, takes the name Vibiana, and must flee the Boxers.

Yang, a Chinese American residing in Oakland, Calif., dedicates Saints to the San Jose Chinese Catholic community. Boxers & Saints releases in September from First Second Books.

Unpublished excerpts of Sojournersinterview with Yang can be found below, along with illustrations from Boxers & Saints.

Sojourners: The characters in Boxers & Saints are driven by varied combinations of ideology (patriotism, cultural imperialism) and mysticism/faith. The flaws and virtues of different beliefs sometimes seem to mirror each other.

…When I was doing research for the books, I discovered that both the Europeans and the Boxers had these rumors that would circulate about the other side. On the Boxer side there was this rumor that Europeans would actually kidnap Chinese babies and pluck their eyes out and grind them up to make medicine. On the European side, there was this belief that the Chinese sacrificed their own children to their native gods. But if you look at the foundational stories of these cultures, it’s interesting. On the European side, the central Christian story is about a God who sacrifices his own son. So this rumor they had about the Chinese was reflecting a story that was most important to them. On the Chinese side, there’s the story of the Goddess of Compassion, who sacrifices her own eyes to make medicine for her father. So in the same way, this rumor they had about the Europeans was reflected in one of the stories that were most important to their culture.

Is there significance in the fact that Vibiana is the name of the patron saint of nobodies, of anonymous martyrs?

I actually chose her name for different reasons. The root of Vibiana is the Latin word for life. The character’s family had named the girl Four-Girl, which means “death girl.” I wanted a stark contrast of her coming into the church and going from death to life. Vibiana is also the patron saint of Los Angeles.

There is one character within Saints that is actually based on a canonized person. I changed the way he died, and once I did that I felt like I couldn’t use his real name anymore. But the acupuncturist [in Saints] is based on this real person who actually died as an opium addict. He was an acupuncturist who was very well off. He was Catholic for his whole life; he was known to treat poor people for free, everybody loved him. In his 40s he had this bout of stomach illness, and he cured himself with opium. But he got addicted. They didn’t have the understanding of addiction they have today. He just kept trying to kick it and kick it and kick it for 20 years. After a few years the parish priest refused to give him communion, and he really felt like he was estranged from the church. But he kept going to Mass. When the Boxer Rebellion happened, the Boxers descended on his house and killed his entire family. He asked that he be the last to die, so that none of his family would die alone. A century later, this opium addict was canonized by the church. His name is Saint Mark Ji Tianxiang.

What are your thoughts on nonviolence?

I don’t know if I’ve landed anywhere on that. Within Catholic thought there’s this idea of a just war—often applied inappropriately. I think becoming a father has pushed me in more practical directions. War is obviously a horrible thing, but I don’t know if we’re ever going to get rid of it. I don’t know if it’s possible to imagine human beings without violence in the state we are on this side of heaven, in the fallen state. It seems like something we just have to deal with.

What are your thoughts on the term “graphic novel”?

When I’m talking about the stuff that we make, I call them comic books. “Graphic novel” is actually a marketing term. Will Eisner, who is one of the greats, in the ‘40s created a comic called The Spirit, which really was one of the first comics to bring in cinematic language to our medium. In the 1970s he wrote this long comic book about Jewish kids growing up in New York, and it drew heavily from his own life. He went to all these publishing houses, asking if they wanted to publish a comic book about Jewish kids with no superheroes, no magic, just Jewish kids in New York. All of them refused. Then he went around to those same publishers and said he had a “graphic novel” about Jewish kids in New York, and he was able to sell the book.

As comics have grown up, “graphic novel” has become a way to differentiate books with a spine—from books that might belong in the library to the throw-away books that feature superheroes. It’s sort of a result of self-hate. It’s also a really inaccurate term, because “graphic novel” has been applied to comics that tell nonfiction stories, comics that are collections of short stories, and comics that are just not novels. At the same time, that’s the term that won the battle. When you walk into Barnes & Noble, the section says graphic novel, not comic books. There was competition for a while. Some artists called them “drawn books” or “illustrated books,” but graphic novel is the term that won. That’s why I sometimes use it. When you say graphic novel, people know what you’re talking about. Even comic book is not a great term, because not all comic books are funny. There is no good term.

Do you have any thoughts on why the graphic medium of comic books has risen and fallen culturally in the past several decades?

I think the current resurgence of comic books predates iPads, although iPads certainly helped. When I was starting in comics in the late ‘90s, people were predicting the demise of the American comic book. Marvel comics had just declared bankruptcy. The assumption was that all of these different comic book stores would close, and the industry would fall apart. But then in the 2000s—especially 2003, 2004, 2005—the graphic novel became the fastest growing segment of American publishing, people were freaking out with joy. That’s when Comic-Con really took off.

I do think technology has something to do with it. Since comic books are this combination of words and pictures, the World Wide Web has prepped more people to become comic book readers. Most web pages are combinations of words and pictures. People have become more used to seeing information formatted in that way. I think the other factor is globalization. A lot of the resurgence of American comics was driven by interest in Japanese comics [known as manga]. So manga fueled that growth—kids would go into their book stores and read manga and sooner or later they’d discover that we make the same stuff here as they do in Japan. I think that keen interest in Japanese culture comes from the fact that our world is getting smaller, thanks to technology. A lot of the interest came from Japanese cartoons getting incorporated into the lineup of the Cartoon Network. So all these different factors contributed to the upsurge in interest in comics.

You still teach, right?

I’m still at the high school, but I’m part time. I manage the data base, but I stopped teaching there last year. I teach through Hamline University, the MFA program, writing for children and teens. Most of that is through the internet. We have a week-long residency, but for the rest of the year it’s all online. I do miss the classroom.

I really like it. I was part of the comics community in the late ‘90s, and this is kind of like that—I’m part of a writing community with other professors and students, where everybody just loves storytelling. I kind of feel like right now I’m getting more out of that program than my students are getting out of me.

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