History in Graphic Format

As we conclude our History Month here at RedeemedReader, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about historical fiction, church history, picture book biographies, general history, and more! One type of book we haven’t touched on is the graphic novel.

A graphic novel will appear to be “just” a comic book to some, but the artists in this field are producing amazing works that manage to capture subtle concepts like human emotion or the passage of time in a way that text sometimes struggles to do. Today, we’ll look at three historical fiction works in graphic novel format. The first is much lighter in tone and subject matter; the second pair is more complex in nearly every sense.

Bluffton by Matt Phelan. Candlewick, 2013. 240 pages. Age/interest level: middle grades/ages 9-12.

bluffton Matt Phelan’s Bluffton shows us Buster Keaton’s childhood summers near Lake Michigan. Told through the eyes of a fictitious friend, Bluffton gives us a great window on the era of vaudeville and simpler summers a century ago. Art is well done, and the passage of time is shown expertly. The characters grow up subtly over the course of several summers, and a nice epilogue plus author’s note help fill out “the rest of the story.” More than simply a snapshot of Buster Keaton, Bluffton drives home the message that it’s important to focus on who you are going to be rather than what you are going to do when you grow up. Adults who are familiar with Buster Keaton will recognize him in Phelan’s great portrait; kids who aren’t familiar with him will be inspired to go check out those old silent films! Phelan is no stranger to RedeemedReader followers; we used his Around the World book last year to launch our Summer Reading Adventure. To see some of Phelan’s inspiration for Bluffton as well as some sample sketches, check out his website.

  • Worldview rating (out of 5): 3.5
  • Literary rating: 4.5

boxers saints coverBoxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang. First Second Books, 2013. 336 pages (Boxers), 176 pages (Saints). Age/interest level: YA.

Boxers and Saints are companion graphic novels about the Boxer Rebellion in China. Boxers is from the perspective of a young Boxer (Bao), and Saints is from the perspective of a young Chinese Catholic (Vibiana). The books are clearly designed to be a set and, indeed, you cannot read one without also reading the other. Janie and I have teamed up on reviews before, usually each of us reviewing separate books. Today, we are truly doing a joint review of this joint-graphic novel set.

In essence, Boxers and Saints are two halves of the same coin: war, religion, and fanaticism often lead to confusion, betrayal, fuzzy lines for right and wrong, and misunderstandings. They also often lead to death. Yang attempts to make both sides of this particular historical conflict sympathetic to the reader by showing how both sides made mistakes, used violence or extreme measures to protect themselves and their cause, and caused innocents to suffer–all in a genuine quest for what they thought was right. Both sides also were heavily religious in their own way. Yang does an excellent job of showing elements of traditional Chinese mythology and religion in Boxers; Saints shows our young heroine finding kinship with Christian saints, most notably Joan of Arc.

The format of a graphic novel lends itself to portrayals of spiritual realities in ways text-only works are limited. We can see the identification these young fanatics have with their spiritual beliefs because they visibly transform into them or converse with them. (You can see more of this art in these books at First Second’s website.) For those of us who claim to be Christians, the Saints volume will be especially interesting. The “foreign devils” (missionaries) and their converts (the “secondary devils”) are simultaneously well meaning and led astray. Yang shows how all people are subject to the same lures of pride, glory, vengeance, and misplaced loyalties–whether they claim to be for Christ or against him.

As Janie said in our email discussion, “It’s true that Christians aren’t always the good guys, but Christ is always the good guy, and Christians err when they don’t look to him.  Both Bao and Vibiana err, but she at last comes back to the center with her final vision of Christ (and that part brings tears to my eyes).” And, “what Vibiana gives to Bao [at the end of Saints] eventually saves his life, though he may not appreciate it.”

I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I won’t go into more detail about those final scenes. Yang is attempting to show dual worldviews here, and he does it so well. His personal background as a Chinese Catholic has informed these stories, but the novels are broader than that in their examination of worldview and our human search for understanding. Bao and Vibiana each seek to find an identity in their new cultures, and each feels torn.

 These books are worth reading and discussing. If you choose to do so, read Boxers first and Saints second. Note that the nature of a graphic novel can make violence much more “in your face,” and these two volumes are about a bloody time in China’s history. Consider the following questions/ideas in your discussion:

  • In Yang’s interview with NPR, he mentions the thread of compassion running through religious traditions. Is that consistent with Scripture? If so, how does Christian compassion differ from the world’s? (Hint: our compassion should not be for our own glory/interests).
  • How is Christian fanaticism similar or dissimilar to that of Muslims or other religious groups today?
  • How do we as Christians discern what is merely an acceptable but different cultural expression of something and what must be changed? How do modern missionaries act compared with the “foreign devils” in Saints?
Our History Month has concluded! We will be shifting gears in November to picture books. Until then, if you’ve missed our October history coverage, be sure to check out the many varieties of “history” books: picture books, picture book biographies, church history, general history, historical fiction about racial issues, historical fiction about dogs, historical fiction about early America, and our interview with Simonetta Carr. Finally, we have lots of history titles in our archives!
Cover images credit: Bluffton from Candlewick, Boxers and Saints from Comics Alliance

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Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Northwest.


  1. Anna S. on November 1, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    Thanks for the review of Boxers and Saints. I just read these a couple of weeks ago. Just wanted to say that like the NPR interviewer said, I found these a wrenching read — definitely YA, I would not recommend for younger children.

  2. Betsy on November 5, 2013 at 6:00 am

    “Wrenching” is a great word to describe these books, Anna. You’re absolutely right–these are firmly YA, and upper YA at that.

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