In Gene Luen Yang's duel set of graphic novels, Boxers and Saints, stories frame the beliefs that drive every action. The linked books look at the Chinese 1900 Boxer uprising (or rebellion, depending on the way your perspective swings) from two distinct points of view. In Boxers the protagonist is Little Bao, a poor farm boy with a love of the Chinese opera. In Saintsthe protagonist is Vibiana, though her first name is Four-Girl, which in Chinese sounds like Death-Girl. Bad luck plagues her in more that just her given name; she is the youngest girl in a house where only son’s have value.
In her desperate desire to gain the acceptance of her family she internalizes their abuse and twists her face into a devil mask. It is here that the books touch for the briefest instant. Little Bao sees her being led to the doctor to cure her distorted face. It reminds him of an opera mask and he falls instantly in love: “I will marry her, and she will fill my house with opera-mask-faced sons.” The stories touch again at the moments when each protagonist interacts with Father Bey, the bearded foreign devil from France. Bay’s superiors are overjoyed when this self-righteous Catholic priest finds his vocation as a missionary to far away China. In Bao’s story, Bay smashes the local god, beginning string of disasters for the small village. In Death-Girl’s story she converts and is christened Vibiana, because it is the most devilish thing she can do. Later she runs away to the mission when her family beat her.
Guides from the spiritual realm lead both Bao and Vibiana through mystical visions. Bao channels Ch’in Shih-huang, the first emperor of China. The Emperor gives Bao ruthless counsels in a watery underworld populated by spirits of the dead. Vibiana follows Joan of Arc and sees the story of the saint strangely echoed her waking life. Both spiritual guides become increasingly brutal and contradictory. What start as optimistic quests with straight forward spiritual direction become muddled and confused - one should fight for one’s faith and one’s country, but what if your adversary is doing the same? Which side is honorable? No perspective is without good. No perspective is without evil. Mortals have a limited view and if the spirits of ancestors and saints are unreliable, what possible guide can one depend on?
Both protagonists experience a transcendent moment with the principle of compassion. For Bao it is hearing the story of Guan Yin, the goddess of compassion. For Vibiana, it is the story of Joan’s final encounter with the Christ at her death. The encounters are brief and history marches on to its tragic conclusion carrying our heroes along in its unrelenting flow.
In Greenberg’s Encyclopedia the gods are fickle, protective one moment and deliberately mucking things up the next. In Yang’s writing each god means to inspire good, but their guidance is no more reliable than that of a mortal.You can swap out the word ‘god’ with ‘story’ and what rings clear in both works is the human quandary. We weren’t handed a book of instructions with the planet, sadly. Every guide we have comes from stories we have written for ourselves.