Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, illustrated by Thien Pham
Confession: I didn’t read any comics in public on Read a Comic Book in Public Day. I felt like an awful nerd, even though I would go on to prove my nerd cred by stomping around in the absolutely atrocious heels of my Dr. Quinzel costume and being part of the choir preached to at a wonderful panel about women in comics the weekend after. But circumstances weren’t right, and the idea of exposing any of my single issues to the rigors of my daily routine made me quake in my boots. (Well, sandals. Georgia only really has two seasons.) Thus chastened, I found myself eying the graphic novel shelf at my local library, and took this little number home to make up for my transgression.
Level Up follows Dennis Ouyang, a Chinese-American young man obsessed with video games, to the chagrin of his strict father, who wants him to go to med school. After his father dies, Dennis flunks out of college. But his tragic circumstances are changed by the appearance of four tiny cartoon angels, identical to those on the congratulatory card his father gave him when he was the valedictorian of his eighth grade class and took away from him in high school. They declare that his destiny is to be a gastroenterologist, and, with their help, Dennis gets into med school. But is it really what he wants to do with his life, or is he just appeasing his parents?
This graphic novel centers on one of the greatest conflicts in the lives of parents and children—the parents’ expectations versus the ambitions of the children. It’s one of the most universal conflicts; even the most laid-back parent has some dreams for their kids. (If I had a dime for every time I need to nervously laugh off a “when you’re married”…) Dennis’ father wants him to be a doctor, and repeatedly states that Dennis’ own ambitions don’t matter, saying that everyone needs to eat “bitter” in their lives. Compounding this is the fact that Dennis’ guiding passion is video games, alternately pathetic (in the eyes of Dennis’ father and the rest of the establishment) and glamorous (in the eyes of Takeem, Dennis’ best friend).In this strip, Yang discusses how this book is essentially about that fight, and points out how, in most stories that feature this conflict, the viewpoint of the child is shown as the path to true happiness and fulfillment.
But Level Up, despite its video game trappings (the cover looks like a GameBoy; there’s several gamer jokes; the climax of the graphic novel is centered around a Pac-Man joke that hit me out of left field and made me smile), is about complicating that familiar narrative. Dennis’ father does have good points, as does Dennis. There’s the balance between giving back to society and enjoying yourself, the question of what exactly do you owe your family, and being able to be your own man, all while being your father’s son. Of course, Dennis’ father is dead for the majority of the piece and can’t speak for himself, in direct contrast to Dennis’ childhood, when he would communicate with his son in ways where his son couldn’t talk back. So we mostly watch Dennis hashing out these issues on his own. His mother, while living, doesn’t seem to directly affect him, beyond communicating things about his father and a pretty good joke about doughnuts. However, she is the one that informs Dennis that no one ever regrets the sacrifice they make for the people they love, a sentiment I felt absolves, at least partly, some of the guilt that children feel when they fail their parents, especially when their parents have done so much for them.
…man, I went into this review feeling like I didn’t have that much to talk about! It’s deceptively simple, and I think Thien Pham’s art style emphasizes that impression. Whereas Yang’s art style is clean, clear, and capable of being both cartoony and dramatic, Pham’s is sketchier, rounder, and more childlike. Being someone who isn’t particularly artistic, I don’t like to comment negatively on people’s art styles, but I’ll just say that it didn’t particularly work for me, especially given how complex the central story is. I dunno, I think I just prefer cleaner lines. Must be a side effect of my love for tidiness.
Bottom line: Level Up takes the common narrative of the overbearing parent and creative child and complicates it by considering both sides of the story. Deceptively simple. I don’t particularly care for the art style, however.
I rented this book from the public library.