Indie Comic Review: Level Up


Gene Luen Yang’s The Eternal Smile was a real surprise for me last year. The three different artistis styles, coupled with the three different (yet complimentary) stories made me think and smile in ways that I had not imagined when I first picked up the book. I donated my copy to the school library, where it is now in heavy checkout rotation.

When I saw the solicitation for Level Up, Yang’s newest book, I was excited. While I was not a heavy video game playing kid, it was not for a lack of trying. I begged my family for a video game system. I always invited myself over to my friend’s house (he had an Atari 2600). I spent way too much time in my neighbor’s dorm room (he had a Sega). But my parents kicked me outside to play. My friends got fed up with my lack of Q-Bert prowess. And I really wanted to keep my scholarship in college. So, my video game days were just that. They were days…not a life.

But that did not stop me from, as the main character in Level Up does, dreaming in pixels. The thought of video games dominated my every daydream. I was constantly dreaming up video games I wanted to make and play. Role playing games eventually took that place in my life, giving me the opportunity to make up worlds and control the action, while giving my parents the peace of mind of me being out of the house.

In Level Up, Dennis Ouyang also dreams in pixels. He begs his parents for a Nintendo system, but gets a microscope instead. His father wants him to be a doctor. He sees video games as a waste of time and a dead end in developing life skills. His father believes that Dennis needs to learn a little “eat a little bitterness” in his life in order to succeed. For Dennis, missing out on video games is more than a bit of bitterness.
When his father dies two weeks before his graduation, Dennis feels that he has swallowed enough bitterness for a lifetime. He goes out, buys himself a game system, and dives in head first.

In Level Up, Yang is joined by artist Thien Pham. Pham’s art is loose and cartoony which adds a youthful charm to the story. What the art does not do is clearly convey racial qualities of the main characters. At first this was a little bothersome to me (since the story is clear to delineate the races of each of the characters). However, what I soon came to realize was that this allowed the reader to associate him or herself with any and/or all of the characters. The experience becomes universal regardless of the cultural backgrounds of the characters.

What could have been a cartoony, Scott Pilgrim-style romp through the interaction of video games and our lives actually is a thoughtful and insightful investigation in to the delicate balancing act that is holding on to our dreams while still honoring the dreams and desires of our families.

While there is some fantasy and foolishness (Dennis is guided through parts of his life by four cherubic angels with a cleaning fetish), the overall tone of the story is relatively serious. It is very much a slice of life book. According to Yang, the story was inspired, in part, by his own brother, who is a doctor.

The book is recommended for middle school students on up. While there is nothing in the book that would be offensive or inappropriate for someone at the middle school level, I wonder if they will really understand the adult situations and implications of grade point averages, academic probation, and the expectations of an entire family weighing on your shoulders.

Level Up is a fantastic read for high school students, college students, or those of us who still struggle on a daily basis to put down the wii remote and pick up the stack of student essays to grade.
Available June 7th at your local comic shop, or from the Amazon link below.
A preview is available here.

This entry was posted in :01, First Second, Gene Luen Yang, Level Up, Review, Thien Pham. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>