Level Up (First Second)

The creator of American Born Chinese explores the ennui of the twentysomething video game nerd in this coming-of-age story.


160 pgs., color; $15.99
(W: Gene Luen Yang; A: Thien Pham)
Dennis Ouyang, like many young adults, feels trapped between his parents’ expectations and his own desires. They want him to be a physician—and not just a physician but a gastroenterologist—while he’s obsessed with video games and is also quite good at them. He was enrolled in college but has slacked off so much that he’s been expelled, something he’s not eager to tell his mother who is paying his tuition and living expenses. And there’s some strange stuff going on in his life as well: every statue he passes seems to have his deceased father’s face and feathers keep appearing out of nowhere.
As you have probably already guessed, the statue-transformation thing is guilt-induced, as it was his father in particular who wanted him to be a gastroenterologist and Dennis feels an obligation to live out this dream even if it’s not what he, Dennis, wants to do with his life. In fact, he’s not sure what he wants but it seems to involve that good old American standby of "finding yourself," something beyond the comprehension of his driven parents. The feathers belong to Dennis’ guardian angels, who have come to induce him to get back on the straight and narrow. They can get pretty fierce when he gets off track, sometimes seeming more like enforcers or demons than benevolent presences, but they’re pretty effective at their job. To decide what he want to do with his life, Dennis first has to understand where his parents are coming from and Level Up uses a metaphor familiar from video games, advancing through levels, to represent his progress in understanding them as well as himself.
The story in Level Up is pretty standard-issue coming-of-age stuff: not badly done but nothing you haven’t heard before. In fact, this book feels sort of like American Born Chinese lite, since it deals with some of the same conflicts but at a more superficial level and with the author leaning a little too much on the goodwill and willing suspension of disbelief of his audience. The central character in Level Up is in his early twenties, which raises an issue about who this book will appeal to: the story is so sanitized and some of the narrative devices so obvious that it’s hard to see it appealing to anyone past junior high school, yet the content of the story seems more likely to appeal to students similar in age to the protagonist. As a closing note I’ll just say that I’ve had the medical procedure which features in the final episode of the story and if the events presented there ever happened in real life (and the patient found out about it), it would be time to call the malpractice attorney.
Thien Pham’s art is refreshingly simple and fits the kid-friendly ambience of the story. I find it interesting that although (judging by names and what the story tells us) the characters come from several different ethnic backgrounds and yet the art doesn’t work too hard to make any of them look like they belong to any particular nationality. You can see a preview on the author’s web page (http://geneyang.com/level-up). | Sarah Boslaugh

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