Five years ago, Gene Luen Yang became the first graphic novelist nominated for a National Book Award, when American Born Chinese was a finalist in the Young People’s Literature category. His next major project, Prime Baby, was serialized in The New York Times Magazine. Both are fantasies with young protagonists, but the staccato format of Prime Baby seemed to push the story in an increasingly absurd direction; it’s basically a fun goof for young readers with some jokes and messages their older siblings or parents will enjoy. Level Up, which Yang wrote in collaboration with artist Thien Pham (and published, as with his earlier work, by First Second), returns to a longform, flowing narrative format where the fantasy elements support the premise rather than becoming the premise.
Dennis Ouyang’s first encounter with video games was a sighting of a Pac-Man machine in a Chinese restaurant when he was six years old. It was just a sighting, though: his parents refuse to let him play, then or ever, which only serves to intensify Dennis’s desire. When his father dies shortly before high school graduation, Dennis buys his own home system and becomes a binge player, to the point that his college grades go into freefall.
On the verge of being kicked out, Dennis is rescued by four angels whom he recognizes instantly from a card his father gave him as a little boy to celebrate his good grades. They inform him that he needs to apply himself so he can go to medical school and become a gastroenterologist. Once he gives away his video game collection to a disbelieving friend, the angels stick around, supporting Dennis as long as he continues to demonstrate his “will to endure.” The problem comes once he realizes what gastroenterology entails—between collecting his own stool samples and administering prostate exams in the clinic, he’s got some serious doubts, and the angels don’t want to hear about it….
Yang’s strong sense of storytelling is on full display: we quickly understand the intensity of Dennis’ video game lust, and the guilt he feels about not living up to his father’s dreams, and the emotional struggle caused by his attempt to be the good son comes across in an authentic way, even when he’s talking it out with cartoon cherubs. (And it’s not just about the main character: when Dennis reaches medical school, each of his classmates is shown to possess a strong identity.) But while fans may recognize the pacing and structure of Yang’s earlier work in Level Up, Pham avoids the hard lines and bright palette of American Born Chinese, bringing a softer, looser style to the story. Faces are simply ovals with dots for eyes and a few lines filling in the other features; the angels don’t even have hands or feet. But Pham is able to work in layers of emotional complexity, from the Pac-Man ghosts whirling around young Dennis’ head to his mother’s mixed reactions to his decisions in later chapters. The shape of Pham’s art is reminiscent of a small child’s drawings, but the composition and shading reveal its depth of maturity.
Although there are a few elements that are culturally specific—Dennis’s parents are first-generation Chinese immigrants, and his father talks about having to “eat much bitterness” to ensure a successful life for his son—Level Up is a universally applicable story about finding a balance between your family’s hopes and expectations, and your own happiness. For the most part, it refuses to cast easy villains, and it’s even careful not to oversell Dennis as a hero. And it doesn’t just live up to the caliber of storytelling implicit in Yang’s National Book Award nomination, it signals that we should be keeping an eye on Thien Pham to deliver more graphic novel excellence, starting with a solo project for First Second called Sumo later this year.