Level Up

Created by: Gene Luen Yang, Thien Pham

Published by: First Second

ISBN: 1596432357 (Amazon)

Pages: 160

Genre: Drama, Social Issues

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Level Up

There was this one scene in Gene Yang’s Level Up that struck truer for me than maybe any other two-panel pair in the history of comics. In it, a friend describes the Nintendo Entertainment System to a young Dennis. Let’s listen in:

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham

The reason this scene resonated so strongly with me was that this was word for word my own response to the discovery that such a machine would be coming to American shores. I mean, give or take a word. The impact of gaming systems on my young life was indelible, stamping my day-to-day routines with their sizzling brand. I had owned game systems before the NES, but it was that particular machine that unveiled a whole new tone to the possibility of digital entertainment.

And like most of Dennis’ friends (and therefore unlike Dennis himself), I was allowed to own a game system. Of course, probably unlike Dennis’ friends, I had to earn the money with which to purchase said system (and later, systems). Still, this is where the similarities between my experience and Dennis’ diverge. While Dennis’ father prevents Dennis from enjoying frivolities in his youth (teaching him of the necessity of “eating much bitterness”), my own parents promoted more balance in my youthful endeavors, allowing bitterness to mix with enjoyable pursuits in both athletics and the humanities. The point being, I had a lot of fun growing up—while Dennis studied.

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham

Honestly, I was a little sad that Level Up moved in this direction after such a strongly resonant scene. There’s nothing wrong with the direction the book takes save for that now it was no longer telling the story of my life. Instead of telling a story charting a path I would have been familiar with, Gene Yang and Thien Pham navigate a life of extreme conflict. Dennis is either wanton in his digital gaming orgies or brutally weighed down by a desperate need to work toward becoming a gastroenterologist. It’s a hard road, requiring endless hours of work, so it makes sense that the falls off the wagon are steep and from height. It doesn’t help that Dennis feels driven by the Fates.

Destiny plays its heavy hand in Dennis’ circumstances and hangs around like a turkey vulture, ready to pick at the carcass it intends to make of his life. Or at least the spectre of it does. Destiny gets referred to a lot. By Dennis and by the four cherubic angels that begin to haunt him, cracking the whip until he gets his work done—for destiny! Dennis is the child of immigrants and his father, having eaten much bitterness himself in order to give Dennis a good life in his new country, died when he was a senior in highschool. If there’s an antagonist in this story, it’s probably not destiny or the angelic quartet or even Dennis’ dad. Instead, it’s the memory of his father and what his father probably wanted for him.

Really, Dennis is just weighed down by a conscience that will cut him no slack and will demand everything from him.

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham

Along the way, we’re introduced to three actually human characters who each try to pull Dennis toward one extreme or another. Takeem would have Dennis join him in the professional gaming circuit. Ipsha emphasizes the essentiality of doing as one’s parents request and/or expect. And Kat strikes the note of individualism, demanding that Dennis learn to be his own man and grow into the kind of person who does well by doing what he most wants.

It’s a good story, but I wish we would have been given more time with any of the supporting characters who didn’t have feathers. There were about a million interesting conversations that could have taken place but didn’t. Or maybe they did but simply occurred off-camera. Level Up is a rather sparse work that almost races toward its conclusion. More interaction with Dennis’ friends may have only served as padding, holding off the climax for just that much longer, but I felt the book would have been stronger for it. Because of the story’s rather pragmatic manner of unfolding itself, most of the characters sit shy of three-dimensional. Even Dennis. Which is a little bit too bad.

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang and Thien PhamReally, I probably just wanted more of this.

It’s a worthwhile story and pretty well-told. The art is well-conceived and the watercolouring a beautifully simple touch. It just that at the end of the day, because the characters weren’t as well-developed as they could have been, it was hard to care for their struggles and needs. Level Up approaches greatness but runs out of quarters before it can get there.

 

Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:

3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
1 Star = Bad

I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.

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