Jade Hidle: A Review of Gene Yang and Thien Pham’s Level Up

Gene Luen Yang, writer, and Thien Pham, illustrator, team up for the graphic novel, Level Up. diaCRITIC Jade Hidle gives us a look at the graphic novel, how it entwines Nintendo with life, and at Thien Pham’s appearances at San Diego Comic-Con 2011.

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For all of you Nintendo-fluent readers out there, the words “Level Up!” probably conjure memories of this phrase floating across the screen in all its pixilated glory, your fingertips pressing excitedly into the already-sweaty controller.

Critically acclaimed graphic novelist and Eisner Award-winning author of American Born Chinese and The Eternal Smile, Gene Luen Yang borrows the gamer’s familiar phrase, “Level Up” as the title of his latest release from First Second Books, illustrated by Vietnamese American artist Thien Pham.  The graphic novel tells the coming-of-age story of Dennis Ouyang, who, like so many of us from the original Nintendo generation, begged his father for a game system. Dennis, though, only receives in return chemistry sets and tips for his future college education.

The cover of Level Up. Image courtesy of firstsecondbooks.com

When his father dies, Dennis finds solace in video games and their promise of agency and control in the worlds they present. Across a series of Pham’s illustrated panels, Dennis hunches over his controller and leans, un-blinking, into the screen, accomplishing one video game mission after the other until he earns from his friend Takeem the title of “the Good Will Hunting of video games” (33).

While I by no means propose that Yang is taking any kind of didactic stance against the ongoing and long clichéd argument that video games make youths “dumb” or “lazy,” it is notable that Dennis’s experience with the games is not one of mind-numbing escape merely for escape’s sake. In fact, the games—in enabling players to solve problems and to oftentimes accomplish (super)heroic feats, principally to control and extend life—allow Dennis to cope with the losses and painful lack of control in the “real” world.  His relationship with gaming is inextricably tethered to his reckoning with his father’s death and to his navigating his non-linear journey to becoming who he needs and wants to be. The connection between growing up and leveling up in games crystallizes through the notion of life:  What do we prize in life? What do we fight for? And what do we do with the (second) chances we are given?

I don’t want to give away too much of the story before you all get a chance to read the novel for yourself, but the games also have direct impact on the medical career that Dennis pursues in his college years.  In drawing parallels between gaming and medical schooling, Yang shows that the two are not entirely divorced. Here I must add that my younger brother, who recently graduated high school (woo hoo!), acquired an eerily efficient ability to analytically solve spatial puzzles, as well as an impressive vocabulary (take that, SAT Verbal!) from his video games. Given that both Yang and Pham are both educators—at the same school, in fact—working to integrate artistic mediums such as comic books into their curriculum (see more on this below), it seems no coincidence that in Level Up the visual, interactive stories of video games are depicted as facilitators and articulations of, not as antagonists to, Dennis’s personal growth as well as his intellectual development.

A sample of the artwork from Level Up. Image from booksforyourkids.com

During Dennis’s college years, his father’s visage, along with a quartet of demanding angels and fiendish heads that resemble the ghosts from Pac-Man (Dennis makes the not-so-subtle connection to being a “little yellow man”), haunt him as he battles feeling inadequate and guilty for not abiding by his parents’ wishes for his future. While this theme of defining and reconciling identity under the umbrella of parental expectation is universally relatable for readers of all ages and various backgrounds, Dennis struggles with the added conflicts of being Asian American. One of the many instances of this added layer of cultural conflict is exhibited when Dennis’s mother explains to him that his father pushed him to do well in school because he himself was not able to achieve such an education: “Medical school by itself is difficult enough,” Mrs. Ouyang explains, “But for a new father who didn’t speak English very well…no.”

Notable, too, in regard to the books depiction of culture, Level Up features a diverse cast of characters:  Takeem is Dennis’s close friend and gaming companion; Ipsha is another med-school classmate and friend; and the love interest is German-Korean girl; the school administrator Dennis meets up with is a female named Dr. Rodriguez. The multiculturalism is not a topic of discussion; the characters’ diversity is an accepted reality of the world. I strongly believe this is an important point to present to young readers in particular, especially in the aftermath of the brutal, tragic recent events in Norway, which reminds us of how intolerant and dangerous the world can be for our children. In this capacity, the graphic novel serves as an affirming conversation-piece for individuals—adolescent or adult, Asian American or not—who may not yet have had the opportunity to reflect upon or express such conflicts of identity, family, and culture in a medium as accessible as the graphic novel.

I hoped that Yang would be able to speak to these themes in his work at this past weekend’s International Comic-Con in San Diego, where he appeared on a panel entitled “Diversity in Comics.” The structure of the panel, however, neglected to address issues of cultural and racial diversity. Instead, one of the discussion’s central points was that the distinction between “adult” and “young adult” fiction is arbitrary, in a nutshell asserting that we are all still the children we once were. Yang mentioned that graphic novels tend to get lumped into the “Young Adult,” but, with its touching upon everything from the deeper issues of death, haunting, memory, and cultural identity to the more lighthearted coming-of-age themes of the awkwardness of young romance and tried and true giggle-inducing poop jokes, Level Up is enjoyable for adults as well. And, as a reader with many multicultural children in my family, I very well plan to read this book with them.

Gene Yang speaks at Comic-Con 2011

To turn to Pham’s work in the graphic novel, the illustrations are simple, and often cute and whimsical, yet evocative when they need to be. Among them, a squiggly black line of a teardrop conveys Dennis’s silent sadness, and his later munching of the brightly colored ghouls that appear during his college years captures the varied emotions and imagination of growing up. What I liked most were that the chapter breaks are colored to remind of the greenish glow of Game Boy screens, depicting the diminishing lives in the corner of the “screen” as the chapters progress. And, most resonant perhaps, is that the final illustration, wherein Dennis embarks upon a new “level” in his life, is not contained by the traditional square or rectangular boundaries of a panel. Instead, the image is simple and small on an open white page, reminding of what has past and what is to come.

A sample of the "Game Boy-esque" artwork by Thien Pham.

Speaking of Level Up’s artwork, illustrator Thien Pham also appeared at a Comic-Con panel, one entitled “Comics in the Classroom.” Pham joined panelists involved at various capacities in the movement to integrate comics into classrooms, from elementary school to college curriculum. The panel—clearly prepared by experienced teachers in its organization, clarity, and distribution of useful handouts outlining main points and key references—covered the challenges and advantages to teaching students to read comic books. (If you are an educator working on incorporating the graphic arts into your curriculum and would like a copy of the panelists’ useful handouts, please indicate your interest by posting a comment below, and I can email you a scanned version of the documents!)

"Comics in the Classrom" with (from left to right) Chris Duffy, Cheryl Wozniak, Thien Pham, Christina Blanch, and Anastasia Betts

Pham summed up the advantages nicely when he stated, “the inherent properties of a comic make it a perfect learning tool.” Pham admitted that the juxtaposition of visual and verbal text in comics helped him, a native Vietnamese speaker, to acquire the English language. In addition to promoting literacy for non-native and native English speakers alike, Pham and his fellow panelists asserted that comic books make concepts from science and history more accessible and memorable than traditional textbook formats, which all too often cause students’ eyelids to droop and jaws to stretch in yawns. Like so many others in the panel’s audience, I, as an educator, was moved to have the opportunity to talk about such rejuvenating possibilities in the current climate of education, where dismal talk of the budget eclipses our ability to focus on teaching and inspiring students.

Thien Pham speaks about comics in the classroom at Comic-Con 2011

Further, approaching the topic not just as a reader but as an artist and art teacher, Pham stressed that it is useful to not only teach students to read comics critically, but also to assign comic strip/book projects whereby the students exercise their own abilities to tell stories through the juxtaposition of words and images. It is as an artist, too, that Pham was happy to promote his sole graphic novel, Sumo, slotted for release from First Second in 2012. If I can make any predictions about his upcoming book based on his endearing illustrations in Level Up and his effervescent personality evinced by his enthusiastic, humorous Comic-Con panel appearance (seriously, he was able to make an explanation ofrubrics funny), I say keep an eye out for Thien Pham because Sumo is bound to be an enjoyable read.

Thien Pham, "looking Vietnamese" (as he said), with artwork by his wife Lark Pien on the exhibit floor of Comic-Con 2011.

To end, I would like to add that meeting Yang and Pham after enjoying their work was certainly one of the highlights of my Comic-Con experience this year, along with meeting in person GB Tran, author and artist of VIETNAMERICA , which I reviewed earlier this year. These encounters between readers, artists, and writers are central to the sense of community that makes the convention special. But, after attending the annual event for nearly fifteen years, my frustration with the swelling crowds and nauseatingly long lines has caused the four-day extravaganza lose a bit of its lustre. Did any other faithful readers of our diaCRITICS blog attend the event this year? If so, what were your highlights and/or frustrations? Let us know in the comments section below!

-Jade Hidle

Jade Hidle is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Literature at UC San Diego. She aims to write her dissertation on Vietnamese-American literature, with a focus on how narrative structures map struggles of the body–miscegenation, disfigurement, skin color–and identity.

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