Book News

Written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Thien Pham


I was drawn to read the graphic novel LEVEL UP, written by Gene Luen Yang with art by Thien Pham, because of Yang's previous book, AMERICAN BORN CHINESE. Like AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, LEVEL UP follows a young Asian American male coming of age while dealing with balancing old world family ideals with newer American cultural norms.

"Gene Luen Yang is his usual charming self in this book. Dennis Ouyang is a likeable character with an extremely relatable struggle."

Thien Pham, whose previous art credits include SUMO and I LIKE EATING, provides art for the book. His style in previous books always leaned towards the very simplistic, but for LEVEL UP his work becomes almost naïve — naïve to the point where the average person might wonder if a child had created it. Quite frankly, the art feels sloppy and careless and actually looks as if a child had done it. It was very disappointing to read the reality and nuance and complexity in Yang's writing of the characters and having those elements conveyed to us through puppets that are almost too crude to hold complex emotions. The main character isn't even recognizable as Asian until his name is mentioned. There are ways to do an excellent naive style, but this book feels like the artist either does not care or is entirely untrained.

The main character of the story, Dennis Ouyang, is a young man fresh out of high school who has just lost his father. As with most young people the focus of his life tends to wander a bit. The difficulty is that the story does, too. While the book wants to maintain a video game theme, the thread of gaming really comes and goes in the story. Dennis sees visions of his father in local landmarks. When he finally decides to buckle down and follow his father’s dream of Dennis becoming a gastroenterologist, angels (real or imagined) appear to help him. None of this feels very much like a video game. The chapters are named as levels, and occasionally he gains or loses a “life” after a special event but these instances are so few and far in between the theme gets forgotten.

This isn’t to say the story is bad. Gene Luen Yang is his usual charming self in this book. Dennis Ouyang is a likeable character with an extremely relatable struggle. This is a story echoing many first generation American millennials and even those of typical Americans. His journey of abandoning and rediscovering gaming while chasing the dream his father had for him is very poignant and real. It’s really nice to join him on discovering what makes him happy and reconciling that with keeping his family, who has sacrificed a great deal for him, happy as well.

Reviewed by Michael Lee Harris on July 25, 2016

  • Publication Date: July 19, 2016
  • Genre: Graphic Novel
  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Square Fish
  • ISBN-10: 125010811X
  • ISBN-13: 9781250108111