“When I was a child I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.
But when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
—The Holy Bible, King James version, First Corinthians, Chapter 13, verse 11
What, you didn’t think I’d forgotten about my 2012 summer reading list, did you? No sirree, bobcat. I walked into Fantastic Comics in Berkeley and started right away. I read this entire book in a single BART ride.
Let’s face it: growing up sucks. Nature’s cruelest trick is to give you the realisation that you have “all the time in the world” only for you to one day wake up and notice that your time is almost up. You’re not as energetic, not as able to party as hard as you could, no longer possessed of interests that are the cultural zeitgeist, no longer possessed of the urges that drew you every which way but loose. Nope, all gone. One day you climb out of bed and realise that you have become one of those crabby old-timers whom you used to mock for their outdated tastes, their lack of enthusiasm, and the fact that they wasted most of the opportunities given them.
Dennis Ouyang, protagonist of Gene Luen Yang’s Level Up, hasn’t yet gone over that line, but he knows that he’s on the edge. Having spent more time button-mashing his PSP than finishing his midterms, Dennis is dangerously close to flunking out of his unnamed university before the end of his Junior year. Not only would this break the heart of his mother, but – as she is quick to remind him – it would dishonour the memory of his late father, who expected nothing less than academic excellence from his only child.
Dennis’ father wanted him to become a gastroenterologist, but years later the lad lacks the motivation to pursue a career in medicine. That is, until the day he’s visited by four cartoon angels from the cover of a greeting card. No, I did not make that up. Out of nowhere Dennis is hounded by four cherubs who appear to be the same ones from a congratulatory card his father once gave him. Instilling him with a newfound sense motivation (and intimidation), the four take care of all Dennis’ fundamental needs – room, board, clothing, food – in exchange for his making a serious effort towards becoming a gastroenterologist; a profession they incessantly remind him as being “[his] destiny”. But the urge to deviate, and sharp opinions of his friends, leads him to believe that may not be true.
I’ve gotta say that I may have come to this book with expectations too high. I really admire Gene Yang, especially his Eisner-winning book American Born Chinese (of which I have copy which I got him to autograph at WonderCon some years back). Both his writing and interviews present a man who appeals to me: a man who genuinely believes in the ability for comics – like all literature – to entertain, educate, and inspire without pandering to its readers (especially children); a man who sees the way classical myth both shapes and retains relevance to modern sensibilities; and – most importantly – a non-White author who crafts stories uniquely from the point-of-view of culture from which he was borne without compromising for the sake of crossing over to White readers.
I bring this up because Level Up very much feels like he was either having an off day or – like the book’s protagonist – felt the need to finish an assignment before the looming deadline. It lacks the heart and appeal that made Chinese a book I couldn’t put down.
For a first-person narrator/protagonist, Dennis Ouyang isn’t all that appealing – he tends to fall into the “whiny brat” trap too easily. The other characters don’t fare much better as they all fit types more than being full-rounded characters. I don’t hate anyone, mind you, but I wasn’t all that eager to spend more time with any of these characters than necessary.
As you may have noticed from the cover, one of Dennis’ character traits is his obsession with video games. This is touched up mainly at the opening and closing of the story, not so much in the main story. It’s as if the videogame motif was meant to be definitive early on, got lost in writing, and then got added back in before the end in an attempt to justify its inclusion. Just as Chinese had a there’s a plot twist near the climax involving Chinese mythology, so too does Level Up have a twist involving the four angels and a classic videogame. The results aren’t as moving in the latter as they were in the former.
What’s worse is that for a story written in 2011, Yang’s knowledge of videogames is noticeably dated. Born in 1973, Yang’s knowledge of actual games seems to have stopped somewhere with Centipede and the Pac Man franchise, whilst the 16-bit era (and everything beyond) passed him by. I wouldn’t mind if this were some statement on classic games vs. contemporary ones, or if it had a more direct relation to the plot. Instead it seems like the story was supposed to be written in the early-‘90s, but through in modern references to keep it from being dated. I wonder if the inclusion of PSPs and the like were an illustrative decision?
Speaking of the illustration, Thien Pham’s simple-by-design pencils don’t add much to the story. I’m the sort of guy who will pay more attention to the words than the pictures when it comes to comics. But comics are a visual literary medium, so I can’t ignore the images. Pham’s illustration is a bit too amateurish and rushed-looking to hold my attention. I really wish Yang had illustrated the book himself. Like I said above: the whole thing feels rushed and I wouldn’t be surprised if he just sent the script to Pham and told him to “just draw whatever”.
Ultimately, the problem with the book is that there doesn’t appear to be any real effort to make it as good as could – nay, should – have been. Every artist has a bad day, this was Gene Yang’s.