Is being true to oneself and having fun while doing it more important, or pleasing one’s parents? That is a question that is often very difficult to answer, and it’s one that, eventually, most of us face. It’s a question that Dennis Ouyang, an Asiatic teen in the First Second (0:1) graphic novel Level Up, faces. Should he be a doctor, a gastroenterologist, like his father wants him to be; or should he drop out of college and follow his true passion of playing video games, get a sponsor, and earn money by winning competitions?
Dennis knows that his parents have sacrificed a lot for him to give him a good life, though his father drew the line when it came to getting him the Nintendo NES for his birthday. His friends all have it, and he really wants one, too, but no matter how many hints and notes he leaves around his house, it doesn’t matter. His father gets him a chemistry set instead, and then leaves notes himself, telling why it is a better choice for a present, as it will help Dennis get into college and get a good job later in his life. All of that may very well be true, but it’s not what a boy wants to hear, especially one who’s crushed not to get the one present he had really desired and asked for.
Level Up is written by award winning comics man, Gene Luen Yang (“Eternal Smile” and “American Born Chinese”). He teams up with Thien Pham, who is perhaps best known for artwork for indie comics. He does a great job here, also, and the four angels that come to visit and harass Dennis to continue pursuing his education brought to my mind how the Power Puff girls are drawn. That is, in both cases, the characters are lacking noses, hands, and fingers–which, if you think about it, is rather disturbing, but if you don’t, is sort of cute, in a strange way.
The angels are only cute in how they look, though. Dennis gets good enough grades to be accepted to college, despite his increasing interest in video games–he now has obtained a NES and also plays in gaming arcades–but, his grades slip towards the end of high school. His father has died, so Dennis doesn’t have that guiding parental factor in his life any more. He spends his time between classes in college playing video games with his best friend, and often plays late into the night. Dennis neglects his studies so much, the dean kicks him out of college altogether. It would take divine help for him to continue and become the doctor his Dad had wanted him to be, and it comes in the form of–you guessed it–four angels.
The angels cook for him, wash his clothes, make flash cards, get on his case by nagging him–they help him get the grades he needs to stay in college and progress towards being a gastroenterologist. That is, until a pretty girl he likes and studies with tells him that just because his father wanted him to be a doctor, doesn’t mean he shouldn’t follow his heart and make his own destiny. He quits attending classes and goes back to playing video games, and before long is doing very well, and earning thousands of dollars doing what he has always wanted to do. But, he finds out he still is not really happy, like he thought he would be.
Level Up is a terrific graphic novel about the joy of playing video games, and what it means to follow one’s destiny. It is also a book that examines what it means to be true to one’s family. In the end, sometimes one discovers that the two things aren’t all that different. Even the cover of the book is designed to look like a Gameboy, which I thought was a nice touch. If you like cool graphic novels and love video games, Level Up is a book you’ll want to check out!