Level Up: Gene Yang's comic about destiny, games, and filial piety

Gene Luen Yang (author of the brilliant graphic novel American Born Chinese") returns to long-form work with Level Up, illustrated by Thien Pham. Level Up is the story of Dennis Ouyang, a Chinese kid growing up in America, obsessed with video games and at war with his father, who wants him to "eat bitter" and grow up to be an academic success. When Dennis's father dies of cancer, Dennis flunks out of college and makes ready to tell his mother (and break her heart). But that's when Dennis's life gets weird: a quartet of greeting-card angels appear on his doorstep and announce that they are there to help him fulfill his destiny: to be a gastroenterologist. Dennis recognizes the angels: they graced the greeting card his father gave him on the occasion of his being made valedictorian of his eighth grade class (and later took back when Dennis struggled with poor grades).

These angels are sweet but very firm: they get him reenrolled in college and ride Dennis until he graduates with good grades and is admitted to medical school; they cook his meals and wash his clothes, they prepare flash-cards and alternately chide and praise him all the way along.

Now in med school, Dennis begins to realize that his "destiny" isn't what he wants from life — he misses his video games, and senses a yawning chasm between the life he is being dragged into and the life he needs to live. What happens next is touching, surprising, and extremely satisfying (and I won't give it away).

Yang's got a gift for characters who understand their duty but don't fully believe it; Level Up is a great example of that dilemma. It's a manifesto for everyone who's ever wrestled with the expectations of their family, their friends, and their society (and who hasn't?), and it's ultimately both humane and inspiring.

Level Up