Justin's Reviews > Level Up

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang
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Jan 06, 12

bookshelves: graphic-novels, video-games, young-adult
Read in December, 2011

This trim little graphic novel has been picking up some buzz, much like everything else that Gene Luen Yang does. Plus, the cover looks like a classic Game Boy. Win. Seriously, though, I was pleasantly surprised by this graphic novel. What looked like and began as a familiar story about a disillusioned young person finding solace in video games turned into a quirky, profound morality play about coming to terms with your family and creating your own destiny.

Dennis Ouyang is on the verge of being kicked out of college. Pushed to succeed since he was a small child, Dennis has instead devoted himself to the video games he was entranced by as a child, and found solace in after the early death of his father. However, his lack of motivation and direction attract the attention of four cute, domineering cherubs, who insist they have arrived to help Dennis achieve his destiny. Dennis goes from slacker and college dropout to medical school student, back on the path to achieving the goals his father had set for him. But is that path really the right one for Dennis? Whose well-being are the angels really looking after?

I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but Yang works with a very familiar theme and still manages to produce an original, heartwarming tale. Despite the cover design, video games are only an ingredient, adding spice to a savory mix of dry humor, magical realism, and introspection. Video games are a consistent theme, though, and effectively shape both the format of the book and the plot itself. Most impressively, though, Yang writes deftly about growing up as an Asian-American teen, something he has done quite well before, and yet does so with a universal approach that makes the issue understandable and sympathetic to just about anyone, regardless of ethnicity.

Pham’s art is rough and cutesy, but honestly, it’s perfect. The panels are always drawn and laid out in exactly the right way to convey the humor or sadness in that particular part of story. The caricatures are simple enough to forgive any inconsistency, but vibrant enough to carry a genuine emotional impact. It took me a few pages to get on board with the art style, but I loved it once I did.

I can’t really think of anything bad to say about this book, other than that it’s short and the story resolves itself fairly quickly. It’s a good read for graphic novel enthusiasts and reluctant readers who are inclined towards video games, but honestly, it’s a good read for just about anyone.
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