Comics and video games have a weird relationship. Attempts to capture the unique energies of each across the different mediums have produced mixed results. Excellent comic-book-centric games like Batman: Arkham Asylum still stand as the exception to the rule, and a recent slew of game-based comics—like the Halo: Fall of Reach and Mirror’s Edge books—hasn’t produced any must-read material.
Level Up, however, gets it right. Gene Yang’s graphic novel—illustrated by Thien Pham and recently nominated for a 2012 Eisner Award—nails the heady yet sometimes counterproductive relationships that avid fans can have with video games. The story follows Dennis Ouyang, an American kid born to Chinese immigrants. The hard-nosed work ethic instilled by his father conflicts with Dennis’ dreams of Donkey Kong high scores. As he struggles to find a balance, help comes in the form of four aggressively benevolent and guilt-inducing angels, who imbue Level Up with the loopy internal logic of classic Nintendo games.
Yang’s past work includes the Eisner-winning American Born Chinese, and he recently co-wrote Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise, which bridges the gap between the two Avatar TV series. The Gameological Society talked to Yang about his own days as a gamer, the themes of immigrant identity that run through his work, and what it’s like to play video games with another person’s gastrointestinal tract.
The Gameological Society: I know your work tends to be categorized as “young adult,” but Level Up feels like it leans more towards adult. It seems to be not quite a coming-of-age story, but more of, “What happens after you’ve become a grown-up?”
Gene Luen Yang: You know, it’s funny, age demographic is a really big deal within the traditional book market. But in comics, especially independent non-superhero comics, it really hasn’t been that big of a deal. If you go to your local comic book store, you’ll have all the superhero stuff on one side, and on the other side is everything else, regardless of what age it’s meant for. Like, often you’ll find Robert Crumb next to Jeff Smith’s Bone. So, since I came out of that world, I don’t really think about age demographic all that much when I do my stories.
Gameological: You use video games like a magical realism filter. You have things that are pretty mundane—Dennis’ concerns about his life and his dad dying—and when the angels show up, all of a sudden things start to get very weird. Was that an intentional thing, to go, “Okay, I’m going to use this video game filter to twist perceptions of what might be happening to Dennis”?
Yang: I’m 37 now, and those classic games, like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong and Q*bert, were all really big parts of my childhood. As I was growing up, so was the video game medium. Because of that, I think it tapped into that nostalgia, and that sort of magical feeling of childhood. As a kid, you don’t totally realize what the limitations of life are. And I discovered video games at an age where that was definitely true for me.
So video games, in a sense, along with all of the other pop culture that I was surrounded by, really embodied that magical childlike ideal of being limitless. I don’t even know if I made a conscious choice. I think I work pretty comfortably in the genre of magical realism, and using video games as a way for magic to enter the real just seemed like a very natural choice.
Gameological: To what extent does Level Up draw on your life experience?
Yang: Well, it started with my brother. My brother is a medical doctor now. And when he was going through med school, he’d come home and he’d tell me all these crazy stories about his class assignment. It’s really disgusting to become a doctor. You have to do some really gross things. As he was telling me these stories, I just always thought to myself that they really belong in a graphic novel. So in Level Up, a lot of the assignments that Dennis and his classmates have to go through are actually things that my brother did when he was a medical-school student.
Video games really embodied that magical childlike ideal of being limitless.
But as I was writing the book, I actually found myself reflecting more and more on my relationship with my dad. My dad is still alive, unlike Dennis Ouyang’s dad. But I wanted to capture the dynamic between he and I. I think a lot of immigrants, regardless of what part of the world they came from, a lot of them grew up under really harsh circumstances. And they came to the United States, and they worked their tails off in order to provide well for their children.
Along with that, there’s a certain feeling of obligation or debt that you owe to your parents because of how hard they worked. That particular dynamic was definitely something I wanted to play with. Growing up, my dad and I had this constant fight. I always wanted to draw comic books and draw cartoons, and he always wanted me to do something that was much more practical, like being a doctor or a lawyer or a dentist.
What I noticed as I was growing up was, whenever this particular struggle or this particular conflict was presented in popular culture, the story inevitably would side with me, would side with the kid. Inevitably, the parents would be presented as oppressive or thinking in really old ways or old-fashioned ways. And the kid ultimately finds happiness by basically ignoring his parents and pursuing his heart’s desire. But what I’ve found as I’ve gotten older is that—even though I definitely am not a fan of just letting your parents choose your future—I do think that immigrant parents actually do have a lot of wisdom. And it’s really up to the children of immigrants to figure out how to integrate some of that wisdom into their lives as they pursue the desires of their heart.
Gameological: I got a sense of that from reading your response to the excerpt that The Wall Street Journal ran from Amy Chua’s The Ballad Of The Tiger Mother. On one hand, you knew that kind of “tiger parenting.” You know how horrible it may seem. But at the same time, you do want some of those aspects in your own parenting. Is that an accurate assessment?
Yang: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that whole Tiger Mom excerpt was exaggerated to make a point. And as I said in my cartoon, I do think that there are underlying ideas behind all of the crazy things she said that are valid. I think there are valid ideas beneath the craziness. Just the idea of not giving up on your kid, that’s a very powerful idea. I remember when I was in first grade, I think I was one of the two slowest readers in my class, and because of that, I just didn’t enjoy reading at all. So my mom actually made it a point to sit down with me for a couple hours every day after school and read, and through that practice, I got faster and faster and faster. I do believe that part of my love of story comes from those hours that she put in. My mom didn’t have that—like, she wasn’t trying to make me the best reader in the class, but she definitely had that drive to make me succeed at this one task.
Gameological: Near the end of the book, Dennis is doing laparoscopic procedures, and the doctor says, “You’ve done this before.” And he responds, “No, I haven’t.” It’s such a fusion of the things that are seductive about both video games and medicine. Many times, in both instances, this controller makes you feel powerful, and you’re using it to save somebody’s life. Was that something that you got from your brother as well?
Yang: Absolutely. He called me up one day and he told me that he was thinking about specializing in gastroenterology. I thought it was the weirdest thing ever for him to say to me because he’s a really squeamish guy. When we were growing up, my brother gave away some of our toys because the color reminded him of vomit. That’s how squeamish he is. After he went to med school, I always thought that he would just hold his nose through all of the disgusting parts, and in the end, he’d become something like a radiologist or something where you just don’t deal a lot with human fecal matter.
So when he told me he wanted to be a gastroenterology, I said, “Why?” And he told me, “Well, the other day, I did this colonoscopy and it was like playing video games with somebody’s ass.” He just thought that it was awesome. When he said that, it gave me the ending of my book.
And it’s a funny idea, but it also has a lot of real-world implications. He told me that this upcoming generation of surgeons, because of the combination of playing video games all their lives, and the fact that the technology is going more and more towards laparoscopy, that this upcoming generation of surgeons are able to do things that older surgeons just can’t. Because they have the hand-eye coordination from years of playing Super Mario Kart.
Gameological: That’s pretty awesome.
Yang: Yeah, yeah, that is kind of awesome.
Gameological: You talk about Super Mario Kart and mentioned other classic games before, so I wanted to ask if there were specific games that you drew on to spark the creative process of making Level Up.
Yang: I think I truly pulled from nostalgia. I stopped playing video games when everything went 3D. I get a little frustrated when I play 3D games for some reason. I think it’s just me being old. A lot of those 2D side scrollers and those 2D maze games from the ’80s and early ’90s, they definitely have a special place in my heart. Like Pac-Man, we built the entire narrative around that game. Pac-Man was kind of the king of the ’80s games. Whenever anybody thought of video games, they thought of Pac-Man. So Pac-Man and the first Super Mario Bros. for the original NES, all of those games came to mind. Zelda. Q*bert. That whole generation of games, I think, holds a special place in our hearts.
Gameological: Dennis and his peers in the book stop at about the Genesis era of video games. You don’t really deal with anything in the present day. I assume that’s because you don’t play many video games anymore?
I think video games can be useful to you as an adult, even if you don’t become a professional video game player.
Yang: Oh, yeah. It definitely stopped after I had two kids. My oldest kid is a 7-year-old boy, and he’s starting to get into video games. So I’m assuming, as he gets into video games again, I’m going to start getting into video games again. We just started playing some of those Lego games, which are pretty awesome.
Gameological: Those are great games. They are not only just good kids’ games, they’re good licensed-property games. Usually, you pick up a game that’s based on something else, and it’s just crap. But those games are made with actual care.
Yang: Yeah, yeah, I agree. They really designed it so that an adult and a kid can play together, and both of them can have fun. It’s pretty astounding.
Gameological: Did you worry at all when you were writing Level Up that it might be fodder for those people who say “Nothing good can come from video games?”
Yang: I think the ending scene sort of contradicts that. Right? It argues against that. But at the very end, Dennis is able to merge the two worlds together. I think that’s true too. I think video games can be useful to you as an adult, even if you don’t become a professional video game player. So many industries right now rely on an ability to manipulate a three-dimensional space using two-dimensional controls. Graphic design relies on it, engineering relies on it, anything that uses CAD [computer-aided design] software relies on it. And you develop that sense, that sensitivity through video games.
Gameological: Level Up is less explicitly about Asian-American identity than American Born Chinese was. But both deal with these themes of expectations. And you’re a teacher now, and you get to see new generations of kids being born to second-generation Asian-Americans. Do you think that weight of expectation is being lessened?
Yang: It does seem to me that the further away you get from the immigrant generation, the more that pressure disappears, regardless of where the original immigrants came from, or whatever part of the world the original immigrants came from. My father-in-law is a Korean-American immigrant, and he grew up during the Korean War. And he experienced really extreme poverty. Now he lives in a house in the suburbs in California. So that memory of what life was like and could have been like really drives a lot of what he does.
Gameological: Do you worry about being pigeonholed? Because your work always deals with these themes of identity.
Yang: I mean, I think at the very basic level, I’m just grateful for having the opportunity to publish, and that people are reading my stuff. And pigeonholing, maybe that’s a concern. I am very interested in Asian culture in particular and in the interaction between world cultures in general. So, even if I’m pigeonholed in that way, maybe that kind of fits. Because that’s sort of what I’m interested in exploring.