Gene Luen Yang

Gene Luen Yang, graphic novelist

The author of Level Up talks about immigrant families and rectal gaming.

By Evan Narcisse • July 26, 2012

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.

Level Up

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.

Level Up

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.

Level Up

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.

Evan Narcisse is an editor at Kotaku, where (among other things) he presides over the site’s comics coverage, Panel Discussion. He is also a snappy dresser.

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90 Responses to “Gene Luen Yang, graphic novelist”

  1. caspiancomic says:

    Oh man I am fully buying this book this weekend. I hadn’t heard of this yet, so this is great. Comics and games are two of my greatest passions, and I always love seeing them combined in interesting ways. That merger, combined with a healthy dollop of Toronto culture, is what earned Scott Pilgrim its place right in the centre of my heart. And just today I was picking up the new Adventure Time spinoff Marceline and the Scream Queens by Meredith Gran, who was there with Ryan North doing a signing/release party thing- and Pendleton Ward has gone on the record saying that Zelda was one of the biggest influences on Adventure Time.

    This interview actually gets me in a couple of my “right heres”. My parents immigrated to Canada, and my mom’s parents were immigrants themselves (Irish and Polish). My parents, my mom especially, grew up in pretty abject poverty, and moved to Canada because they could give their kids better lives with the money they were making than they could have back in England. Or, to hear my dad tell it, he moved away from England because he didn’t want my sister to grow up watching Coronation Street. I spend a lot of time and energy trying not to think about the fact that they dragged themselves out of the muck and moved 6000 kilometres from their families for my benefit and all I’ve done to repay them is act like an entitled little prick. I think I would actually feel better about the situation if they were being a pain in my ass about becoming a doctor- so far they’ve been nothing but supportive and understanding of my decision to plunge myself back into poverty by pursuing a career in comics and/or games.

    Also, conflating gastroenterology with video games? An inspired touch. I’ll waltz delicately around the details in case you happen to be eating something, but I’ve got a chronic condition for which I see a gastroenterologist, and I’ve been on the receiving end of more than a few unpleasant medical procedures to help keep the whole thing in balance. I wonder if they’ll consider letting me perform the procedure myself in the future…

    Mm, on second thought, you tend to be drugged into unconsciousness and grappling with two days’ worth of starvation when they perform the procedure, so maybe not the best conditions for keeping a steady hand. Also, I’m not even very good at Mario Kart.

    • Effigy_Power says:

      Isn’t there a tactic in Mario Kart to turn quicker by hitting the walls… ouch.

      Anyways, I see what you are talking about through my girlfriend, as I said, I am too far down the ladder to really feel like an immigrant. It’s an eternal conflict between ensuring that you are your own person and not being unthankful for the sacrifices your parents made for you. I don’t think there’s really a healthy middle ground there.
      Conflict with your parents is an inevitable must of growing up, in my opinion.
      I fought my parents tooth and nail on “becoming a wife and mother”, “being a Catholic”, “being successful”, “caring what the neighbors think” and all those things that are important to them, but not to me.
      So we fight and it’s only years later that we develop the maturity to accept that they didn’t want to cramp your style, but rather tried to apply their own flawed recipe for success to their children in the hope that they might give us as good a start into a world we don’t yet understand as possible.
      -pounds chest-
      Heartstrings, man… right here.

      • doyourealize says:

        Nothing to add, really, but that last paragraph, before the “pounds chest”, puts into words something that’s not very easy to put into words. Nicely done!

  2. Staggering Stew Bum says:

    “…a recent slew of game-based comics hasn’t produced any must-read material.”

    Clearly you haven’t read my self-produced limited run of graphic novels called Tetrisman. A dark and gritty story of the red L-shaped coloured block driven, or should I say rotated, to vigilantism to avenge the senseless murder of his wife and child, instigated by the ruthless green square block. The twist? Green square block is red L-shaped block’s long lost father. And clone. And our hero is also an alcoholic because, he has inner demons, you know? The green of the villain is SYMBOLISM of envy of our hero who had a better life with his family until the brutal murderings. The red is symbolism for anger, man. Deep, I know.

    Reviewers of my masterpieces have been raving, mostly just for me to untie the ropes, but also with these pearlers:

    “The best and only comic book, sorry son – *graphic novel* – that I’ve been forced to read all week.” – My mum (love you mum!)

    “I’ll call the police, I mean it!” – Some random guy in the street

    “Your crayon technique needs vast improvement.” – My Grade 1 teacher Mrs Wilson.

    “I want a divorce.” – Mrs Stew Bum

    I am currently waiting for the movie deals to pour in.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

      I just want to chime in and say Tetrisman is also my current favorite masturbation sop.

  3. Persia says:

    Really nice interview. He’s an interesting guy and I think you brought out a lot of what makes his work so strong.

  4. Effigy_Power says:

    How to follow @Staggering_Stew_Bum:disqus’s post?

    Anyways, my girlfriend, herself the daughter of Korean immigrants, is a pretty big fan of “American Born Chinese”, which I for some reason haven’t read yet. (It’s literally 2 feet away from where I am sitting right now. I have no excuse.) Her thoughts about her upbringing and her parents’ ‘zeal’ to make sure they’d done everything to make their children succeed, if it was appreciated or not, very much mirror that of Gene Luen Yang, so it interests me on a personal level. On the other hand she only got into gaming really after she got together with me, which means that “Level Up” appeals much more to my own upbringing. We both have very different backgrounds (My parents still claim being Irish, even though our ancestors came here well before the Famine, so we are fairly Americanized), but I do share a lot of memories about having to fight them tooth and nail about “wasting my life” with comics and games.
    In the end my parents came around, also because my 3 siblings all turned out to be fairly successful, which took a lot of the pressure off me. Also, the moment they accepted that I would direct my life the way I wanted to, they somehow were much better prepared for me coming out of the closet. Again, my siblings already having a slew of children took some more pressure off my poor birthing hips.
    So, while I had different challenges, I feel very passionately about gaming and comics as an outlet, a reactive agent for creativity and an indication about what I wanted to do with my life.

    I find the notion that Dennis uses gaming to deal with real-life tragedy and difficulty (if I got this right) is very reminiscent of “Maus”, which also tries and explain the inexplicable by filtering it through something maybe a little less malevolent. And I have not yet met a comic artist (or comixer, as some of us edgy underground rebels call it -groan of pretension- ) who doesn’t like being compared to Art Spiegelman in that way.

    There, I followed Brew with sentiment instead of humor… a fool who tries to top his post in that.

    • doyourealize says:

      I’ve told you before, but my (brand new) wife is also born to Korean immigrants. Her mother was in the US less than a year when she was born, and her father was here longer. You mention that you yourself are “Americanized”, and I would consider myself as such. This makes is difficult at times for me to understand her reactions to certain situations, and at some point I decided that it’s something I can never know. This is not to say I will ever stop trying.

      One example of this is, at several weddings over the last couple years, the same company catered. Most of the people there (they were all my friends and family) were white, and never were asked for ID when ordering drinks. My wife (fiance at the time) was asked at all three weddings, and at one point she had to just get away from the crowds and call her Chinese-American friend. When she would tell other people about this (my family, other guests), they would respond that she should be flattered since she’s 30, and these people think she’s so young. Compare to my 19 and 20 year old cousins, who, math says, are younger than her, and were not carded.

      Like I said, I know I’ll never understand her reaction to these situations, so I won’t try to interpret anything here, but all this to say, reach your arm out, grab American Born Chinese, and spend the hour and a half or so to read it. We might not ever really understand, but it presents the pressures and trials of growing up an American born to (Asian) immigrants in a relatable fashion, and could at least help a little, while also making you laugh.

      • Effigy_Power says:

        It can be hard. I always thought that as a woman in relationships with another woman I would have less of those “I want to, but can’t understand you” moments.
        Well, I just had to fall in love with someone from a background vastly different from my own.

        But she’s so cute. :P

  5. LurkyMcLurkerson says:

    It’s actually just “Avatar the Last Airbender: The Promise.”

  6. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

    Video games are a pretty ideal theme to fold into a magical realism narrative.  Given that in under forty years, the medium has amassed a library of symbols and visual shorthand to rival most of the world’s religions, it lends itself well to a stylized but grounded story.

    • HobbesMkii says:

      So, do you believe that when you consume a health pack, you’re literally consuming the body of Jesus Christ?

      • caspiancomic says:

         Oh my God, the cross… it all makes sense now!

        • Effigy_Power says:

          Is “Up, Down, Left, Right” the cheat to get into heaven then?

        • HobbesMkii says:

          You should hear my Mario/Master Chief/Glados theory for the Holy Trinity.

        • Girard says:

          The cross-pad is a symbol true agency, of being and acting in the world, displacing the vulgar, masturbatory, and overtly-gendered blasphemy that was the joystick.

          Actually, when I was an undergrad (too long ago at this point) a friend of mine and I published a kind of nonsensical, nonlinear faux-religious tract that outlined a set of nine (or, really 8 plus an uncountable remainder – we had this whole nonsense cosmogony including a lost number between 8 and 9, including a lost, awesome, decade between the 80s and 90s – as I said, nonsensical) “auspicious symbols,” one of which was the cruciform crosspad.

          Those symbols returned in a weird ikonostasis I made, which included a portrait of Σario (“sig-mario” the third in the precession of images beyond Mario and Wario, who was beyond good and evil), holding the Crosspad of Agency.

          The pop appropriation is…very undergrad… but, in my defense at the time Paper Rad and Fort Thunder were looming large in the art world, and my impressionable young mind got swept up in the zeitgeist and a fair amount of my stuff aped that better stuff.  ANYWAY. THIS COOL STORY BRO IS RELEVANT BECAUSE WE WERE TALKING ABOUT THE RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE OF THE CRUCIFORM CROSS-PAD.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

        “…And he took of the Med Pack and broke it into many pieces.  Taketh of these, the smaller med stims, for they are my blood and worth 20 health.  Then taketh of these, the greater med kits, for they are my flesh and worth 40 health.  And should you in great faith and great need, find a Med Pack whole; you have found me, body and blood -worth 100 health.
           Go forth in a covenant of health with an armor boost of virtue; but in your pilgrimage, turn away from the lava and the red barrels, for they are the fruit of the deceiver, and yield naught but poison.  Explodey, burny poison.”

                                     -Book of Lance “Scorpion” Bean 22:7 

  7. Limeade Youth says:

    Wasn’t there a TV show of the same name? And look forward to being sued for trademark infringement by LEVEL UP, my balloon based demolition service.

  8. Excellent interview. I went to the library today to grab Level Up and read it in one sitting. I actually teared up at a few parts, particularly the broken promises scene. I’m sure even non-gamers can relate, but I especially can as a gamer since the age of 3, and I’ve always struggled with trying to mesh that element of my identity with something more professional, something that can pay the rent.

    Video games seem to stand apart from other art forms and media in that they require active participation. You passively watch a movie or read a book, but you PLAY a game. You take part in its unfolding, and I’ve always found that provides a greater connection. And then on a more visceral level there is the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction by achieving your goals in the game. In a way, and not to sound too cheesy, but games are kind of like a model for life. Not that I literally view good grades as a high score, or major life changes as leveling up, but a life time of video games has helped to develop my work ethic and shape how I approach setting and accomplishing goals.
    My favorite quote from the interview is this: 
    “I think video games can be useful to you as an adult, even if you don’t become a professional video game player.” 
    I think this statement is a lot more true than even at first glance. In fact, I think the most literal and direct applications of video game experience, for most people, are the worst. There was a time where I swore I was going to be a professional gamer, or a game designer, or a software engineer. Now I’m studying to be a geologist. But they’re not as unrelated as it might seem, because even though my passion for rocks wasn’t awakened at a young age by some profound geology game (although I did have an unhealthy obsession with Dig Dug when I was little), I could not in a million years say that I’d be in the same place I am now if playing video games wasn’t such a huge part of my identity. It’s hard to overstate the influence it has had on my personality, my values, my friends, even my relationship with my fiancée. And I absolutely believe that influence has been almost universally positive.