Dreaming in Pixels: On 'Level Up', The Comic by Gene Luen Yang

To provide that boy with the life he has, I’ve had to eat much bitterness. He must learn to do the same. How will a video game teach him to eat bitterness?

Meet Dennis Ouyang’s parents. If you’re a first generation child of an immigrant, the sentiment expressed above may be similar to a memory of your childhood: the inability to reconcile a very romantic American attitude of ‘following your dreams’ with the destiny imagined by your parents. “American culture tells us to follow our hearts. Asian culture — or at least Asian culture as filtered through our parents — tells us to pursue a more practical route. When I was young, all I wanted to do was follow my heart. All I wanted to do was draw cartoons, money and health insurance be damned,” states Yang, the author. And what would the practical route, the path which will gain his parents approval, be for our protagonist, Dennis? “Stay focused in high school, do well in college, go to medical school, become a gastroenterologist.”

Level Up is based on, at least partially, Gene’s own sibling. The dedication reads, “Dedicated to our brothers Jon and Thinh, both of whom work in the medical field, for being the good Asian sons.” Being the good first generation offspring is difficult, though, when you have parents whom have had, most likely, a very difficult life rife with sacrifices and hardships. Parents who may project onto you, their last beacon of hope, a shot at redemption, a shot at overcoming their own shortcomings and fears.

Dennis may not be all that different from you or I: he’s a gamer who struggles to legitimize his passion in the face of parents. More specifically, he struggles to validate his hobby and possible career to parents for whom a lack of ‘fun’ is a requisite for learning how to endure the reality of life’s harshness. Dennis is constantly reminded that he must learn to endure, that all the demands placed upon him are to teach him how to ‘eat bitterness.’ As Dennis’ dad states, video games can’t teach him that–but Dennis loves them anyway, he’d like to be a professional gamer. You see, deep down, Dennis isn’t the person they want him to be, not really. He dreams in pixels. When he loses hope, he loses a life a la Scott Pilgrim. When he’s losing his mind on the street, he likens himself to Pacman: a yellow man running away from ghosts.

But then, everything changes. His father dies, and though his death allows Dennis to engage with his obsession, his father’s ideals start to haunt him. Literally. After he is kicked out of college, Dennis suddenly has 4 ‘angels’ following him, determined to put his life ‘back on track.’ Level Up is the story of how Dennis goes about finally coming to terms with not only his father’s death, but also how to carve out his own path in spite of lifelong conditioning and pressures from his family. A coming of age story where Yang successfully goes between pulling at your heartstrings and making you laugh all within the same page. It’s remarkable, and definitely worth your time.

You can read an excerpt of the comic here.