Level Up Debuts with Epic Draw-Off
Level Up, the latest work by Printz Award winner Gene Luen Yang and artist Thien Pham, is sweet, nostalgic, mysterious, and has enough twists to keep you turning the pages. Dennis Ouyang is a video game enthusiast whose late night tournaments lead to his collegiate demise, but not to worry: Four greeting-card angels soon put him back on the path. In spite of the angels’ incessant coffee brewing, Dennis soon quits medical school and takes up gaming professionally, so why isn’t he happy? He discovers happiness lies in doing good things for others, gives up gaming, and reenrolls in medical school, where his video skills collide with gastroenterology in a gross yet gratifying fashion. As with American Born Chinese, Yang creates another bildungsroman and, while this one is about growing up Asian American, it will appeal to anyone who has tried to live up to the ideals of friends and family. Level Up took five years to create, including one complete rewrite, and as Yang puts it, “The student it was based on was a freshman in high school when we started, and now he’s a sophomore in college.”
Level Up’s debut draw-off took place at the Eisner Award-winning Flying Colors Comics in Concord on Saturday, June 4, 2011. Yang described his comic roots as Pham accompanied him on felt pen with background drawings on poster-sized sheets of paper. As a youngster, Yang idolized Walt Disney, keeping his hero’s poster pinned to the wall behind his bed. In 1980, Yang discovered a Superman comic that gave him nightmares about atomic bombs and world destruction, teaching Yang that comics get inside your brain like no other medium. They appealed to Yang in a way that other texts didn’t. So Yang was forced to choose between becoming an animator a la Disney or a comic book creator, and thankfully for us, he chose the latter. Pham, on the other hand, ran across a Spider-Mancomic and was hooked.
When the draw-off pen passed to Yang, Pham told the crowd he was an Academy of Art graduate. Pham exudes confidence—make that good-natured braggadocio. On a car trip, he once told Yang, “I’m better than the top three living cartoonists. Charles Schultz . . .”
“Um, he’s dead,” Yang reminded Pham before Pham rattled off a few more.
Pham playfully recalls reading comics and thinking, “I can draw better than that.” It’s hard to tell if he’s joking when he talks about his love for 1980s romantic comedies and that his story plots are all based on The Karate Kid, including his upcoming Sumo.
On the other side of the page, Yang took only one art class—figure drawing—which he chucked after a lab partner produced a Picasso-esque representation of a model made up of an orange blob and a green square, a figure the teacher gushed over for its perceptive expressionism. “Huh?” Yang thought.
It’s easy to see that Pham and Yang have a good working relationship. They grew up in San Jose, although they never knew each other, and both fondly recall visiting Red Planet Comics. Pham and Yang both teach at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland and Yang asked Pham to do the art for Level Up because, as Pham puts it, “Gene can’t draw.” Yang even introduced Pham to his wife, Lark Pien (Long Tail Kitty and The Elephanter), the colorist for American Born Chinese who was on hand to sign copies of that work. Yang and Pham were busy autographing Level Up, which came with a custom bookplate, while also providing made-to-order sketches.
Pham’s art marks a departure from the strong bold lines and colors of American Born Chinese. Pham uses simple, sometimes smudged, lines and soft watercolor washes, a childlike palette to accompany a coming-of-age story about following one’s passion. As a career guide, this book provides a cautionary tale about doing things for money or to make parents happy, while also reminding readers that someday everybody grows up, passions change, and life is really what you make it.
Yang and Pham’s advice to aspiring comic book writers: Draw your own comics—that’s where you have the most control. Put them up on the web and look at self-publishing resources such as Xeric grants, sponsored by Peter Laird, the cocreator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Yang received a Xeric grant for his Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, the first comic he wrote as an adult.“Start by drawing comics about yourself. Draw a lot. You’ll get better. It’s not hard,” he says. (That’s easy for him to say.)
So who won the epic draw-off? Well, that’s hard to say—unless you’re Pham. The pair drew clowns (Pham just drew a picture of Yang), Boy Scouts, zeppelins (Yang’s had flames and a fire extinguisher), aliens, Thor, and a Chinese dragon. The final battle was a portrait of Flying Colors’ owner, Joe Field, as his alter ego, Flyco Joe. Yang included all the accoutrements for the latest summer blockbusters, Captain America’s shield, the Green Lantern’s lantern, and Thor’s hammer, while Pham created a bicep worthy of any superhero. Field smiles, “I am thrilled to finally have Gene visit Flying Colors. Seeing Thien Pham’s work on Level Up also leads me to believe that his star is rising among cartoonists.”
To learn more about the Level Up summer tour, go to Gene Luen Yang’s website at humblecomics.com.
Doré Ripley teaches English at California State University, East Bay and Diablo Valley and often uses comics in her classroom. She is a frequent contributor to GraphicNovelReporter.