Level Up, by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham, uses the iconography of classic video games to tell a unique and touching coming-of-age story. When talented gamer Dennis' father dies, he is haunted by the late man's request for his son to become a doctor. Dennis trades his joysticks for medical textbooks, ironically attempting to overcome his own delicate stomach on the road to becoming a gastroenterologist.
Assisting Dennis on this journey are four angels (who appear as though they were designed by Sanrio). When the identity of this quartet of incorporate beings is discovered, it brings the whole video game metaphor together in a most ingenious fashion. Further, while it seems as if the story is going to end in one particular way, close to the end it completely changes direction; it is that non-cliched resolution that I think makes Level Up stand out.
Yang (who is also the creator of the hit GN American Born Chinese) crafts a story that is at turns very irreverent and funny (you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about certain types of medical school assignments), and also quite moving when dealing with his mom and late father. Pham's sketchbook-style art gives the story a very biographical feel, the watercolors and textured paper evocative of memories remembered.
Level Up makes a great graphic novel for teenagers exactly because it offers young readers a vision of growing up and the achievement of true maturity ("leveling up") that takes into consideration all the complexities and ironies of life. Dennis both learns to live life on his own terms and what it means to live for others - and that both states of being do not necessarily contradict each other. In addition, you have a great group of supporting characters with their own fascinating sub-plots, so the story can be enjoyed as both an ensemble piece and as one person's life journey. Recommended.
Level Up, from First Second, is available now at bookstores and comic shops.