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Comic Book / Level Up

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Written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Thien Pham, published in 2011, Level Up is a Graphic Novel about a troubled Chinese-American college student torn between following his father's wishes and his own love of video games.

When Dennis is a child, he falls in love with video games, but his strict father always forbids him from playing them. After his father dies of liver cancer while he is in high school, Dennis becomes so addicted to video games that it wrecks his academic performance in college and is about to ruin his chances of getting into med school. But one day, like a miracle from heaven, four angels arrive on the doorstep of his apartment and get the dean to accept him back in. They'll do anything to get him into med school and onto the path of becoming a gastroenterologist. But is this really Dennis' destiny?


No relation to the video game or the TV show.

This book provides examples of the following tropes:

  • All Work vs. All Play: Dennis' parents want him to be All Work (focusing on medical school), while he wants to be All Play (doing nothing but playing video games endlessly).
  • Ambiguous Gender: The four angels look like small children of indeterminate gender, although Dennis briefly refers to one of them (the orange-haired one) with "he" pronouns.
  • An Aesop:
    • Rather than being all work or all play, it is better to choose a lifestyle in-between. Make something of your life, but also take time to enjoy the things you love.
    • Your path in life does not have to be determined by your parents or anyone else, except you.
    • If you are too strict with your children and forbid them certain things without good reason, they may end up overindulging in those things when they are older.
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  • Arc Words: "Eating bitterness," "destiny," and "will to endure."
  • Ass Shove: In medical school, Dennis has to shove his finger up the butts of male patients to do prostate exams. Much later, he finds out he saved one man's life by finding something bad that was up there, and they were able to operate and remove whatever it was that he found.
  • Bandage Mummy: Before he decided to go to med school, Hector got into a bad car accident and ended up in a body cast for a year, looking like that.
  • Bilingual Bonus: A couple of them in Chinese.
    • The "I'm proud of you" card that Dennis got from his father in high school has the Chinese character "爸" on it. When written twice, it means bàba (father).
    • Dennis' mother uses the word "aiya," an expression of frustration similar to "damn" or "crap."
    • A non-Chinese example with one of the men who exclaims "Ai goo!" while getting a prostate exam from Dennis, a Korean expression similar to "Oh my god!" or "Geez!"
  • Bollywood Nerd: Ipsha, an Indian girl and one of Dennis's friends who is also studying gastroenterology. Apparently it's her family's tradition.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Discussed. When Dennis is in the bathroom trying to poop for a lab assignment, the angels have no idea what he's doing and one of them comments, "Perhaps it's time we discussed how to properly manage a young man's...needs."
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The angels act like caring but pushy parents toward Dennis, helping him study and doing his chores but not wanting him to do anything else that would distract him from his studies. Well, they were sent by his father.
  • Dramatic Drop: When Dennis makes a comment about maybe wanting to switch from gastroenterology to another medical field, one of the angels drops the dish he's washing and it shatters on the floor.
  • The '80s: Based on the presence of a Pac-Man arcade machine and the release of the NES, Dennis' childhood can be inferred to take place during this era.
  • Following in Their Rescuer's Footsteps: Kat is studying to become a doctor, because she was saved by an unknown man with medical knowledge after being shot as a child. This is against her father's wishes that she keep running the family laundromat.
  • Foreshadowing: The four angels' hair colors are the same as the Pac-Man ghosts — red, orange, pink and blue. It's because their true forms are ghosts.
  • Forbidden Fruit: Mr. Ouyang always thought video games were a waste of time and never let Dennis play them when he was a kid. After Mr. Ouyang's death, Dennis becomes a complete video game addict.
  • Game Face: The red-haired angel has a "scary face" that they use twice, once on Dr. Rodriguez while convincing her to let Dennis re-enroll, and once on Dennis while grounding him when he says he wants to quit med school. It looks very similar to the one they have in their true form as a Pac-Man ghost.
  • Good Feels Good: After leaving med school, Dennis realizes that he felt good when he was saving lives as a trainee gastroenterologist. Even though he enjoys playing video games as a career, he doesn't feel fulfilled or like he's making a difference the way he did as a doctor.
  • It Tastes Like Feet: When Dennis eats the orange angel/ghost, he apparently tastes "like a mouthful of B.O."
  • I Owe You My Life: While Dennis is at an electronics store, the cashier recognizes him from the prostate exam and tells Dennis that he saved his life, having found something bad up there that the doctors were able to remove in time. He gives Dennis a bunch of free merchandise in gratitude.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: When she was shot as a child, Kat's life was randomly saved by a man who showed up at that moment with a medical kit. When he was done, he departed the building, left his jacket behind and she never saw him again. It's never explained if he was some supernatural being like Dennis' angels or just a random guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
  • Misery Builds Character: Dennis' traditional Chinese parents believe that unpleasant experiences help one to grow, and call it "eating bitterness." The other half of the proverb ("eat bitter, taste sweet") is conspicuously never mentioned, symbolizing that they focus too much on the bad parts of life and not enough on the good.
  • My New Gift Is Lame: When Dennis was a kid, he tried hinting to his dad that he wanted a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. He ended up getting a Chem-Magic chemistry set.
  • Screw Destiny: Almost in those exact words, Kat bluntly tells Dennis that he shouldn't force himself just to become a gastroenterologist just because his father wanted him to.
    Kat: You make your own damn decisions. Choose your own damn destiny.
  • Shout-Out: Several video games from the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s appear or are name-dropped, including Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Bubble Bobble, Pac-Man, GHOST Squad, Mario Kart, DanceDanceRevolution, and Street Fighter II. Surprisingly, Pokémon isn't mentioned, even though its Nintendo contemporaries Mario and Zelda are, and one scene shows Dennis playing what looks like a Game Boy Advance.
  • Single-Issue Wonk: The angels do not care about anything that does not involve pushing Dennis to finish medical school and become a gastroenterologist. They literally exist solely for this purpose, because they are the ghosts of unfulfilled promises made by Dennis's father to his family members that he would become a doctor.
  • Sweet Tooth: Mrs. Ouyang apparently likes sweets a bit too much and gets diabetes because of it. She hangs a lampshade on it herself.
    Mrs. Ouyang: Aiya, this is my shame. I talk of eating bitterness, but eating doughnuts is so much easier.
  • Take a Third Option: Dennis has the option of finishing medical school to become a gastroenterologist like his late father wanted, or to go into a career involving video games, which he's really good at. He drops out of med school to pursue a video game testing career that makes good money, but finds that he's not really happy with it, because he enjoyed saving lives as a trainee gastroenterologist. In the end, he goes back to med school and decides that whatever he chooses to pursue in his field, it'll be his decision, not anyone else's.
  • Teens Are Monsters: In Kat's backstory, when she was ten, her family's dry-cleaning business was held up by some teenagers who knocked her father unconscious and shot her through the abdomen.
  • Wham Line: Dennis said this line in the climax, "So if I'm a yellow man in a maze, that means you are ghosts."
  • You Are Grounded!: After Dennis told the angels that he's quitting medical school, the one with the red hair tells him that he is grounded. The red haired angel tells Dennis to study in his room. He didn't took this well, so he ran away.