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June 07, 2011

Gene Luen Yang on Level Up


Level Up, the graphic novel written by me and illustrated by Thien Pham, tells the story of video game addict who is compelled by angels to go to medical school.  The story is inspired by my brother.

My brother isn’t a video game addict (though he does love his PlayStation) and he’s never been visited by angels, but he is a medical doctor.  When he was in med school, he’d call me up every so often and describe to me his assignments in intricate, gruesome detail.  He told me about walking into a classroom lined with the hemisected heads of human cadavers and labeling brain parts for the better part of an hour.  He told me about treating an old lady at a Chinatown clinic who had a facial fungal infection so severe it looked like dollhouse bookshelves glued to her cheek.  He told me about filling a small plastic container with his own fecal matter and then bringing into class the next day to analyze his gut flora.

Who knew academic work could be so exciting?  So stomach churning?  So visually arresting?  Whenever his number showed up on my cell phone, I flipped it open with my jaw pre-dropped.  Before he could even say “hi,” I would ask him, “So what’s the grossest thing you did this week?”  And when he finished, I’d wait a few seconds for my mind to clear of the blood and needles.  Then I’d say, “That belongs in a comic book!”

The problem was, there was never a center.

When I’m in the early stages of writing, I look for the center, that one puzzle piece that makes all the other pieces fit together and changes them from interesting incidents into drama.  My brother’s stories were a collection of interesting incidents.  They made me laugh and cringe and gasp, but they never built up to a dramatic, cohesive whole.

Then one evening he called to say that he was considering specializing in gastroenterology, the study of the digestive tract.  I was shocked.  You see, my brother is one of the most squeamish people I know.  When we were growing up, he would gag whenever we came across dog mess on the street.  He gave away toys because their color reminded him of vomit.  Of all the aspiring doctors in the world, my brother seemed the least likely candidate for a discipline that required the extensive handling of poop.

After I expressed my concerns, he thought for moment.  “Yeah,” he said.  “But I did a colonoscopy the other day and, man, it’s like playing video games up somebody’s--”

And there it was.  Before he even finished his sentence, I knew I’d found my center.

(Level Up comes out today.)


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