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Level Up and Anya’s Ghost Graphic Novel Reviews

Level Up Graphic Novel Anya's Ghost Graphic Novel

The superbly written “Level Up” and “Anya’s Ghost” are two very different coming of age graphic novels.

“Level Up” is a slightly surreal 2011 graphic novel written by Gene Yuen Yang (best known for the award winning “American Born Chinese”) that chronicles the life of the main character (Dennis) from a young age to his college years. The plot begins with Dennis describing his love of video games even though his parents prohibited him from playing them at a young age. After his father passes away, Dennis immediately buys a system and becomes addicted to the video game world from there on out. While it may seem insensitive, we begin to learn that this is sort of a coping mechanism for Dennis who is clearly struggling to get past the death of his father.

By the time his high school era ends, Dennis decides to attend Med school in order to fulfill his father’s wish for him to become a gastroenterologist. Of course, this decision turns out to be problematic for Dennis who has trouble focusing on his academics. In a bizarre story changing moment, however, 4 bossy angels suddenly manifest in order to try and get Dennis back on track. Are the angels real? Is Med school really Dennis’ destiny?  What does Dennis want to do with his life?

While perhaps a bit overdone in places, “Level Up” winds up being an exceptional, emotional, and unique character study. In a a mere 160 pages, Gene Yuen Yang not only manages to tell a rather deep story about a father/son connection, but he also delves into a wide range of topics that include parental pressure, expectations, loss, guilt, happiness, dreams, grief, and, of course, video games.

Speaking of video games, if you’re expecting this to be a video game centric story ala “The Wizard,” I’m afraid you will be disappointed. While there are plenty of amusing video game references and a likable video game loving character named Takeem, video games are not the primary focus of the story. This is very much a story about Dennis trying to find himself and work out his issues.

As far as the artwork goes, artist Thien Pham does a commendable job with his pencil drawn pieces. While the character models and layouts may be rather simplistic, he never has any issue conveying emotions or establishing a sense of place.

“Level Up” wasn’t the only 2011 coming of age story as the critically acclaimed “Anya’s Ghost” also came out the same year. In this spooky drama graphic novel, the story revolves around the titular character who is an angsty high school girl (of Russian descent) that is trying to fit in at a private school in New England. The story begins to take shape after Anya falls into a fairly deep hole where she encounters a skeletal body and a ghostly girl (Emily) that is attached to it. After Anya gets out of the hole, she thinks she can put that freaky ordeal behind her, but, much to her surprise, she sees Emily following her around. It seems Anya apparently took one of Emily’s bones by accident and since Emily’s ghost is attached to her bones, she can go wherever her bones are.  

At first glance, it seems like Emily is a kind hearted ghost who is grateful to have Anya as her friend. This is especially evident when Emily helps Anya out at school with her grades and with trying to impress a hunky jock (Sean). Realizing that she is using Emily a bit too much, Anya decides to try and help out Emily be learning who her alleged killer is. As Anya begins to look into Emily’s tragic and grizzly past, however, things become decidedly more complex.    

Even without the ghostly element, “Anya’s Ghost” would have still been an engaging story about teen life, angst, fitting in, friendship, heritage, past mistakes, and realizing the error of one’s ways. As is, ‘Ghost’ is even MORE engaging as a result of the horror element. Now, I’m not going to give away any spoilers about Emily or what happens in the end, but suffice to say, the graphic novel tale becomes a real creepy and uniquely symbolic page turner to say the least. Author/artist Vera Brogsol (who has worked as a story artist for Laika films) clearly has a firm grasp on storytelling and it shows in her work here. Yes, the art style may be a bit minimal for some tastes, but I found it to be completely fitting to the material. Hopefully, Vera Brogsol will churn out another graphic novel in the near future as I’d like to see what other stories she has to tell.

Note: This paperback edition includes a 6 page interview with Vera Brogsol.

Overall Thoughts: If you’re looking for some good non-superhero graphic novels, take a gander at “Anya’s Ghost” and “Level Up.” You’ll be glad you did.

March 13, 2014 - Posted by | Book review | , , , ,

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