Artist Thien Pham considers what it takes to be the best there is in two worlds: comics and medicine. "I think it's harder in art, because the only people who make money are the really awesome comic book artists," he declares.
"Are you seriously saying the pressure is worse in comics than it is being a doctor? No way, dude!" laughs Gene Luen Yang. "Are you kidding me? If you have a bad day as a doctor, somebody dies! If you have a bad day as a comic book artist, you just have an ugly page!"
"We're not talking about the killing people part of it," Pham says. "We're talking about the money. If you're an okay doctor, you can provide for your family and buy a house. If you're just an okay comic book artist, you're going to be single and living in your momma's basement for the rest of your life."
"Or you can teach at a high school," Yang adds. Both laugh.
Many readers may know Gene Yang as the award-winning cartoonist behind graphic novels including "American Born Chinese" and now as the new writer for the comics form of Nickelodeon's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (read more about that project here), and Pham has been making his own comics for years including the forthcoming graphic novel "Sumo." But both creators have spent the better part of the past decade teaching in the same Bay Area high school – which came to bear when they teamed up last year for "Level Up" from First Second Books.
The graphic novel written by Yang and drawn by Pham tackles the issues of parental pressure on young people to take safe, profitable careers through the lens of a young Asian American named Dennis Ouyang who faces a dangerous choice between medical school and video games. That pop-culture laden, sidescrolling hook has made the volume a critical favorite and this week a 2012 YALSA Great Graphic Novel For Teens, but underneath the 8-bit homage lies a story full of universal themes and the specific cultural nuances of Asian immigrant parenting.
"The book idea originally came from my brother," Yang reveals of his script. "He's a medical doctor now, but when he was going through med school he would come home and tell me these crazy stories about how to become a doctor. It's just really disgusting. To become a doctor, you have to go through a lot of disgusting things. So I thought it would make for a really interesting story to put all of the incidents he told me about into a single narrative."
The old school gamer element layered its way into the pitch as the cartoonists reflected on their own gaming history as well as the influence of their current students. "The way the images move almost feels like a side-scroller, and in that way I think our story is very similar to video games. Games have influenced me a little bit, but I think they've influenced kids much more," Pham says. "The kids in our classes – when they draw comics, sometimes their comics have fighting for no reason. And I've realized that that's comics now-a-days with things like 'Pokemon.' There will just be two monsters fighting with no reason for that to happen other than the fact that the owners have declared 'It's time to fight!'"
"Both Thien and I are in our 30s, so when we were kids video games had just been invented, and we grew up with that medium as it was growing up," adds Yang. "We can't help but be influenced by that because it was a big part of our childhood. But for me personally, I think there's a major difference between the old school games we used to play and the games you have now. The old school games like the sidescrollers and the maze-based games like 'Pac-Man' there was definitely a linear structure. Now, it's harder for me to get away from that idea compared to kids. Now you can do whatever the heck you want in a game. It's crazy. It's like being in real life."
Of course, "Level Up" finds ways to work Pac-Man into a real life milieu as the arcade hit rewires the life of Dennis who's haunted by a pack of colorful angels bent on making the character follow his dead father's path for him rather than plug in. "They're constantly following Dennis around pestering him about going to med school. In the end, we find that they're actually ghosts like in Pac-Man. And he's running away from them because Dennis is the little yellow man – he's this Asian kid running from the colorful ghosts!" laughs Yang.
While discussing the particulars of the book with CBR, both artists joke and snark at each other like a pair of teenagers on XBox Live. To hear Yang and Pham tell it, their collaboration has just as strong a competitive streak as those kinds of battles, though their tongue may be significantly more in cheek. "More than anything, I wanted to draw Gene's stories," Pham says. "His artwork and my artwork are very different. We fight all the time, and we're like oil and vinegar when it comes to opinions on art. I love what Gene does. I just don't do it, and I don't think I can ever possibly do it. When I read Gene's stories, I just think 'Wow, this is a great story! I just wish that it had my art because it would make the book so much better!"
"Thien and I have really different approaches to comics. I feel that I'm more planned out – I go through several stages when I write. I do an outline, then a script, then thumbnails, and I get feedback and do revisions all the way through. He just kind of goes at it," says Yang. "When he's doing his own comics, he almost makes the story up as he goes along. He's kind of like the comics version of a discovery writer where as I'm an outliner. I mean, I'm REALLY into outlining. And in our art too, he just goes at it. He barely does any character design. He just throws it down on the page and talks about 'Capturing the inspiration' where as I like to do pages of character designs and model sheets and lay it all down.
"And I didn't even think about it at the beginning, but that ended up being a really important aspect of this book. I feel like seeing how someone works who's so different from me as a cartoonist was very helpful in my own work. That whole 'capturing the inspiration' – there's something behind that. I'm not at that point yet, but I've learned from it."
That learning process meant that the entirety of "Level Up" had to be drawn twice before the pair found the right artistic voice. "Originally when we got together to do the book, I did the writing as a script, and then Thien did the thumbnails and pencils, I did the inks, and he did the colors," Yang says. "It was a little bit more merged together with me inking over his pencils. And we were almost done with that version – maybe 95% done – when Mark Siegel, my editor at First Second, called me up and said 'I need to have this really hard conversation with you. I really don't like this.' He basically said it sucked and asked us to start over."
Pham laughs at the evaluation. "I would give Gene my pencils, and he'd ink them, and when I got them back...it'd look like a Gene drawing! I though 'Wait a minute...this doesn't look like my art at all!'" the artist says, chiding his partner about his revision practices. "He does a lot of that stuff. He would send the script to me and say 'What do you think?' and I wouldn't even read it," he laughs. "When I went to do my pages, I never wanted to show Gene. That's not how I work. I saw the script, saw his thumbnails, and then I just drew it. I never ask anyone for their feedback...it's already perfect as it is!
"But when I read the story, what makes me amazed is it's not a Gene Yang book when you look at it. And it's not a Thien Pham book either. This isn't something I'd normally do. The amalgam of his words and my little crazy art style melded together into a whole different thing. The whole book is like that, and it's really cool. It's like an artist whose style will never happen again because the spirit and energy of the collaboration might never be the same."
Though while the artists team-up may for now be a stand-alone proposition, they agree that their timing worked its way into the national discussion of parenting at an interesting time. As the book was being rolled out, author Amy Chau and her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" were rocketing their way through the blogosphere and book stores with a take on Asian parents as overbearing and proud.
Yang's own immigrant parents brought some scrutiny to his professional life, causing the cartoonist to consider his options stringently. "My dad basically gave me the choice that most Chinese immigrant parents give their kids: doctor, lawyer or engineer," he says. "And I actually stuck with it for the most part. I have a degree in software engineering and programming. When I was little, I would always have these fights with him where I wanted to be either a comic book artist or an animator. And he wanted me to do something more practical.
"But as an adult, I think that conflict doesn't necessarily have to be as stark as it's presented. There are a ways of integrating practical jobs with your art. There are people like Harvey Pekar who hold down day jobs doing very practical things who also make art. As we get further and further into the information and internet age, that'll be more and more true. There are more people who will be doing multiple things with lives."
Pham makes flippant with the paradigm. "During high school, my parents realized that all I can probably do is draw," he laughs. "I'm not lucky like Gene. All I can do is art. Gene is a programmer and a really smart guy...he can spell! I don't have those marketable skills."
"The fact that this book came out after that is both a blessing and a curse," the artist continues. "It's a blessing because people can see a different side. Our story is, if not a perfectly contrary side, at least offers an alternative side to the whole 'Tiger Mother' business. But it's also a curse because a lot of people have just focused on the fact that this is an Asian kid with an Asian family. Me and Gene had a huge fight about this at one point. My contention was basically that this story could be exactly the same if it was a Jewish kid or a Hispanic kid or whatever. The quest to find to what you want to do as opposed to what your parents want happens to everybody. It's not just an Asian thing. I want to stress that, because people read the Tiger Mom thing and think 'That's terrible!' but a lot of people parent like that."
As with their back and forth comics collaboration, Yang counters his friends take on the heart of their own book. "I never disagreed with Thien about how a lot of kids of different cultural backgrounds face this same choice between the desires of their hearts and what their parents want," he says. "But I do think it's specifically pronounced in immigrant families. I'd say it's less about being Asian and more about being the children of immigrants. Any parent that has grown up in a country poorer than ours with actual hardship and starvation – and who actually had to take risks to get here – are going to have certain expectations of their kids that native-born parents are not going to understand."
Pham considers his partner's take on the challenge. And rather than spin one more gag at his friend's expense, he says, "I totally agree with that."
"Level Up" is on sale now from First Second Books.