June 23, 2009

Review of LEVEL UP

Sean Muir of the Healthy Aboriginal Network send me a low-res PDF of LEVEL UP, another of their issue-oriented comic books. The subject this time: staying in school.In Level Up, Terry is contemplating dropping out of school. But before he does, he's asked to spend some time with his cousin Dave, a successful game developer. Rather than lecture Terry, Dave makes the importance of school relatable--he compares education to moving up a level in a video game.Rob's review

LEVEL UP was written and drawn by Steve Sanderson, who also did DARKNESS CALLS and AN INVITED THREAT. With his third comic, we're beginning to see a pattern. All three stories have a similar structure:

Kid has a problem. Elder tries to set him straight. Kid enters a fantasy world where he triumphs over a pop-culture menace. Kid applies the lessons he's learned and resolves his problem.

As usual, Sanderson's cartoony art is very good, and fitting for a youth-oriented comic. The only thing I question is making cousin Dave cross-eyed a few times for no good reason.

As usual, it's nice to see totally modern Natives living like everyone else. This is almost unheard of in Native-themed comics. If such comics are set in contemporary times, they're likely to feature an angry veteran, a downtrodden reservation, and casino. (See SCALPED for examples of these stereotypes.)

That's the upside of the Healthy Aboriginal Network's comics. But it also has a downside:

As usual, the organization's comic has nothing specific about a location, a tribe, or even an ethnic group. The only sign of Terry's being Native is calling his grandfather "Mosom," which I presume is a title of respect. Other than that, he could belong to any brown-skinned group--from Latino to Arab to Asian Indian.

As usual, I consider this a flaw--an example of weak storytelling. I believe the organization's position is that the government agency funding the comics requires them to be "generic." But I've seen no signs that the writers and editors have tested this misguided policy. Art is about pushing the boundaries, not doing what someone tells you to do.

Education = video game?

I think LEVEL UP is a bit less successful than Sanderson's previous efforts. Why does Terry want to drop out of school? Because he sees a rapper on TV and thinks he can emulate him, even though he has no skills. This seems like a plot you'd see on a five-minute cartoon or skit for preteens, not a serious story for young adults.

The video-game analogy doesn't work too well. First, Dave tells Terry that school is boring. Then Dave says going without math, science, and English is like going without armor, weapons, and powers in a video game. Terry's unarmed video-game surrogate proceeds to get wiped out by the enemy.

Then Dave switches gears. If you graduate from high school, he says, you get to go to college, where learning is fun and there are girls at parties. In fact, getting good grades and a diploma is like having a full complement of weapons and powers. Terry's now-armed video-game surrogate proceeds to vanquish the enemy and move to the next level.

To summarize, education is boring in high school but becomes fun in college, mainly because there are co-eds who like to party. That makes staying in school more appealing than being a rap star with a mansion, a car, and a girl in a hot tub. In fact, getting an education is exactly like blowing up bad guys in a video game, and that's a lot of fun.

I dunno...if the Healthy Aboriginal Network was aiming this simplistic message at preteens, it might be effective. But Terry is a high-schooler, which suggests the target audience is high-schoolers too. I'm not sure that LEVEL UP's simple message will impress kids that old.

So LEVEL UP is another comic book with modern but generic Natives. With an important but obvious message. In short, it's a mixed bag of a comic.

For more on the Healthy Aboriginal Network's work, see the Gang-Prevention Comic-Book Videos and Residential-School Comic-Book Videos. For more on the subject in general, see Comic Book Featuring Indians.

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