Gene Luen Yang & Thien Pham’s Level Up: Review and Comic-Con 2011

Gene Leun Yang, writer, and Thien Pham, illustrator, team up for the graphic novel, Level Up. diaCRITIC Jade Hidle gives us a look at the graphic novel, how it entwines Nintendo with life, and at Thien Pham’s appearances at San Diego Comic-Con 2011.

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For all of you Nintendo-fluent readers out there, the words “Level Up!” probably conjure memories of this phrase floating across the screen in all its pixilated glory, your fingertips pressing excitedly into the already-sweaty controller.

Critically acclaimed graphic novelist and Eisner Award-winning author of American Born Chinese and The Eternal Smile, Gene Luen Yang borrows the gamer’s familiar phrase, “Level Up” as the title of his latest release from First Second Books, illustrated by Vietnamese American artist Thien Pham.  The graphic novel tells the coming-of-age story of Dennis Ouyang, who, like so many of us from the original Nintendo generation, begged his father for a game system. Dennis, though, only receives in return chemistry sets and tips for his future college education.

The cover of Level Up. Image courtesy of

When his father dies, Dennis finds solace in video games and their promise of agency and control in the worlds they present. Across a series of Pham’s illustrated panels, Dennis hunches over his controller and leans, un-blinking, into the screen, accomplishing one video game mission after the other until he earns from his friend Takeem the title of “the Good Will Hunting of video games” (33).

While I by no means propose that Yang is taking any kind of didactic stance against the ongoing and long clichéd argument that video games make youths “dumb” or “lazy,” it is notable that Dennis’s experience with the games is not one of mind-numbing escape merely for escape’s sake. In fact, the games—in enabling players to solve problems and to oftentimes accomplish (super)heroic feats, principally to control and extend life—allow Dennis to cope with the losses and painful lack of control in the “real” world.  His relationship with gaming is inextricably tethered to his reckoning with his father’s death and to his navigating his non-linear journey to becoming who he needs and wants to be. The connection between growing up and leveling up in games crystallizes through the notion of life:  What do we prize in life? What do we fight for? And what do we do with the (second) chances we are given?

I don’t want to give away too much of the story before you all get a chance to read the novel for yourself, but the games also have direct impact on the medical career that Dennis pursues in his college years.  In drawing parallels between gaming and medical schooling, Yang shows that the two are not entirely divorced. Here I must add that my younger brother, who recently graduated high school (woo hoo!), acquired an eerily efficient ability to analytically solve spatial puzzles, as well as an impressive vocabulary (take that, SAT Verbal!) from his video games. Given that both Yang and Pham are both educators—at the same school, in fact—working to integrate artistic mediums such as comic books into their curriculum (see more on this below), it seems no coincidence that in Level Up the visual, interactive stories of video games are depicted as facilitators and articulations of, not as antagonists to, Dennis’s personal growth as well as his intellectual development.

A sample of the artwork from Level Up. Image from

During Dennis’s college years, his father’s visage, along with a quartet of demanding angels and fiendish heads that resemble the ghosts from Pac-Man (Dennis makes the not-so-subtle connection to being a “little yellow man”), haunt him as he battles feeling inadequate and guilty for not abiding by his parents’ wishes for his future. While this theme of defining and reconciling identity under the umbrella of parental expectation is universally relatable for readers of all ages and various backgrounds, Dennis struggles with the added conflicts of being Asian American. One of the many instances of this added layer of cultural conflict is exhibited when Dennis’s mother explains to him that his father pushed him to do well in school because he himself was not able to achieve such an education: “Medical school by itself is difficult enough,” Mrs. Ouyang explains, “But for a new father who didn’t speak English very well…no.”

Notable, too, in regard to the books depiction of culture, Level Up features a diverse cast of characters:  Takeem is Dennis’s close friend and gaming companion; Ipsha is another med-school classmate and friend; and the love interest is German-Korean girl; the school administrator Dennis meets up with is a female named Dr. Rodriguez. The multiculturalism is not a topic of discussion; the characters’ diversity is an accepted reality of the world. I strongly believe this is an important point to present to young readers in particular, especially in the aftermath of the brutal, tragic recent events in Norway, which reminds us of how intolerant and dangerous the world can be for our children. In this capacity, the graphic novel serves as an affirming conversation-piece for individuals—adolescent or adult, Asian American or not—who may not yet have had the opportunity to reflect upon or express such conflicts of identity, family, and culture in a medium as accessible as the graphic novel.

I hoped that Yang would be able to speak to these themes in his work at this past weekend’s International Comic-Con in San Diego, where he appeared on a panel entitled “Diversity in Comics.” The structure of the panel, however, neglected to address issues of cultural and racial diversity. Instead, one of the discussion’s central points was that the distinction between “adult” and “young adult” fiction is arbitrary, in a nutshell asserting that we are all still the children we once were. Yang mentioned that graphic novels tend to get lumped into the “Young Adult,” but, with its touching upon everything from the deeper issues of death, haunting, memory, and cultural identity to the more lighthearted coming-of-age themes of the awkwardness of young romance and tried and true giggle-inducing poop jokes, Level Up is enjoyable for adults as well. And, as a reader with many multicultural children in my family, I very well plan to read this book with them.

Gene Yang speaks at Comic-Con 2011

To turn to Pham’s work in the graphic novel, the illustrations are simple, and often cute and whimsical, yet evocative when they need to be. Among them, a squiggly black line of a teardrop conveys Dennis’s silent sadness, and his later munching of the brightly colored ghouls that appear during his college years captures the varied emotions and imagination of growing up. What I liked most were that the chapter breaks are colored to remind of the greenish glow of Game Boy screens, depicting the diminishing lives in the corner of the “screen” as the chapters progress. And, most resonant perhaps, is that the final illustration, wherein Dennis embarks upon a new “level” in his life, is not contained by the traditional square or rectangular boundaries of a panel. Instead, the image is simple and small on an open white page, reminding of what has past and what is to come.

A sample of the "Game Boy-esque" artwork by Thien Pham.

Speaking of Level Up’s artwork, illustrator Thien Pham also appeared at a Comic-Con panel, one entitled “Comics in the Classroom.” Pham joined panelists involved at various capacities in the movement to integrate comics into classrooms, from elementary school to college curriculum. The panel—clearly prepared by experienced teachers in its organization, clarity, and distribution of useful handouts outlining main points and key references—covered the challenges and advantages to teaching students to read comic books. (If you are an educator working on incorporating the graphic arts into your curriculum and would like a copy of the panelists’ useful handouts, please indicate your interest by posting a comment below, and I can email you a scanned version of the documents!)

"Comics in the Classrom" with (from left to right) Chris Duffy, Cheryl Wozniak, Thien Pham, Christina Blanch, and Anastasia Betts

Pham summed up the advantages nicely when he stated, “the inherent properties of a comic make it a perfect learning tool.” Pham admitted that the juxtaposition of visual and verbal text in comics helped him, a native Vietnamese speaker, to acquire the English language. In addition to promoting literacy for non-native and native English speakers alike, Pham and his fellow panelists asserted that comic books make concepts from science and history more accessible and memorable than traditional textbook formats, which all too often cause students’ eyelids to droop and jaws to stretch in yawns. Like so many others in the panel’s audience, I, as an educator, was moved to have the opportunity to talk about such rejuvenating possibilities in the current climate of education, where dismal talk of the budget eclipses our ability to focus on teaching and inspiring students.

Thien Pham speaks about comics in the classroom at Comic-Con 2011

Further, approaching the topic not just as a reader but as an artist and art teacher, Pham stressed that it is useful to not only teach students to read comics critically, but also to assign comic strip/book projects whereby the students exercise their own abilities to tell stories through the juxtaposition of words and images. It is as an artist, too, that Pham was happy to promote his sole graphic novel, Sumo, slotted for release from First Second in 2012.

Thien Pham, "looking Vietnamese" (as he said), with artwork by his wife Lark Pien on the exhibit floor of Comic-Con 2011.

If I can make any predictions about his upcoming book based on his endearing illustrations in Level Up and his effervescent personality evinced by his enthusiastic, humorous Comic-Con panel appearance (seriously, he was able to make an explanation of rubrics funny), I say keep an eye out for Thien Pham because Sumo is bound to be an enjoyable read.

To end, I would like to add that meeting Yang and Pham after enjoying their work was certainly one of the highlights of my Comic-Con experience this year, along with meeting in person GB Tran, author and artist of VIETNAMERICA , which I reviewed earlier this year. These encounters between readers, artists, and writers are central to the sense of community that makes the convention special. But, after attending the annual event for nearly fifteen years, my frustration with the swelling crowds and nauseatingly long lines has caused the four-day extravaganza lose a bit of its lustre. Did any other faithful readers of our diaCRITICS blog attend the event this year? If so, what were your highlights and/or frustrations? Let us know in the comments section below!

-Jade Hidle

Jade Hidle is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Literature at UC San Diego. She aims to write her dissertation on Vietnamese-American literature, with a focus on how narrative structures map struggles of the body–miscegenation, disfigurement, skin color–and identity.

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Lists of Discovery

Do cars stop for you at intersections? Can you tell when a papaya will ripen? Is Heineken your beer of choice?  These question may seem innocuous but to Nhu Tien Lu, they were huge discoveries about Vietnam.  Read on and learn the varied nuances of Vietnamese life through Nhu Tien Lu’s senses as she has many of her assumptions erased after spending some time in the country.  

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The most wondrous aspects of living in another country are those learning moments when you realize that things that you just assumed to always exist, unspoken cultural rules that you thought were natural and constant, are in fact neither natural nor constant. So this is my list of several of the common assumptions I had, having been raised in America, that no longer apply to my everyday life in Saigon:

  1. That vehicles will stop, or attempt to stop, for pedestrians, particularly if you’re in a crosswalk.
  2. That there will be a crosswalk.
  3. That if you walk on the sidewalk, you will not have to step aside for motorcycles to pass.
  4. That motorcycles will carry a maximum of two people, and not be used to move furniture, livestock, and other unwieldy objects of great mass.
  5. That buses will come to a complete stop to let you board.
  6. That restaurants will provide paper napkins, and won’t charge you for them.
  7. That prices on basic goods will not rise simply because New Year’s is a month away.
  8. That a dollar bill is worth a full dollar regardless of whether it is new or old looking.
  9. That prices quoted will not vary depending on whether or not you look like you know how much the prices should be.
  10. That people will rely on banks to deposit money instead of finding hiding places for gold.

However, it should be noted that the City, or thành phố, has its own quirks and rhythms as compared to the countryside, so here are a few of the things I’ve learned after  visiting my parents’ quê hương in Vĩnh Long and Quảng Ngãi these past couple of  weeks:

  1. That people can be most easily located by going to the neighborhood where they lived 30 years ago and asking for them by name.
  2. That no one moves, ever.
  3. That street names and addresses are never used to give directions.
  4. That rivers are a viable means of traveling from house to house.
  5. That most everyone has an orchard and a river running through their land behind their house, even if they cannot yet afford a squat toilet or a roof made of something more permanent than coconut leaves.
  6. That everything that I would normally consider to be garbage can be either repaired, re-used, or fed to the chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, cows and dogs in the backyard.
  7. That there are more than just two or three types of coconuts, mangos, durians and pomelos. Many, many more.
  8. That most people can tell, as casual knowledge, when a papaya will ripen, how  to pluck a duck, and if a mai tree will bloom in time for Tết.
  9. That there are more Vietnamese words for “rice” than I may ever be able to learn.
  10. That your parents, upon coming back to where they were born and raised after 30 years away, won’t ever look quite the same to you.

And lastly, on the flip side, there have also been behaviors and assumptions that I’ve never questioned as a part of my Vietnamese culture and upbringing, so the following is a list of the most common things that I take for granted in Việt Nam, but which I understand may come as a surprise to foreign visitors:

  1. That in the Vietnamese language, “you” and “I” cannot be said without knowing how old the person is in relation to you or what your familial relationship is. This is the reason you will be asked, within the first minute of speaking to someone, how old you are. If you are not asked, it’s because they already know.
  2. Additionally, “hello” and “thank you” and any other address to another person requires the use of “you” and hence the knowledge of how old they are in relation to you or what your familial relationship is.
  3. That the question, “When’s your birthday?” is actually asking for your birth year and answered by giving your zodiac animal.
  4. That Vietnamese is a tonal language, so that any slight inflection up, down, up and down, or down and up will mean the phrase Cai nay la bao nhieu could translate to “How much is this?” or “Jailkeeper, now shout ‘bag’ a lot!” Seriously.
  5. That you will be asked, by friends and strangers alike, how much money you make and how much you pay for rent, expenses, and that shirt you just bought. Likewise, you are expected to ask the same of others, which is how you will learn what fair prices are for meals, clothes, groceries, rent, and that shirt you just bought. (Essential when dealing with #9 from List 1.)
  6. That people you’ve just met will say, with great affection and frankness, “You are too fat (or skinny or short or dark-skinned).”
  7. That Heineken is the beer brand of choice for the Vietnamese communities in both Vietnam and the U.S.
  8. That politeness includes taking your shoes off at the door, offering tea with two hands, and waiting for the oldest adult to begin eating before you do.
  9. That families will reunite each year in recognition of the anniversary of their deceased grandparents, but will not celebrate birthdays.
  10. That you will honor your ancestors, and through them, your roots, by an offering of food and drinks. You will call them home on a waft of incense smoke, and it will taste both familiar and strange, and in this way, you will know you’re also coming home.

— Nhu Tien Lu

Nhu Tien Lu earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and an MA in Social Documentation from UC Santa Cruz. Born into the year of the roaming horse, she has lived in 3 countries and 6 states thus far, and has worked in the fields of domestic violence, racial justice, and human trafficking. She likes to call herself a writer and social justice activist, but doesn’t really believe it yet. She is inspired by those who keep their hearts in their mouths, by her truly activist and artistic colleagues, and by writers who write through the darkness.

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Dinh Q. Lê’s ‘Erasure’ Opens in Australia

Acclaimed artist Dinh Q. Lê, the first Vietnamese name to have a solo show at Museum of Modern Art in New York, is well-known as a fine arts photographer whose woven photographs interlace history and memory in a visually complex and emotionally compelling way. Yet for his powerful statements and meditations he uses not only photographs but sculpture, installation, and video— for example, The Farmers and the Helicopters, among many other projects.

Here diaCRITICS contributor BoiTran Huynh-Beattie — a researcher, curator and art historian in Australia — reviews Lê’s first solo show in Australia, Erasure. By chance, the exhibit occurs just as Australia is revisiting its relationship to the many ‘boat people’ who have emigrated from Việt Nam. Compellingly, the exhibit also gestures to Australia’s history of ‘boat people’ immigrants from Europe, who colonized Australia. And photographs, again, play a significant part in the meaning of the show. We truly wish we could be in Sydney for this!

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On entering the installation, the DVD projection of a burning sailing vessel flickering on a huge screen immediately grabs the viewer’s attention. A timber path meanders through the dimly lit space, above thousands of abandoned photographs scattered face down on the floor forming a ‘sea’. On top of this sea of photographs floats an old wooden fishing boat, broken in half among some rocks. The viewer must stroll along this path, intuitively avoiding the sea but there’s no fear or panic, just an uncanny silence from the lost identities in the photographs. The viewer’s curiosity is aroused to pick up and turn over some photographs; and in doing so, participate in an interactive component of the project.

In Erasure, Dinh strings many of Australia’s political issues into his own personal history. The video of a burning nineteenth century vessel refers to European settlement in Australia; prompting the notion that Australia’s colonial history and the arrival of migrating Europeans as “boat people”. The wreckage of a small fishing boat lends reference to the tragedy off Christmas Island in December 2010, evoking memories of a familiar nightmare for many Vietnamese boat people in their exodus between 1975-1990. As a boat person, Dinh has been searching for his family’s photographs because they could not be carried during their escape. However, he has failed to find any and instead, has purchased thousands of abandoned photographs, from second hand shops in Ho Chi Minh City, which in his words to Margaret Throsby, “became my surrogate family.” These many thousands of forsaken photographs and their chaotic appearance in this installation represent the lives of refugees who perished at sea during their desperate journey to freedom.

Erasure is Dinh Q. Lê’s first solo show in Australia, and was commissioned by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF). When Gene Sherman, Chairperson and Executive Director of SCAF met with Dinh two years ago at San-Art independent artist space in Ho Chi Minh City, she did not think that the opening of Erasure in July 2011 would coincide with the interminable refugee debate that rages in Australia. In June 2011, SBS Television put to air a three-episode documentary, Go back to where you came from in which six ordinary Australians embarked on a 25 days journey, to experience something of what refugees and asylum seekers have to go through. The documentary put these Australians into refugees’ shoes and widely opened a gate for more compassion. The book launch of Boat People two days before the opening of Erasure was also a good connection to the theme.

Dinh Q. Lê and Dr. Gene Sherman, the founder and Executive Director of Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation

The smartly designed catalogue is small but has a wealth of information, with a preface by Gene Sherman, outlining her own family’s migration from Apartheid and her artistic interest in the establishment of SCAF. The interview with Dinh Q Lê by Dolla S. Merrillees, General Manager and Artistic and Educational programs of SCAF answered many questions about Dinh Q Lê and his art practice. An essay in the catalogue by Zoe Butt says it all, about the political circumstances involved with Australia’s “inherited historical phobia of the ‘Other’”, about the ugliness of forced migration as an inevitable consequence of world wars, and about the mapping of collective memories that had already faded into the past.

Viewers who expect to see colourful and exciting images might be disappointed with Erasure. Instead, this installation poses the question again and again, whose “happy moments” in those abandoned photographs, which would take onlookers to phantom the ‘Other’s’ lives. Dinh’s works always reserve space for the audience; everyone can find him or herself in his works. The artist conceptually interlaces various layers of historical accounts with social and current issues, such as migration, consumerism, and collective identities.

Dinh’s works have never been shown in Vietnam. However, he said during his recent discussion with Margaret Throsby, “Sàn-Art independent artist space is part of my work”.

The audience for 'Erasure,' in Sydney, on July 12

— Dr. Boitran Huynh-Beattie has worked with the Australian National University, Melbourne University, and the University of Wollongong on different projects related to Vietnam’s Diaspora since 2005. She is also an independent curator and art researcher. She was the project curator of Nam Bang! at Casula Powerhouse 2007-2009.

More about the artist 

Dinh Q Lê was born in Hà Tiên in 1968. His family escaped by boat and then settled in 1989 in the US where Dinh completed his education; he obtained MA in photography at School of Visual Arts, New York in 1993.  Dinh Q Lê  has been included in most prestigious biennales and triennials around the globe, to name a few: the Bienale Cuvée in Austria in 2009, the 2nd Singapore Biennale in 2008; the 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia and the 6th Gwangju Biennial in 2006; the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003.  Dinh Q Lê  is the first Vietnamese name to have a solo show at Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2010. He is the co-founder of The Vietnam Foundation for the Arts in Los Angeles and Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City. For his work and efforts in cultural programs, he was awarded the Prince Claus Award in 2010.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Have you ever seen Dinh Q Lê’s work? What did you think? What is your favorite depiction of the Vietnamese boat refugee experience? Anything to recommend, in any form?

Poor Richard’s Rise

Linh Dinh argues that it’s time for the United States to be a real democracy again and not a warmongering global superpower. He’s one of our most provocative Vietnamese diasporic writers, and diaCRITICS is not only about what happens in Viet Nam or in the Vietnamese diaspora. diaCRITICS is also about what Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic writers and artists think about their world.

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Linh Dinh

July 4th, I wandered down to Independence Hall. There were soldiers in dress and battle uniforms, a high school marching band, many beefy bikers and a handful of svelte beauty queens, including Miss America, Teresa Scanlan. In front of the National Museum of American Jewish History, more than thirty Falun Dafa drummers, all female, performed a measured dance. Nearby, Sri Chinmoy followers sat under a portrait of their God stand-in, with these words emblazoned on their float:

America, America, America!
Great you are, good you are,
Brave you are, kind you are.
O my America, America,
Your Heaven-Freedom
Is earth’s aspiration-choice.
With you, in you
Is God-Hour’s Victory-Voice 

I saw a fake, many gunned Navy ship and, in front of the Library Company of Philadelphia, a real armored personnel carrier. Over a gorgeous transom, a marble Ben Franklin stood, draped in a toga, but no one gave this eminently sensible man a gander. Native or foreign, everyone was more interested in climbing inside the ass kicking killer transporter for a souvenir photo.

Armored Personnel Carrier

Seen often these days in civilian contexts, on streets, in ballparks and malls, soldiers and military hardware are there to remind us that we are in many wars at once, or, rather, we’re in one open-ended, bankrupting yet somehow necessary mother-of-all-wars, because the enemy is always near. That terrorist could be standing next to you, or maybe he’s you, buddy! That’s why the government must shove its hands into your hair and down your panties, brief or Depend adult diaper. Got a problem with that? Tough shit.

Half a block away, I ran into another Ben Franklin. Standing next to a faux Betsy Ross, this impersonator was being interviewed by a television crew. In an increasingly fake America, where even wood pulp has become an ingredient in pancakes, muffins, salad dressings and fish filets, it’s appropriate that an imposter should dish up mcnuggets of jive wisdom to an audience of post literates.

Ben Franklin being interviewed

What would the real Franklin make of our horrible mess? You can’t say he didn’t warn us. Poor Richard, “Buy what thou hast no need of, and ere long thou shalt sell thy necessaries.” Since over half of our tax revenues goes to service wars past and present, America is worse than broke. Unable to pay her bills or maintain basic infrastructures, she’s leasing her freeways and parking meters to foreigners.

She may even invite China to build a 50-square-mile “technology zone” in Idaho. As Lt. Gov. Brad Little explains, “Idaho’s the last state that should say we don’t want to do business with Asia. Asia’s where the money is.” According to the Idaho Statesman, this complex will be a “fully contained city with all services included,” and the Chinese are attracted by Idaho’s “low cost for doing business,” and “because of the lack of infrastructure here, which means it has more opportunity.” You read that right, an American state is now pitching itself as underdeveloped, cheap and ready for foreign capital and expertise. By selling us everything, including pre-infected, spy ready computers, China has so many of our depreciating dollars, it might as well buy itself a private Idaho. Of course, this will be spun as a great opportunity. As Indigent Dick already warned, “The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.”

As I write this, Obama and the Republicans are still haggling over whether to tax our wealthiest just a tad more, or to starve and shortchange the rest of us even worse, but what’s not being discussed is America’s monstrous war budget, though this is the main cause of our national bankruptcy, actual and moral. Since endless war fattens our richest, America will continue to commit mass murders on a vast scale, even as she destroys herself in the process.

Americans are planning two mass protests in Washington DC against the military industrial complex. One, Seize DC, will start on September 11th, and the other, organized by, will start on October 6th, the anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. Unlike all recent American protests, which tend to be no more than sign waving parades lasting but a few hours, weather permitting, these two protests are meant to go on until the authorities yield to their demands. As articulates, “We will NONVIOLENTLY resist the corporate machine by occupying Freedom Plaza until our resources are invested in human needs and environmental protection instead of war and exploitation.”

A precedent comes to mind. In 1932, destitute World War I veterans and their families descended on Washington to demand an early payment, roughly $1,000 per soldier, of a promised bonus. Estimated between 20,000 and 40,000 people, they lived in abandoned buildings, tents and shacks for nearly three months until routed by federal troops. Four marchers were killed and over 1,000 injured. Though these Americans had no radical aims, though they didn’t seek to change or even upset the system, their government responded to their pitiful plea with deadly violence. Four years later, however, the veterans’ demand was met after a similar protest.

A more radical protest was mounted the Poor People Campaign in 1968. According to Marion Wright Edelman, it was Robert Kennedy who had come up with the idea, “I had been working with Robert Kennedy on poverty in Mississippi, and he told me to tell Dr. King to bring the poor to Washington. To make them visible.” Though King organized it, he never saw it to fruition, for he was assassinated a month before Resurrection City was erected in early May on the Washington Mall. On June 5th, Robert Kennedy was also assassinated, then on June 24th, federal bulldozers wiped out this encampment of 5,000 people. Mission accomplished! Who says the United States is not decisive when it comes to dealing with “trouble makers”?

With an “economic bill of rights,” these protestors’ central demand was a $30-billion anti-poverty program. Like many Americans of today, they simply wanted less money for death, more for life, but of course, such a silly sentiment from a pack of nobodies could not be taken seriously by the Washington masters of wars.

Washington DC makes absolutely nothing yet eats up everything. With its career politicians, lawyers and lobbyists lurking in every corner, Washington DC has to be, by far, the biggest magnet for crooks, bullies, asskissers and shameless liars in the entire country. Wouldn’t it be perfect if Washington was granted not state but nationhood, so it could be independent from the rest of us? Imagine your life without Bush, Cheney, Rice, Obama, Pelosi and Clinton, etc, inside your wallet, head and pants, and on you back constantly! Elections would not be so pointless as they are now, for Americans could exile their very worst to that squarish lump of land inside the Beltway! Washington DC, where America purges.

Minus that fantasy, our future is indeed grim. Washington DC will likely ignore the upcoming protestors until they voluntarily disperse, but if enough Americans show up and stay to become an eyesore and a nuisance to business as usual, cops and soldiers will come to evict them, without any concessions made whatsoever, but what are these protestors’ demands, exactly? Would they be satisfied if Washington promised to withdraw all American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, or are they demanding more, much more? (I’m evoking the promise, not the actual withdrawal, which would take months.) And what does it mean to say that protestors will occupy Freedom Plaza “until our resources are invested in human needs and environmental protection instead of war and exploitation”? Would the pledge of such a shift be enough to disperse them, or will these protestors stay until actual laws—which, and how many, exactly?—are signed? Compared to the Poor People Campaign, the aims of these upcoming protests are not as clearly articulated, not yet anyway, but perhaps these will come into better focus, soon.

But asking the right questions is still much easier than getting any answers, even wrong ones. We will be reminded, yet again, that the moneyed interest won’t yield us an inch without a savage struggle. They have all the funds and guns. We have our disunity.

For a glimmer of hope, one can perhaps look to Thailand. After seeing their elected leader ousted and their political parties repeatedly banned, the red shirts staged protest after protest and suffered many casualties, nearly a hundred dead in 2010 alone. That year, at least 25,000 of them occupied Bangkok’s central shopping district for six weeks, until the Army came and blasted them away, but before fleeing, they exacted revenge by burning Asia’s biggest shopping center and the stock exchange. Persisting, these red shirts finally gained victory when their candidate, Yingluck Shinawatra, became elected as prime minister.

The red shirts became a force because they dared to disrupt the normalcy of a very corrupt and vicious system. Americans will undoubtedly have to do the same. The stakes and risks are already high.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What do you think of Linh Dinh’s argument? What is your opinion of the State of the American Union?

Deep Space in Comic Book Artist John Pham’s Sublife 1 and 2

How out there can we get? diaCRITIC Jade Hidle introduces us to more Vietnamese American graphic novels, this time, John Pham’s Sublife and its various adventures in outer space, an overcrowded apartment, and with a racist Mr. MacDonald . . . or shall we say non-adventures?  See what this kind of Sublife means, read on!

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With San Diego’s Comic Con, the largest annual event in the comic book world, just around the corner, I would like to dedicate my next couple of posts to spotlighting Vietnamese American comic book artists and writers. For this installment, I focus on John Pham, 2010 Ignatz Awards Outstanding Artist Nominee, and his two-volume work, Sublife. In these books, Pham does not fulfill the standard expectation of Vietnamese American artists to tell autobiographical stories centered on the war, but, rather, presents off-beat depictions of encounters of various natures.

The Cover of Sublife, Volume 1. Image from

Released in 2008, the first volume of Sublife is bookended by one-page glimpses into the journey of two astronauts, Captain Joe Ho and Commander Dave Wallach, who have lost their course and, during their efforts to find their way back home to Earth, encounter an alien creature named Deek. With its alien encounters and threats of impending space dementia, “Deep Space” initially seems a nod to traditional comic book narrative. It is, however, marked by Pham’s sense of humor in bluntly depicting the mundane nature of everyday life, even in the expectedly exciting world of outer space. Wallach’s daily activities on the spaceship, for instance, include, at 1600 hours, “Masturbat[ing] to memory of Capt. Ho’s Wife’s Picture.” And the first words he and the Captain teach Deek are “shit” and “fuck.”

A Scene from "Deep Space." Image from

Though occasionally interspersed with imaginative, abstract dream sequences, the meat of Sublife likewise focuses on the mundane. The consistent two-tone blue and peach color scheme across panels that follow the traditional left-to-right, horizontal panel orientation reinforce the simplicity of the stories and Pham’s understated style and tone. From panel to panel, Pham measures the progression of time to create a sense of quiet. The opening twelve panels, for instance, depict the same parked car, only zooming in every few panels to better catch the expression of the cat who drowses beneath the vehicle. It is this slow and steady use of space and time within the comic book form that Pham is able to craft the sense that something is about to happen, but, to the end of capturing the often uneventful character of everyday life, we mostly get to see what occurs before the climax, however insignificant these moments may seem.

This commitment to the d’habitude is certainly nothing new. After all, countless stories, novels, films, and TV shows (cue the quirky beat of the Seinfeld theme song) are about, well, nothing. But, given that the comic book genre has been dominated by narratives chock full of superheroic feats and supernatural (or super-scientific) phenomena, it is notable that Pham contributes to a fairly recent shift (especially in the past 15 years or so) in comics to narrate the real and the ordinary.

In doing so, such texts rely on strong character development to carry the narratives, and I must say that the first volume of Sublife is lacking in this department. The strip entitled “221 Sycamore Street” follows four housemates. Mildred Lee is always late, in debt, and in serious need of concealer. Endowed with a keen olfactory sense, Vrej Sarkissian struggles to take out the trash, and he is revising his online dating profile. Hubie Winters is depicted alone in most of the panels, showing the isolation of his being a worn-out, disrespected teacher. The housemate who tethers all of these quirky yet fairly dull characters together is Terence, a non-speaking figure who looks as though he is draped in a tight-fitting sheet from head to ankle. He looks like a finger (or an unfortunately slim phallus) with sneakers.

Yet, Terence is the most compelling of the characters. He is silent and passive in that he receives action—Mildred steals from him to pay her debts, Vrej solicits his help to revise his dating profile, and Hubie complains about his students at him. Despite his being a voiceless figure through which other characters’ stories are articulated, Terence dreams.

Part of Terence's Dream. Image from

His dreams transcend the mundane. A world of abstract dislocation and displacements, Terence’s dreams demonstrate more of Pham’s creativity. In the dream sequence, his drawings of a walking hand with a face, a legless and levitating Hubie, and dogs and cats that are enormously overgrown balls of fur are odd, yet somehow a bit comforting in their childlike vision. I wanted to see more of this Terence’s mind.

Oddly enough, the most engaging character in the whole book is Mr. MacDonald, an elderly white man who rants about how “savage,” “lunatic” minorities are reducing his “Aryan” brothers to beggars, works on a manuscript of his manifesto discussing the “horrors of miscegenation,” and buys a puppy for his skinhead live-in partner to train to “kill niggers.” Of course, this explicitly racist rhetoric that MacDonald spits is disturbingly real, but Pham’s portrayal of his character within the mundane world he has created makes you want to laugh—not at the racist remarks, but at how Pham undermines that very discourse by showing these white supremacists in the context of the everyday ins and outs of their domestic partnership.

A glimpse of MacDonald's racism. Image from

With the dog in training and MacDonald’s teenaged nephew Phineas coming to live in the house, I was looking forward to the second volume to see what impending disaster would transpire for these racists whose rhetoric is so loathsome it’s humorous.  In other words, while I’m not ordinarily a plot-craving sort of reader, Pham’s work made we want things to happen to his characters to see what they’re made of because, though they seem to have potential, they fall rather flat.

The Cover of Sublife 2. Image from

Sublife, Volume 2 didn’t deliver on that count, as the MacDonalds’ portion of the narrative is quite short and uneventful, not offering anything beyond what was covered in the first volume. Nominated last year at the Ignatz Awards for Outstanding Comic, the second installment in Pham’s Sublife series does, however, flesh out the astronaut characters from “Deep Space” and has a cliffhanger ending. The time and space warp they enact in an effort to speed up their journey back home impacts them internally and physically, as Pham writes, “The click, and then the bending and folding of everything […] and then recollections and emotions taking tactile, round forms.” This is where Pham’s artistic abilities are exhibited in a way that wasn’t showcased in Volume 1. Even though he sticks to the two-tone color scheme, he plays with shapes and panel size and orientation that urges the reader to open up his/her understanding and practice of what reading and viewing a comic means, even incorporating an interactive page-folding exercise.

The Captain's Time and Space Warp. Image from

In addition to playing with space and time in the formal qualities of the book, Pham also creates emotional resonance through his inclusion of memories and images that echo yet repeat with a difference—an uncanny effect. Captain Ho fondly remembers a camping trip with his family in the desert, and the barren landscape recurs but in an altogether dissonant context  in the closing Mad Max-esque strip that plays with shading in an eerie way, depicting sexual violence, car crashes, and decapitations that most definitely depart from the mundane and domestic scenes from the first volume.

Pham also includes a short strip called “St. Ambrose,” a two-page  autobiographical narrative, that revisits his Catholic school days in Los Angeles in the mid-eighties. Here, memories are depicted in panels shaped as sharp triangles, fragments, pointing to another kind of violence—that of growing up, of remembering childhood and wanting to go back but not being able to. This more personal interjection may seem out of place, yet I think it fits in nicely with the larger thematic commonality of attempting to bend space and time to find one’s way back home, wherever or whenever that may be.

Whereas I found the first volume of Sublife to be lacking, its follow-up is a more satisfying read in that Pham offers traces of hazy yet meaningful connections between its seemingly unrelated narratives, with more visually striking images to draw readers in. It will be interesting to see if Pham follows up with a third volume or does something different.

And stay tuned for my upcoming review of Level Up, the new graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, the creator of the critically acclaimed, Eisner Award-winning American Born Chinese, featuring artwork by Vietnamese American artist Thien Pham.

-Jade Hidle

Jade Hidle is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Literature at UC San Diego. She aims to write her dissertation on Vietnamese-American literature, with a focus on how narrative structures map struggles of the body–miscegenation, disfigurement, skin color–and identity.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What do you think about Sublife in comparison with other Vietnamese American graphic novels, such as GB Tran’s Vietnamerica? What are your thoughts on the everyday and the mundane? Too boring or something quite worthwhile?

The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly: Michelle Ton Reviews Three Films

In descending order, diaCRITIC Michelle Ton reviews three films shown at the 5th Biennial Vietnamese International Film Festival during April 2011 in Orange County and at UCLA. Borrowing the title of the 1966 Italian epic spaghetti western film directed by Sergio Leone, she is generous with her praise and brutally honest with her criticism as she lays out one example each of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Spoiler alert!

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

Yikes. A solid 4 months have gone by and I’m just now reviewing some of the films I was able to see at the 5th Biennial Vietnamese International Film Festival. My lack of timeliness can partly be chalked up to being consumed with preparing for my Master’s Comprehensive Exams, but mostly to spending time contemplating how to review some of these films in a constructive fashion (i.e. how to rephrase “It sucked and I can’t believe I drove all the way down from Los Angeles during rush hour for this.”).

A worthy exercise, indeed. Let’s begin on a high note, though, shall we?

The Good — Antoine

Laura Bari, Canada, 2010

Documentaries are hard to make. Actually, good documentaries are hard to make. Anyone can make a boring doc with tinkly piano music, and many do. Documentary filmmaking is wholly difficult in that it’s a constant juggling act of how to be educational (Latin root word for documentary is “docere” or “to teach”), how to be ethical towards subjects, and most of all, how to be entertaining for viewers. The appeal and power of a documentary lies in its eloquence in serving not just a social purpose, but an aesthetic one as well, which is why many fail when they take themselves to the task.  Prima facie, a documentary concerning the life of a visually impaired little boy is a subject that has the dangerous potential to evoke a staggering amount of thematic contrivances and tacky aesthetics; the tearful talking-heads. The hand-me-down triumphing over adversity discourse. The calculated but entirely predictable dramatic musical cues that beckon our tear ducts for a release, all in service to remind us of our humanity, for making us feel good about feeling bad.

But, this is not the case with Montreal-based filmmaker, Laura Bari, and her documentary Antoine.

It is indeed a film about a boy who’s been blind since birth, but Bari’s treatment of the subject is all at once one of the most engaging, inventive forms of blurring the boundaries of fiction and reality in documentaries to date.

5-year-old Antoine Hoang spends part of his time as a gum shoe, driving around town in search for clues about a one Madame Rouski’s whereabouts who has melted into the water, according to one of her voicemails she leaves on Antoine’s mobile. And it’s up to Antoine with the aid of his two lovely assistants, Maelle and Julietta, to solve this mystery once and for all. When he’s not playing detective with his classmates, Antoine spends this time going to school, painting, reading, playing, and learning Braille reading and typing techniques.

Antoine and his playmate/assistant, Julietta

Safe to say, it is not Antoine’s handicap that distinguishes him from his classmates, but his highly active and wondrous imagination and creativity. From the opening scene, you immediately recognize him to have a spirit and a mind unlike other children. Bari begins her documentary with an opening shot of Antoine hunched over his Braille typewriter, the blinds are closed and the room is bare except for Antoine and said typewriter. He begins to furiously tap away, creating a list of his “memories and non-memories.” In hushed voice-over, Antoine whispers to us: “I remember when I was in my mother’s belly and I remember when I was in the incubator as well.”

His non-memories? “What the incubator was made of…my retina detaching…my eyes ending up at my fingertips, my ears, my nose, my mouth. Since that day, I’ve been searching for the thread that connects my ideas.”

The documentary can’t help but be special as Antoine himself is very special. However, credit must be given to Bari and her talent for deft editing, film composition, and technical orchestrations of illusions to access and simulate Antoine’s unique perspective. Antoine’s inflections, gestures, and behavior are poetically observed and is all at once poignant, charming, and illuminative. Inspired by his imagination, Bari recreates a compelling, engaging reality using the elements of Antoine’s invention.

The Bad — Saigon Electric

Stephane Gauger, Vietnam/USA, 2011

Kind of like all those other terrible dance films, but this one has ribbons. And not that much dancing actually.

Awww. Mai wants to be a ribbon dancer and make her mama proud. The girl is in her teens, working class, and she’s strong-willed. She’s all alone in Saigon, but she’s got a dream, folks.

BUT, she has problems: her ribbon dancing ain’t all that great, so instead of training and practicing, she bides her time until her next audition by hanging out with misfit locals with their own big dreams and mediocre hip hop moves.

But oh no. The rec center where they hang out and practice their lackluster dancing has plans of being demolished by real estate developers. Luckily for them, a curmudgeon old man with an unlikely heart of gold steps in and purchases the property, saving it from destruction. In the end, our intrepid hip hop troupe, “Saigon Fresh” compete against Hanoi’s “North Killaz” in a hip hop dance competition and THIS time the South prevails! Not only that, Mai goes on that second audition of hers and totally aces her ribbon dancing routine.


Trite or preposterous devices (ribbon dancing? Really?), leaden acting, and clunktastic dialogue are acceptable in a dance movie, but bad choreography is not, and it’s during the dance scenes that Saigon Electric fails. The style here is neither fun or fresh. In the battle sequences, rival dance crews borrow elements from stepping, break dancing, and popping. The problem is that the routine is amateurish, underwhelming, and poorly conceived.

I am not impressed

All dance movies end the same way, with a training montage that builds toward the final dance-off that will secure our hero a win at said dance-off or prize money for med school or the like, or the grudging respect of the admissions officers at the exclusive ballet academy. The trick is to show enough of the training process so we can understand what our protagonist is learning, but not so much that the audience isn’t surprised and impressed by the brilliance of the resulting number. The dance sequences in Saigon Electric shirk this time-honored storytelling.

But then again, the film’s director Stephane Gauger has claimed that Saigon Electric is less a dance movie, and more so a drama.

Well, in that case: Saigon Electric is a tiresome, platinum-hearted movie with an uninspired inspirational message. Life is simple for the courageous. Our poor little girl wins in the end because she sticks to her principles and is true to her vision—yes, she is really going to become a ribbon dancer. She’s been dancing every night in her dreams, so who needs practice? How tender she is, how dewy-eyed, and passionate. Saigon Electric is all about underdogs and dance realism—where poor kids use dance to gain a foothold in a world that seems to bear some relation to our own.

My tub of popcorn had more depth.

The Ugly — Don’t Look Back

Nguyen-Vo Minh,Vietnam, 2010

Don’t Look Back is a half-baked, underachieving little movie that stands out for its egregious shoddiness, ludicrous plot, and objectionable acting/writing.

During a press conference, director Nguyen-Vo Minh (whose first feature was the yawn-inducing 2004 movie Buffalo Boy) stated that Don’t Look Back is his “commercial film” where he used it to “experiment” with this “genre.”

And what genre would that be exactly, I wonder?  The “hideously bad, Art-aspiring, incompetent filmmaking” genre?

Several months ago, I wrote a diaCRITICS piece praising James Nguyen’s F grade film Birdemic for its epically bad filmmaking executions. I praised James Nguyen for the film’s many, MANY (but memorable) imperfections; I praised him for his cinematic ignorance; I praised him for his sincerity. Everything about Birdemic was bad. And everything about Don’t Look Back is bad. And yet, why are my sentiments about each movie so vastly different?

Simple. It’s because Birdemic turned out to be a fun, campy, cult-classic kind of bad movie, whereas Don’t Look Back has a miscalculated, desperate solemnity feel to it, and is too ineptly artsy and too unpleasant to be laughed off. In this case, a director’s sincerity actually works against him.

Don’t Look Back is inspired by the Greek mythology of Orpheus and the death of his wife, Eurydice, where after being allowed to bring her back from the Underworld, violates the condition of not looking back as he walks in front her during their journey back to earth. (She ends up disappearing for all eternity this time.)

Nguyen-Vo’s film tells the story of an aspiring modern dancer (sigh) who wins the heart of some two-bit saxophonist with a conspicuous cut-rate toupee. They inspire one another in their respective arts—her dancing to his saxophone playing—which make for some cringe-worthy, exasperating, WTH? moments in the movie.

But before they get to really revel in this romantic affair, she discovers that he’s a ghost and the nightclub where he plays at is actually a meeting place for the dead who get to return from the beyond thanks to the evil, capitalist proprietors (such moustache-twirlers) who are able to somehow facilitate their return back into the world. All for a monetary price, of course.

Club of the Dead

Anyway, blah blah blah, saxophone ghost dude is disappearing back into the great beyond and disappears even faster when his girlfriend looks back him. Or something like that. I don’t know. My memory is a little fuzzy either because it’s been so long since I’ve initially seen the movie or perhaps that I didn’t retain anything from this movie for reasons that have already been discussed.

Such a vast, colossal, redeem-less wasteland is this Don’t Look Back.

Did I also mention there’s modern dancing in this film? Awful.

— Michelle Ton is a Eugene V. Cota-Robles Fellow in the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media at UCLA. She lives and works in Los Angeles.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What is your favorite film centering the Vietnamese experience, or made by a Vietnamese filmmaker in Vietnam or the diaspora? Anything to recommend, in any genre?

diaCRITICS needs help from photographers and photo editors

diaCRITICS is undergoing a major redesign. The redesign itself is almost done, but the problem is that the new website will require that each post have two images, and that these images be sized precisely. So we at diaCRITICS will need to go back to each of our nearly 200 posts and make those edits. This is beyond the skills and energy of the diaCRITICS editors!

The new diaCRITICS icon that will appear in all posts without their own original images, courtesy of the great DVAN designer VIet Le.

So we need some volunteers who know how to do digitally resize images (and have the software to do it) to help us get this redesign done in a timely fashion. If you know how to do this, please contact us via the contact us page. It would be great if we can finish the redesign by the end of the summer, and all volunteers will be acknowledged for their work.