Scott Pilgrim

He's going to troll your wife

There is a whole culture of people like me who (mis)spent their youths playing Nintendo games and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These people are now in the age range of 25-30. They are “tastemakers”. There is nothing that they want more than to relive the glory days when their biggest worry was finding a warp whistle to get to world eight without realising that, not having played the majority of the previous seven worlds, they were way behind the learning curve.

Their creative contemporaries aid them in this quest: if I make a reference to Super Mario Bros 1, 2 or 3, then other people in my age group will instinctively “get” it, and we can bask in the glow of the mid-eighties to early-nineties!

Then there are the people slightly younger than that, people who weren’t strictly around for the video games when they were new, but who are into the alleged “8-Bit” aesthetic. They firmly believe that because something is old, it is automatically good. They may not have lived through it, but goddamn them if they’re not going to get into it right now.

Scott Pilgrim was written for both of these demographics by a guy in the first demographic. It’s easy to kind of love Scott Pilgrim, but also equally easy to be baffled and mystified by it. What is it trying to say? Why does it feel like it doesn’t have much substance to it so much of the time, and why does it expose my snobbery? I look at these six volumes and I wonder why they took six years to write.  I know basically nothing about the comic book creative process except that in Japan the authors and artists are chained to their desks and forced to produce a chapter a week.

It’s always going to take you less time to read something than it took the author to write it. Condensing six years of presumably hard work into a few weeks of casual reading is going to alter your perspective of it somewhat.  Scott Pilgrim is a work that appeals to what might be termed the “Jeremy Parish set”. It is through him that I first heard of the book, after all. It is also that sort of semi-obscure faux-joke that characterises the series.

Rather like Toy Story 3 was written for people who were 10 in 1995, Scott Pilgrim was written for people who were 23 in 2004, not for people who are 23 in 2010. The demos are fairly wide, to be sure, but Bryan Lee O’Malley undoubtedly wrote this for Canadian men born of a very specific place and time – how can something be so very “zeitgeist” but so obviously the product of one man’s mind and experience?

One of the major “problems” with Scott Pilgrim, such as it is, can be summarized by presenting the pull-quote from the back cover of the final volume:

Scott Pilgrim is the best book ever. It is the chronicle of our time. With Kung Fu, so, yeah: perfect.”

-Joss Whedon

Yes, Joss Whedon. I frequently get into trouble for criticising the man on the internet. He has done some good work in his time but the cult that has formed around him has always caused me to roll my eyes so hard so many times that I am now intimately familiar with the workings of my own brain.

But that’s enough of a pre-amble. You must click on to find out what I think of this “epic of epic epicness” (oh God, kill me now … that word used to mean something).

Scott Pilgrim is 23 years old.

“Scott Pilgrim is dating a high schooler!”


And he is: Knives Chau (17 years old).  However, in his dreams he is haunted by a girl with roller blades and goggles (goggles!). He is instantly infatuated … and then he finds out she’s a real girl: Ramona Flowers. Scott decides he must drop Knives Chau (17 years old) and pursue Ramona at all costs!

Turns out the cost is that he has to defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends. Yeah, I don’t know either.

Scott Pilgrim is kind of an odd duck. Did you know that they can make comics – indeed, have been for years – that have no elements of the supernatural or sci-fi or the out of the ordinary about them? You can make a comic that is entirely about real life things! It’s like a novel, but with pictures! It’s like a film, but it doesn’t move! It’s like a radio play, but with an image and no sound!

That is not to say there isn’t a place for science fiction or the super natural: point of fact, the genre exists in every form. What I’m saying is that I’m not entirely sure what it’s doing here, in Scott Pilgrim, which functions perfectly well as a story about friendship and relationships without strictly needing the whole “league of evil ex-boyfriends” or “not really ever satisfactorily explained subspace”.

It’s like you take something that stands up pretty well by itself and then you garnish it with weird things that may be good but don’t strictly go with the original material. Each volume features a fight with an evil-ex, and each one of these fights jars with the rest of the text. O’Malley’s economy with pages and action sequences makes every battle seem somewhat anti-climactic; Most of the action in volume five occurs off stage; two battles over the volumes are won through barely any action on Scott’s part at all.

“I need some kind of … like… last minute, poorly-set-up deus ex machina!”

-Scott Pilgrim

O’Malley doesn’t seem to try as hard with the characterisation of new characters as the series progresses: through volume three we at least get a sense of the back stories of the exes; volume four works well enough but has some characters working at cross purposes; volume five doesn’t even attempt to pretend that the twins ever had personalities beyond being Double Dragon (and the set up for an Xbox 360 joke?).

By the time we get to the final evil ex in volume six, the one we should assume is most important, the one foreshadowed since near the very beginning, we’re presented with a confusing jumble. There’s not really a clear line on precisely who and what this ex is supposed to be: he’s an amalgam of weird ideas and an insane plot that seems deliberately in line with the overblown finales so redolent in anime.

So the finale works on two levels: on the first, the stakes are raised high enough and everything becomes dramatic enough for me to enjoy it without worrying; on the other level, it plays too much with the nonsensical high concepts that people in the series have taken for granted. I’ll either have to go back to it or just concede that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

It’s not uncommon for a series to introduce interesting concepts early on and do nothing with them, nor is it strange to build up a sense of intrigue and mystery to the point that nothing can really match up to the potential. Thus subspace comes to nothing and the final evil ex is … what he is.

O’Malley’s art technique gains confidence and finesse as the series progresses, although the sixth volume brings with it two extra artists for backgrounds and crowd scenes. It’s like reading a whole new series because suddenly the rough characters exist in a polished world of clean lines and surgical precision. It doesn’t feel as if something has been lost but it is slightly discordant. The other artistic problem of the whole exercise is that Ramona changes her hair all the time, to the point that it’s frequently impossible to tell that she is Ramona until she is addressed that way.

All of this said, I did quite enjoy Scott Pilgrim on the whole. I know I wouldn’t have been able to stand reading it at the rate of a volume a year, but I am equally cognizant that countless others would use the yearly releases as an excuse to read the whole thing over annually. Indeed, for some people, July 20th 2010 would have been the end of an era. They’ll need something else to look forward to. In this regard, O’Malley is a monster, while someone like George RR Martin, for instance, plans to keep his fan base anticipating his next book for the rest of their natural lives, so as not to rob them of the privilege of desire.

Scott is a fun character, and one I can’t really see Michael Cera playing – especially as Edgar Wright got the idea for casting him from watching Arrested Development. But I’m not here to speak of the impending movie (although, let’s not kid ourselves, we wouldn’t be here right now were it not for the movie). He is manic and everyone loves and hates him in equal measure because he’s lovable but he’s also a shiftless bum who relies on his gay roommate Wallace to keep him alive for most of the series.

It is characters like Wallace, Kim, Stephen Stills and Knives Chau (17 years old) that make Scott Pilgrim worth reading beyond the next potentially lame battle with an evil ex that ends much the same way as the rest of them. It’s a community of people whose lives don’t necessarily revolve around Scott, and that makes them all the more fun to read:

“Scott, if your life had a face I would punch it in the balls.”

-Stephen Stills

O’Malley isn’t afraid to make characters total bitches and label them as such. No one is perfect, least of all Ramona Flowers. She’s almost a non-entity, and kind of deliberately so. She’s the perfect girl in the eyes of Scott and that’s all that matters. When she does get furbished with character traits, they’re almost exclusively flaws. This is fine, as it leads to one of those endings: if the ending of a story touches you in some way, then the author has done at least something right. By the end of Scott Pilgrim, I was touched, flaws and all.

So Scott Pilgrim is a lot of fun but it also seems kind of insubstantial in places. It examines a time in the lives of these characters and there’s not much more to it than that. Does there need to be?  Well, kind of. Bryan Lee O’Malley has achieved something in Scott Pilgrim and has made a lot of people happy. His work isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that I try not to think of the amount of money that I spent on it. I’m no longer quite looking forward to the movie, as it looks paradoxically far cartoonier than the comic ever did – and it’s a comic, for chrissake!

Time will tell with the film, but I’ll definitely be revisiting this comic in the years to come. It is the flawed titles that I enjoy regardless that stick strongest in my mind.

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