Reading Scott Pilgrim… (volume one)Posted: November 9, 2008
I think it is obvious to long time readers – are there actually any of these? – that Scott Pilgrim is one of my favorite comic books series. It’s creator, Bryan Lee O’Malley is one someone whose work – beyond Scott Pilgrim – I have been following for sometime and he has yet to let me down. From Lost at Sea to Bear Creek Apartments (done with Hope Larson), O’Malley is a creator who’s work beyond Scott Pilgrim is well worth reading.
Anyway, I’m currently patiently – ha – awaiting the next volume; due out in February. While waiting I’ve been looking for an excuse to re-read the entire series to sort of ‘refresh’ my memory before the next volume hits. Of course, I’m in graduate school right now – and supposed to by reading 3 books a week plus written work – and thus should not be reading non-history stuff.
But then a flash of insight hit me today – I’ll reread Scott Pilgrim for the blog! Thus my slacking has a purpose! Brilliant!
That bring us here: for once a month for the next four months – November, December, January, February, natch – I’ll be reviewing a volume of Scott Pilgrim; cumulating in a review of volumes four and five in February. This is a very ambitious project for me, for as anyone who knows me – as I’m sure Psycholarry will explain, at length, if you wanted him to – I’m not much of a literary critic. But I’ll try anyway because I really do have a lot to say about Scott Pilgrim and I think I have something to contribute to any discussion of the series. The key word in the last sentence is “think” considering how popular SP is – hell, the series was reviewed a couple of times in Entertainment Weekly – I’m venturing into well traveled territory.
Anyway: Onword! Forward!
Reading Scott Pilgrim: (volume one)
Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life begins with a seeming unnerving note, “Scott Pilgrim is dating a high schooler!”. The reader – through Scott’s friends- is immediately invited to judge Scott. It has it be about sex. Why else would a 23 year old date a 17 year old if it wasn’t for the sex?
Scott immediately explains that it’s ‘s not like that at all. The whole thing is completely innocent; “we sort of ride the bus, and she tells me about how yearbook club went, and about her friends and, you know, drama…” Hell, Scott even met Knives – the high schooler in question here – while she was riding the bus with her mom.
Ok, if it is completely innocent then what is a 23 year old doing dating a teenager? Through out the rest of the opening chapters of Precious Little Life, O’Malley goes on to show us that Scott’s going-no-where relationship with Knives is just one of the symptoms of Scott’s arrested development. He’s has no ambition; he’s unemployed, in a crappy band, living in a one bed apartment with his friend Wallace, and living off Wallace’s good graces. He barely owns anything in their place.
While at 23 years of age Scott is nominally an adult – yet he certainly isn’t acting like one. Hell, he doesn’t even want to.
All of this sets up the most subtely important scene in the first volume; when Stacy – Scott’s sister – calls him to playfully chide Scott about his new “relationship”. What is he doing? she asks. Is he finally getting over his ex – who’s dumping him started him in his rut? Scott’s answer – “I’ll let you know, okay?” – says it all.
Of course, all of this changes when Ramona rollerblades into his head.
In that scene between Stacey and Scott, O’Malley establishes the central theme of the series: the journey of Scott Pilgrim from adolescence to adulthood. Figuring out what he wants to do – with his life and his relationship with women. On the surface, Scott Pilgrim is a fun little series that riffs off manga, video games, and indie culture. But between the Mario and Starcraft references and shōnen manga tropes, O’Malley is also playing with deeper themes. Your early twenties is a weird period; you are no longer a teenager – a child – but you’re certainly not an adult. You’re stuck wondering – more or less- what exactly does it mean to be “an adult”? What is “an adult relationship”?
O’Malley takes all of those “serious” questions and wraps them all in a splashy, surreal, fun package with spectacular fights and subspace travel.
It is very easy for me to relate to the characters and events of Scott Pilgrim – despite their surreality. As a 23 year old whose 24th birthday is steadily approaching – not unlike Scott, himself – I see a lot of the characters in myself and my friends. O’Malley captures the idleness, the emotional awkwardness, the feeling of being stuck between gears feeling of one’s early twenties perfectly .
But as I said, the series is about moving through that into something new: adulthood. And that brings us to Ramona.
It is easy to relate to Scott’s initial “obsessive attraction” to Ramona; who hasn’t offhandedly met someone and just been just taken with them in a strange way? You don’t know how, but that person just becomes stuck in your head you just can’t seem to shake them – it is either madness or asking them out. Of course, relatable as all that is – Scott Pilgrim is Scott Pilgrim and there is a surrealist literalness about the initial attraction between Scott and Ramona.
Ramona is the anti-Knives. She’s confident, mysterious, assertive, independent, and worldly – with a history all her own. While Knives represents an innocent but going nowhere adolescent nostalgia for Scott; Ramona represents adulthood with all of its possible pleasures and pitfalls. Knives is a blank slate that Scott has project his own needs on, while Ramona is not; she has her own history that Scott must make his terms with.
That is part of what an adult relationship is: coming to terms with your partner’s history and emotional baggage.
There is an interesting gender element to this; for what Scott Pilgrim really is – for all intents and purposes – American shōnen manga. Thus one would assume that the series would be reveling in male-driven sexuality but that is just not the case. Scott’s dalliance with the stereotypical white male dream – a nubile teenage Asian Catholic school girl – is viewed as stifling. Ramona’s sexuality is out there; confident and assertive. O’Malley never has Ramona apologize for anything. Scott must come to terms with all of this and Ramona’s history. It’s a very interesting and progressive dynamic.
This brings us to the series most flashy metaphor and theme: the fights between Scott and Ramona’s seven evil exes. In reality we all have to deal with our partner’s – and our own – messy history to make a relationship work. The thing about Scott Pilgrim is that he literally gets to punch, kick, and headbutt Ramona’s. In this volume the villain is easy for Scott to overcome – just like how early in a relationship some issues are easily pushed aside. It is simple to put someone your partner dated as a kid behind you. It’s another thing to put to bed people more important to your partner’s history – as we will see in later volumes.
What’s most impressive about this volume is how just how easily – in roughly 120 pages – O’Malley is able to give us the basics of Scott. In volume one, we are given all we need to move forward. Beyond his going nowhere life, we learn that Scott’s a pretty nice guy; earnest, a little stupid, and sort of a jerk but still nice enough. Scott is the sort of flexible, imperfect everyman character that is is easy to build a successful series around. Ill-defined enough to expand upon but fleshed out enough to be relatable.
Knives is another character that O’Malley’s characterization of is very sharp. Knives starts off as a stereotypical school girl but her time with Scott changes her. The journey of Knives is one of the most interesting in O’Malley’s series – but we have to save that discussion for later volumes.
O’Malley put the reader in Scott’s position in relation to Ramona – we have to learn more about her as they continue to date. Yet, O’Malley tells us more than he initially lets on. Check out the body language of Ramona, – especially in the scene were Scott asks her out – it very subtly relates her character. Perhaps she isn’t as secure as she let’s on.
It is shame that in the first volume O’Malley’s characterization of his supporting players – like Kim, Steven Stills, Julie, and Young Neil – is flat. The unique, interesting voices and characterizations that O’Malley gives his supporting characters – which gives the world of his books a very “lived in feel” – is a product of later volumes.
There are always a couple of ways you can take the title of each Scott Pilgrim title. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life works as a video game reference (You’ve only got a few lives left, Scott!), as a positive thing (What an interesting life you’ve got Scott!), or a negative one (What precious life you’ve got, Scott…). Based on my reading of volume one, I’d go for the negative connotation.
While Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life is easily the “crudest” volume – in both art and writing – of the Scott Pilgrim series there is still a lot to it. And I hope I’ve done O’Malley’s work justice.
Come back next month as things start to get complicated for Scott and Ramona, Knives makes some interesting choices, and we discuss the nature of memory in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.