October 9, 2010

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Series Review: Some Thoughts on Scott Pilgrim

Written by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Illustrated by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Oni Press

In honor of the final book coming out and also the (sadly under-appreciated) movie, I opted to re-read the entire Scott Pilgrim series a little while ago, finishing it off by reading the final book in the series.

I'd read the first three books in 2007 (review of vol 1, review of vol 2, review of vol 3) and books four and five in 2009. I'm not a person that generally re-reads that often, but this was a chance to see how the series worked as an overall concept, and not just in pieces.

Overall, I'd have to say I liked the movie a bit better, especially as the series progresses. There's general madcap insanity on display in the first few volumes, with Scott living out his life in a world heavily influenced by video games and other parts of geek culture and slacker 20-somethingness that I can appreciate, even if I never lived it myself when I was in my 20s. Scott isn't a good person, but you can relate to him. His over-the-top adventures distract you from the fact that at heart a total loser that tends to be bad to the people around him, especially the women.

As the series progresses, however, Scott starts to look within himself, and it frankly bogs the books down. There are still crazy adventures with the exes, but as the title moves more into a relationship comic, with more real feelings being tossed around, Scott's actions are more glaring and his dealings with the women in his life in particular look boorish rather than the cute mistakes of a loser.

By both the end of the book and the movie, Scott is not a person you can sympathize with, but at least in the movie, it feels like he's learned his lesson. I'm not sure you can say that about the Scott in the book.

In addition, the movie script keeps the zaniness and impossible fight scenes going, right up to a final climax. Book Six's finale just kind of moves on, leaving all the silliness behind. I think I understand the reasoning behind this--Scott must mature in order to grow--but I can get that in any other relationship comic (and trust me, I read my share). What I liked about the Scott Pilgrim series was that it was a funny storyline using video games and relationships in a way that built from insane battle to insane battle. The further we move away from this idea, the less appeal the series had for me.

This is not to say I didn't like the series, because I did. O'Malley created an awesome world where your enemies could turn into coins, and how could anyone not like that? He uses tricks from manga, without having the book feel like it's a shonen adventure. We get editorial boxes, arrows, things like the pee meter, and other little touches that make the books worth reading for these tricks alone. His settings fit the cast well--small bars for small bands, coffee shops, CD stores, and apartments that change furnishings and residents seemingly at will. Despite the video game elements, we're meant to recognize these dives, and most people who are under 40 should have no trouble doing so easily. O'Malley manages this without even really doing a lot of technical drawing, especially in the first few books, where the art is really raw.

From Niles to Knives to Kim, Scott's supporting cast could easily handle their own books, even if I agree with O'Malley that it's time to give them a rest. Niles' sarcasm and Kim's anger both strike out at the world around them, as well as Scott's actions, giving the reader commentary on the terrible way Scott is leading his life. In fact, Kim is probably the best person in the book,a s the anger hides a personality that really cares for Scott, despite all his faults. She even lies for him, when he is at his most vulnerable.

My only issue with the characters is that because there were so many of them and O'Malley's art skills are not focused on differentiation, it often was difficult for me to keep them apart. I'd have preferred it if he had spent some time giving specific clothing or other way to tell them apart. (Hey, it worked for Peanuts.) The trouble with having such a great supporting cast is that they're a lot more interesting than Scott as we move along. Scott starts shedding the parts of him that make him quirky, as he matures, and that means he increasingly looks like a jerk surrounded by good people who should just leave him to suffer the consequences of his actions. That's not what happens, and it makes it a little hard to swallow the ending.

In the end, I think that may be the biggest fault in the structure of the series. Scott and Ramona are our focal characters, but neither are people you'd want to be around for any length of time. Scott's a two-timer that never pays for being one by losing anything other than some of his youthful ignorance. That's just not enough. Ramona, meanwhile, is the girl we're focusing on, but she's got her own baggage that doesn't lend her to being someone to admire. She can travel at will, but I still feel like she'll use that power to run away, again and again. Both learn to be better people, but I just don't feel like they suffered enough in the process.

Is that asking a bit too much from a comedy? Probably, but by the time we get to book five, there's so little comedy left that I start thinking of the series as being more of a drama, and I'm looking for that fifth act understanding that just never comes, at least for me.

Overall, I really liked Scott Pilgrim, and would definitely recommend both the series and the books to others. I just wish O'Malley had stayed with the loose premise rather than trying to make it more serious. (I wonder if O'Malley's aging as the book moved along had something to do with it.) We all need fun in our lives, and the first four books of Scott Pilgrim were a lot of fun. I'd have loved to see more of that spirit in all six books.

Still, it's impressive that O'Malley found a way to close Scott Pilgrim in a way that actually ends the series. You can read the 6 books and feel like you've gotten a complete story. There's no need to add endless spinoffs and sequels. We've had our look at Scott Pilgrim's life, and now we all move on. And just like real life, things didn't go quite as I think some of us expected. Maybe that was O'Malley's point after all, and if so, he makes that point nicely.

Ultimately, Scott Pilgrim is a snapshot into what it was like to be born somewhere in the Carter-Reagan years, and I think future generations will see it that way. We could all do a lot worse than have O'Malley as our voice.