Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe
by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Oni Press 2009
Garrett Martin: Hey, here's the fifth Scott Pilgrim volume, and the first we've talked about. On the surface you'd probably think I love these books, as a comic about video games and indie-rock isn't just up, but basically is my alley. And yes, I do love them, almost unreservedly, but not because of their general concern with things I am obsessed with. Any one who tells a story that deals with dedicated subcultures has to be careful, as the vast majority of media depictions of them, whether its video games, comics, or obscure music, are off-key and horribly embarrassing to those who pursue them in real life. O'Malley, of course, gets it right, and has consistently gotten it right since the very first book. But these trappings are only valuable to the extent that they help the reader understand and relate to the characters, and if O'Malley wasn't so adept at subtle, believable, and genuinely poignant character development, then the Scott Pilgrim series would just be the shallow hipster fluff its critics accuse it of being. Or something. Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe takes the series down a more serious road, focusing less on the fights and game references and more on the doubt and confusion that creeps in when you're in your mid-twenties and realize you don't know what the hell you're doing. But so, what did you think?
Hillary Brown: I was really nervous, but I also tried not to look at anything else before picking it up. I wanted to know as little as possible going in, and this is kind of a rare approach for me, one I only go about with something I truly appreciate and love. I remember that when Hal Hartley's movie Amateur was about to come out in theaters, I avoided all reviews and press coverage, to have a fresh experience. Ditto for Kill Bill, as much as possible. Sometimes you just want to communicate straight-up with the artist's brain, and I wanted the Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe experience to be as close to that as possible. So, yeah, I was really happy to discover that it rewarded my self-denial, and while I had heard "it's darker," it's not so much darker as to be depressing or unbelievable (you know, as realistic as a series about a guy who has to fight and defeat his girlfriend's seven evil ex-boyfriends, often through the use of combat styles that mirror those in video games, can be). It's true to the tone established so far, and while I suppose there's some more growth and sadness in this installment, it's to be expected, penultimate book as it is. Scott's always been kind of a dope, without O'Malley painting him unsympathetically--that is, sometimes there are things he should pick up on that he doesn't, and sometimes there are things that are just mysteries, things that are incredibly difficult to grasp and figure out what path to take with, and O'Malley knows just how to balance those, in much the same way that he knows how to incorporate pop-culture subcultures, as you point out. It's surprisingly delicate work, is what I usually end up thinking, even though it's also fun, fast, and goofy. I've had problems in some of the previous books figuring out what was going on, sometimes, or who a particular character was, but I didn't have any of that this time, and I don't know if I'm dumb and got smarter or O'Malley's smart and dumbed it down or if SP5 is just a little more straightforward.
GM: He definitely didn't dumb anything down, but it's true that this latest volume deemphasizes the action. Most of the fights occur off-page, or in the background, while O'Malley focuses on the supporting characters. I'd think that maybe makes the plot easier to understand, right? Do you sometimes have a problem comprehending action sequences in black-and-white? I guess most b&w comics don't really have action sequences. I know I had to get acclimated when I started reading Marvel Essentials and DC Showcases a few years ago. Of course O'Malley's art is less hampered by the lack of color, as its cleaner and less cluttered than Kirby, Ditko, or Infantino panels, which were laid out and drawn with the addition of color in mind. Um, okay.
What do you think is less realistic, a comic like Scott Pilgrim, in which people behave believably in a largely unrealistic world, or something like Speak of the Devil (or Kill Your Boyfriend), where characters in intentionally mundane and believable environments take extremely unlikely and unexpected turns?
HB: I don't think it's so much the fighting in the previous volume that I had trouble following--more like plot development. But maybe, as you point out, I had trouble with it because of the interfering fights. One of my favorite sections of SP5 is the fight scene at the party that takes place almost entirely in the background, while Kim and Ramona chat on the balcony and get drunk, which kind of exemplifies that the focus of this volume isn't on that kind of action. I don't think I generally have a problem with b/w action or b/w in general, except when it comes to getting characters mixed up because they look kind of similar and I don't have the handy shortcut of remembering, oh yeah, so-and-so's hair is red while this other person's is blond. But that's, you know, my prosopagnosia, and not a fault of the comic, I think. I'm also impatient and lazy, and I like to know who people are right away and am also not inclined to look it up if I don't. All my problems, not this book's. But #5 compensates better for my idiocy and laziness and impatience than some of the other volumes did, if that's a reasonable thing to say.
Okay, so, realism. You know, I consider it so rarely when assessing works and, honestly, if I'm thinking about how realistic something is or isn't, that usually means it's failing as a work of art in some way because it's failing to distract me from that concern. So I haven't thought about it much wrt SP, but I guess I do consider it more realistic in some ways than the two other examples you mention, mostly because the way Scott and his friends laze around, play video games, and kind of act like fuck-ups (but in a nice way) reminds me of people I know, whereas I don't know any psycho killers. I hope. I think part of the reason O'Malley's series has caught on is generational identification, or is that overreaching?
GM: No, that's true. O'Malley does a great job of writing characters that remind me of people I know without making it too Optic Nervy. Meaning it's still fun and breezy even when it's taking care of its dramatic business; it doesn't slip into navel-gazing. Not that the more serious elements in previous volumes felt dashed out or perfunctory, but O'Malley's never dwelled unreasonably on that side of things. It'd be very easy to reduce these characters to a grab-bag of hipster cliches, either as a parody or as a result of a creator trying too hard to make them seem "cool", but it's obvious that O'Malley knows people like this. Dude's well-versed in indie-rock, video games, and pre-responsibility early twentysomething livin'.
The flipside to that is not every reader realizes that Scott Pilgrim is kind of an asshole, I think. Sure, a totally unwitting asshole, and a guy full of good intentions, but a big theme of the series thus far has been Scott fucking people over without realizing it, which, y'know, is kind of assholish. I see people online (I know, I should never listen to people online) talk about how Pilgrim's the coolest guy ever, or whatever, and I'm pretty sure those people just don't get it. I don't want to boil it down to a standard boy-learns-responsibility, becomes-a-man deal, but that's sorta fundamentally what this series is about, right? And until Pilgrim reaches that endpoint, until he stops unintentionally dicking other people around, it'll be shortsighted to consider him a genuinely good or admirable person.
HB: Yes, that's exactly what the series is about, which is part of why it's good. It's an old theme, but learning not to be an asshole is a pretty important part of life, and O'Malley's presented it beautifully so far, without, indeed, preachiness or implying that you have to leave your sense of humor behind when you become an adult. I do get the impression both that there are people who don't think Scott is an asshole and that there are people who think he is, but that it's not intentional on O'Malley's part, and they're both wrong. And also, yeah, you're right that he's an asshole in not such a bad way. He needs to learn to treat other people with more respect, but his assholishness is totally identifiable with. Aren't we all self-absorbed? And I know I've met people a lot of times, sometimes, without remembering who they are, and I know it's not nice and so I vow to do better. It's a process that lasts a lifetime, this Golden Rule thing, and O'Malley's grasp of that--the way he creates these incredibly round and believable characters while not even making you realize what he's doing, half the time--is what makes the series better even than if it were just fun and breezy and accomplished at that. It's why people love it.