Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life
Each medium has its weaknesses. Music, however sublime the piece, can only be experienced through one of five senses. Each subsection of a medium, also has different weaknesses, sometimes due to the constrictions of the format, sometimes due to the definition of how the text is consumed. TV comedies, for all of their brilliant highs, still are remarkably formulaic, and no matter how spectacular the results, the status quo must be kept relatively in tact. Comic books and graphic novels, no matter how mature they have become, regardless of the expansion of what a “comic book” can be about these days, will still be a medium that is catered to the fantasies of young boys and girls (I’m being inclusive here, even though the breakdown is close to 85% boys).
But we still go back to music, even if it can never show us anything through our eyes, because it still resonates like no other art can. Seinfeld may have been a show about famously about “nothing” but every episode still had to feature Jerry and one of the others of the main quartet; yet that didn’t stop it from being the most influential show of the 90’s. And, despite all of the knocks on comic books/manga/graphic novels, I still buy and read them, maybe because the teenager inside of me never went away, maybe because I still hold a large opening in my heart for the basic tenets of the media: stories that contain epic tales about heroes who overcome every possible odd to save the world, that feature leaders that are incorruptible, for women that fall in love with the right guy for the right reasons.
Scott Pilgrim features many of those hallmarks of comic books that have become cliché:
• Underachieving boy with nothing interesting in his life suddenly becomes part of an epic tale of fights, honor, and camaraderie.
• Said boy (who has nothing remarkable about him) finds a dream girl who shows interest in him.
• World of the comic book seems to be based in reality, but in fact has Sci-fi elements to it.
• Fights! Fights! And More Fights! All with awesome action and balanced fighters.
• Boy gets the girl.
If the book didn’t work, it would be just another book to add to the trash pile of rotten examples of wish fulfillment disguised as creative output. Yet, in spite of being almost overripe with some of the biggest platitudes of comics, Scott Pilgrim is one of the best comic series of the new millennia. It features earnest and genuine lead characters with relatable struggles that are easy to like and even easier to root for. The author (both writer and visual artist) Brian Lee O’Malley builds a far out world with subspace travel, punches that knock the victim across the room, and at one point later in the series, killer robots. However, O'Malley manages to balance with this whimsy with humbled origins of the world, making the characters seem less like superheroes and more like friends. This is a rich, truly enjoyable series that even while featuring a slew of traits that exemplifies the inherent weaknesses of comic books; it is a prime example of what a great comic book can embody.
Dustin and I will be splitting the reviews of the installments of the series in anticipation of the release of the sixth and final book: “Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour.” When that tome is released on July 20th, we’ll have a review ready for you. But before then, get ready, get familiar, and then when the trailer for the Edgar Wright directed, Michael Cera starring film shows this summer, you can tell people how it can’t possibly compare to the books.
This series best described as Westernized Manga. The books (with a minor color exception to start book four) are drawn in black and white, are the size of a trade paperback novel, and the characters emote through big, anime style eyes and mouths that change size as the situation calls for.
The series owes much of its visual style to Asian comics, but the writing is much closer to home. Story wise, it’s a loving ode to the life of Indie musicians, Toronto, NES era video games, star crossed romance and being broke and in one’s early twenties. And while many fans of the point out the Indie cred of the series (Scott’s named after a song from Plumtree) as a factor to its hipness and Q factor, it’s the last part of the story element – being broke and in one’s early twenties—that wins over the fans and causes them to pass along their copies to friends. The characters have messy, complicated lives; their jobs can only pay for small apartments and they struggle to cover meals. They worry about infidelity, eviction, and failure to get real jobs just as they deal with super-villains.
The series starts with “Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life” and the title is more of an endearing mockery than an ironic or realistic summation. Scott Pilgrim is 23 and shares a room and a bed with Wallace his gay best friend (but nothing Brokeback is going on between them). Scott doesn’t have a job-but he is in a band. Basically he’s a few steps away from being a total loser- but then again- he’s only 23, which means he’s still got a chance to get on the right track. However, the series begins at a point in his life when he’s going in the opposite direction on the path to respectability: dating a 17 year old High School girl (Knives Chau). While his intentions are good and there is some real connection, Scott is rightly mocked by his band mates for robbing the cradle.
One night, Scott is visited in his dreams by a girl on roller-blades. She seems to be able to talk to him in his dreams, and while he’s left temporarily sleepless, he thinks little of it. That is until---he sees her in real life! So he spends sometime stalking her and trying to figure out who she is (Ramona Flowers) and why she can appear in his head on a whim. While he comes off as obsessive, he also is truly sincere and what starts as a date becomes something much more. She may have initially been using his dream space to cut down the time of her commute, but Scott feels like she could be the one.
As the old adage goes, when it rains, it pours (but since this is set in Canada, it’s more likely to be snow, not rain) and so in a mere few days Scott went from single to a player juggling two girls. Which is probably why he ignores both an email and an old fashioned letter from a guy named Matt who wants to fight Scott… something something league of ex-boyfriends. His band also has its first gig coming up, and they have got to decide on a proper name, set list, and deal with a new girl drummer. Scott’s got a lot on his mind, so by the time that a guy interrupts his band’s set claiming to be Ramona’s evil ex-boyfriend Scott is caught totally by surprise. That letter and email he ignored? It was meant to inform Scott that in order to date Ramona, he has to fight the league of her Seven evil exes.
And thus, the basic premise of the series is laid out in book one: in order for Scott to grow up and get the girl, he’s going to have to deal with the baggage of his and his girls’ life. While it’s not exactly subtle in doing so, the book is a quaint allegory about the difficulties of adult relationships and coming into ones own.
Reading this book again (my 5th or 6th time), I was reminded of the real depth of the characters and the joy of the plotting. O’Malley allows the players to define themselves via dialogue; they don’t monologue to fill in back story nor do they talk over one another to advance the plot. The book is humorous in nature, but it has genuine and well earned emotional scenes. The first date between Ramona and Scott plays perfectly; it’s awkward, the two of them stammer, and yet they can clearly see there is something there between them. Hollywood beats us over the head with movies and TV series about the perfect, serendipitous date between the stars. While these can be great fun, they are hardly realistic or relatable to real life.
It seems light, fantastic, and filled with comic book tropes. But Scott Pilgrim is only those things on the surface. It’s one of those works that is perfectly suited to the medium, able to be re-read multiple times while still revealing little secrets. “Precious Little Life” is a great start to the series, loaded with foreshadowing and grounding that leads to plot points later on in the series. The action and story may be less epic than some of the other books, but what it lacks in those departments it makes up in charm and style. This was the beginning of something great and remains an out and out winner.
Story – 9.5
Characters – 10
Art – 8.5