July 2010

Martyn Pedler


Scott Pilgrim vs. Endless Possibilities

Does any other book we’re featuring this month come with its own side-scrolling beat-‘em-up video game? Yeah, I didn’t think so. The seven-year epic Scott Pilgrim does, along with a much-hyped film adaptation and star-studded soundtrack, all arriving just in time for the sixth and final volume of Scott Pilgrim’s digest-sized adventures. Some stores are apparently even threatening to open at midnight for keen customers who can’t wait to see how the story ends; that’s an honor usually reserved for teenage wizards. 

I asked Scott’s writer and artist, Bryan Lee O’Malley, about his series’s looming finish. First: does Scott Pilgrim feel completely different now than when it began? And does he feel like a completely new human, too? 

“Yes, it's been seven years, and I am a completely new human. As the books have progressed, they've been less ‘in the moment’ and more reflective, because I'm getting further and further from that feeling of being twenty-three, twenty-four, having endless possibilities and so on.” 

Here’s the high concept formed from those endless possibilities: 23-year-old Scott Pilgrim -- Canadian, slacker, bass player for Sex Bob-Omb -- falls in love with an American delivery girl named Ramona Flowers. She’s the girl of his dreams, maybe because she’s been taking regular shortcuts through a subspace highway that happens to pass through Scott’s embarrassing unconscious.  

That’s the first hint that the plot will occasionally veer towards the fantastic; the second comes when Scott finds out that in order to date Ramona, he must fight her seven evil exes in bizarre kung-fu battles. (Scott’s unexpected martial arts prowess is only explained when someone offhandedly remarks: “Doesn’t he know that Scott’s the best fighter in the province?”) These boss-fights provide the series’ loose skeleton, as well as giving the first volume -- Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life -- its joyous rock ‘n roll finale.  

“I really think the first volume is a blast,” says O’Malley. “And it's probably more creatively ‘pure’ than any of the others, in that it just pooped right out of my brain with very little editing. But, like, I mean, it could have probably used a little bit of editing. It gets by mostly on charm and audacity.”  

It has plenty of both, even present in little touches like its segues between scenes: “SO YEAH” and “Nice one Scott! Now turn the page!” The black-and-white, anime-inspired art -- all rounded edges and speed lines -- starts strong and improves with each new book. It’s jam-packed with visual gags and video game references. Some don’t work, like an offscreen studio audience aaahing at new romance. Most do, like the Mario-style coins Scott picks ups off the floor after defeating an enemy. Bryan says that he tries to “remain unselfconscious” about these: “I throw in a lot of the visual gags at the last minute, so I don't overthink them. But yeah, sometimes I'll look back and think something was a bit too cute, or that it wasn’t paying off metaphorically.” 

In fact, metaphorical payoffs prevent these references from becoming pointless rewards for readers with the correct pop-culture credibility. They’re often used to generate all-too-believable angst: Scott sees a glowing "save point," for example, but he can’t reach it before he’s forced to botch an awkward reunion with his ex-girlfriend. No second chances. Other gimmicks invite us to join in with the ever-expanding supporting cast: a chord chart appears so you can play along at home; a recipe, too, if you want the full sensory experience. 

The sheer enthusiasm of Scott Pilgrim can erect a critic-proof forcefield around it, but I found it’s actually its wide-eyed emotional sincerity that papers over its flaws. (Scott uses this argument to defend himself, too. Scott: “But I’m so sincere!” Ramona: “Sincerely lame, maybe.”) What’s the worst criticism the series ever received -- and was it justified?  

“I think the most scathing criticism has generally missed the point. I know that's something we'd all like to believe about our most scathing criticisms, but when you're calling me like a soulless panderer of cheap video game references or claiming that I hate women or whatever, that's kind of not reading the books.” 

I always know when a piece of fiction has me entirely under its spell. It’s not when I’m happy or sad for its characters. That’s too easy. It’s when I’m actually proud of those characters when they do the right thing. Like when Scott finally overcomes his reluctance to say the L word -- no, not “lesbian” -- and O’Malley takes a scene that’s been ground to dust on innumerable sitcoms and turns it into one deserving a triumphant fist-pump. Moments like these are what made the shift from Volume Four’s happy ending to Volume Five’s descent into despair all the more shocking. What the hell happened between the two? 

“Volume 5 happened in there. I admit in retrospect it probably should have been a little longer. I intentionally wanted it to be short and punchy, but the extended ‘sad part’ at the end kind of put a damper on the whole thing. But I stand by it! I think it's pretty okay!” 

In Volume Five, suddenly even Scott’s fights with remote-controlled robots are shunted off-panel. Wordless sequences of the characters just smoking or staring appear. Ramona is told everything that’s happened in Toronto, everything we’ve read, “...is temporary. Real life’s waiting.” And the video game imagery reaches a heartbreaking climax that I should’ve seen coming from the very first page of the very first book. Ramona’s forced to wonder if Scott’s “just another evil ex-boyfriend waiting to happen.” 

Scott Pilgrim isn’t just comedically clueless; he can also be an utter dick, and his friends -- given their own storylines and sometimes even their own, other, individual friends -- tell him so. The wonder of a story taking seven long years is that Scott improves with age. We’ve seen him fight ninjas and robots and psychic vegans, sure, but also try, fail, and sometimes succeed at growing up. The series mistrusts those who take shortcuts to their personal reinvention like new nicknames or new haircuts. It’s like Scott says when stuck in one of his video game dreams: “I don’t know the stupid cheat code, okay? I’ll learn the forest’s secrets the old-fashioned way.” 

How do you end a story that started so small and snowballed? Is it hard to resist treading carefully when you know you have legions of dedicated fans waiting for the end? 

“If anything, I found myself intentionally messing with their heads. But I guess knowing all these people were invested in the story, and going so far as to speculate their own bizarre ending scenarios, prompted me to try and make something really satisfying all-around, rather than just cryptically satisfying to me.”  

I might not be waiting in line at midnight, but I’ll definitely be reading Scott Pilgrim’s last few hundred pages soon after. I hope the series survives the inevitable backlash that comes with this kind of media tsunami; I also hope Bryan Lee O’Malley survives the equally inevitable "But it’s not Scott Pilgrim so I hate it!" reaction some will have to whatever he does next. I asked him if he felt prepared for it. 

“I'm fully expecting to be haunted by Scott Pilgrim for the rest of my life. But I have lots of stories I want to do, and none of them are Scott. So there.” 

Most of all, I sincerely -- and, yeah, lamely -- find myself hoping that Scott gets a happy ending before it’s GAME OVER. 

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. If anyone knows the cheat codes to his life, he’ll happily accept them. Find him at www.martynpedler.com.