Scott Pilgrim Volume 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together
By Bryan Lee O’Malley
Where we get into Volume 4 of the Scott Pilgrim saga and discuss such fun as: How much responsibility should a comic have for the existence of bad people? Should stories be moral? And how much of a jerk is Scott Pilgrim anyway?
I love Scott Pilgrim but that doesn’t mean that I love Scott Pilgrim
As in: Scott Pilgrim the comic and Scott Pilgrim the character. Altho actually: I do kinda love Scott Pilgrim (the character) too. So actually what I guess I should say is: just because I love him – that doesn’t mean that I don’t also know that he’s kinda a dick. And from talking to a few different people (mostly at the Barbican Comic Forum it must be said: where yeah – it doesn’t really take all that much for me to start talking about everything Scott Pilgrim): that’s seems like something of a sticking point because you know – aren’t you supposed to like the main character?
Which yeah – is a whole barrel of monkeys isn’t it?
Again – just going from things people have said at the Barbican Comic Forum: it seems like this is a major ongoing concern for lots of people when they’re reading a comic or a book or watching a film or something on TV. Like: they want a character that they can relate to and they want someone that’s nice and not unsympathetic and well for me – I kinda feel like that’s the problem with basically everything everywhere.
I mean: I think I get it – it’s nice to read about characters that are like you and come from the same world and share your beliefs. And yes it hasn’t escaped my irony meter that I’m saying this while writing about a book starring a western white man-child who plays in a band and whose biggest problem in life is his romantic life (#firstworldproblems). And just to say it once more again: we live in a racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic and ableist society which is mainfested in lots of ways: one of which is – oh look at that: most of the stories we consume are about straight white guys (whose biggest problems are mostly: romantic, being the chosen one and saving the world).
But then hey (here’s a crazy thought maybe): isn’t one of the ways to break the stranglehold on the monopoly on our cultural imagination then isn’t it time we started mixing in other perspectives?
And I’m sure at this point everyone is nodding their heads and being all like yeah (because only a dick is going to disagree with the idea of cultural diversity right?).
Only the point where I’m guessing where I diverge from others is that – a big part of that is having more characters who are dickish and unsympathetic doing things that we might not agree with because hey – that’s also the point: understanding the world by understanding ourselves and understanding those we disagree with / who piss us off.
And yeah Scott Pilgrim (the character) is a dick and immature like a motherfucker: but it feels like (unlike the majority of everything else out there: I’m thinking particulary of every character Seth Rogan has ever played – (I guess he’s still in my head after all our talk about Preacher – sorry Seth)): Scott Pilgrim is a dick on purpose. In that it feels like Bryan Lee O’Malley is perfectly aware of Scott blind spots and the damage he leaves in his wake… Because all the characters seem damaged in someway or another – carrying around various forms of baggage. Which yeah – I think is not only interesting to read: but is also kinda moral?
Like: at the risk of wading into dangeous waters which will swallow me whole – in a choice between Captain America as a do-gooder hero or Captain Ameria as a Nazi: not only does the Nazi option sound a lot more interesting: but it’s also an insight into a completely different way of seeing the world: which I dunno – seems like it would be useful? There was a thing a few weeks ago on one of my friend’s facebook feeds which was something about someone who worked for the CIA talking about how the one thing she’s learned from her time fighting the bad guys is that – no one ever sees themselves as the bad guy. And so yeah: maybe the point of comics and books and fiction in general is to take us out of our own heads and to see where the people who we disagree with are coming from? Because really: that’s probably the only way for us all to come to somekind of understanding and peace with each other? Maybe?
So yeah: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together (or as I kinda think of it: The Last Temptation of Scott Pilgrim) is good because I think (in it’s own small way) it kinda helps to put us on the path towards World Peace and Universal Harmony.
What do you think?
So I only read Scott Pilgrim like in the last year, the whole thing, and I spent a lot of the time raging (then admiring the pretty art and then raging again) I’d seen the trailer for the film when it came out. I saw Michael Cera, I saw a girl whose hair colour changes constantly and who !had a girlfriend! and honestly I was put off. So teenage boy-ey. Years later I read the comics, because they’re SO popular.
And they ended up being everything I feared after seeing that movie trailer.
But I want to make it clear, I totally agree with you on having characters about that we don’t agree with, who aren’t necessarily heroes or antiheroes, who have questionable motives, personalities, desires. I mean I’m guessing that’s why Game of Thrones remains so popular. We enjoy having characters around who challenge us, and I do think making those characters protagonists can be useful too.
In fact, Scott Pilgrim being a dick isn’t the reason I got mad at the book. What I didn’t like was reading this IN THE CONTEXT OF so many recommendations from white guys who read this during their teens. White guys who identified with Scott, who maybe still identify with him, and who never in their recommendations also note, “Scott is a dick and though I can relate to him, I DON’T LIKE HIM.” They don’t seem to appreciate that part of the story. The part which we can read as, Scott is a dick so we’re not supposed to side with him. We’re supposed to find another way.
What that means is that the book just reminded me of the many, MANY white teenage boys who’ve behaved like Scott and directly harmed me (and other young women) in the process. And in turn, it means I’ll continue to see white men legitimising their shitty behaviour because hey it was in this comic book that’s all about this period of my life.
And I don’t know that that’s really on the comic. I read editions which had notes by Bryan Lee O’Malley in the back and honestly, it didn’t seem to me like he was satirising anything, that he was saying, “Hey Scott’s a dick! Remember that pls!” he said a lot about keeping it authentic, about it being very personal to him. It was implied that, because this was about his experiences in his early 20s, that time has passed and he’s distanced himself from that version of him – but I don’t think it was stated.
I don’t know if it’s on the author to say, I’m writing about this because I went through it BUT I’VE LEARNED. But when we have questionable protagonists, whilst that can be useful and in fact necessary sometimes, we also need to pay attention to the fact that some people will legitimately and unironically identify with those characters.
So white boys will identify with Scott without questioning the shitty parts, which means young women around them have to struggle with their sense of self esteem and identity. And some people will identify with a Nazi Captain America.
Again, not a comic’s fault if people identify without questioning themselves and their own real life motivations, but also creators need to be aware of context. We don’t create in a vacuum, it’d be naive to think you aren’t playing -any-role in real life shitty behaviour.
With Scott Pilgrim, I think it might have been a bit harmful to present the entire narrative and other characters from Scott’s perspective because it means we aren’t given any other option. Some characters call him out sometimes which are probably a prompt for the reader to also stop and think about Scott’s actions. But if you’re a self centred young white guy like Scott, how well do you think that works?
Scott Pilgrim, for many folks, is one of those big nostalgia books from their comic book reading history. And like all things nostalgia, it’s probably hard to critique without that in mind. But for me, I don’t have that concern. Before today I had never read a single panel or line of any Scott Pilgrim book. I was worried that starting with Vol. 4 might be a bad idea, but having seen (and enjoyed) the film, I slipped right into the narrative with ease and wasn’t lost at all. Part of the reason I never gaveScott Pilgrim a chance before is because I was turned off by the fake manga art. But now that I’ve read through a full volume, I have to say, the art is pretty damn amazing (and fitting). O’Malley really knows how to compose a comic, with great layouts and stellar pacing. His characters are beautifully designed and each flows with unique life thanks to his illustration. (I read the color version, which was colored by the extremely talented comics veteran Nathan Fairbairn, which added to my enjoyment of the pictures.)
There’s something undeniably charming about the narrative of Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together and the story flows at a lovely pace. Are some of these characters awful and depressing? Yes, definitely. But O’Malley really captures the spirit of what it means to be in your early twenties. These are adults, but they are still children at the same time, dealing with emotions and relationships in glaringly juvenile ways. In these pages, I see a lot of my own early 20s, maybe not so much in any of the situations or characters, but in the invocation or feeling that O’Malley is able to capture and display. When I read Scott Pilgrim, I remembered how awkward and confusing it was to be in my early 20s. The panic brought on my feelings of love. That panic is something we don’t quickly forget, even if it is from fleeting memories more than a decade ago. The ability to capture that feeling so dead-on is commendable, to say the least
THAT BEING SAID, there is a troublesome feeling that permeated my being as I flipped through Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together. As Zainabb mentioned and as Joel touched upon, this is the story of an immature White dude’s first world girl plight. Throw in a Mysterious Object of Affection or two and watch as Scott’s White privileged chaos ensues. Scott is the worst type of character: the Manic Pixie Dream Boy. He’s a sexist jerk that plays the role of the victim, tortured by some harpy that won’t “provide for him what he needs.” This is a tough “love story” to swallow. Sure Scott isn’t as offensive as the disgusting male leads from High Fidelity or 500 Days of Summer, but he’s dangerously floating in that realm. Also, since I’ve never read any other volumes, I have to assume that this one—entitled Gets It Together—implies that he is even worse in the others. I know I said it with Preacher, and I hate to repeat it for a book that is so wildly different, but Scott Pilgrim is a book for bros. I mean I don’t know what the readership breakdown is—I’m sure plenty of women read Scott Pilgrim—but it is so very much about angsty dudes doing gross angsty dude-bro things that ostensibly don’t seem bad at all. But these things that might not appear so bad really are kinda sorta pretty bad. And it’s not just Scott Pilgrim as the manic bro. It’s other stuff O’Malley casually inserts without so much as an afterthought. For instance, the use of “pussy” as a pejorative. Why, dude, why? Even if an earlier time of publication would be a valid excuse for incorporating such misogynistic language (and it certainly is not), this was written no so long ago—in 2007. O’Malley should know better and DO better. Except that O’Malley is a mega-bro, so he probably doesn’t know better and probably doesn’t even care.
Overall, it’s hard to pin down Scott Pilgrim, at least based upon the stand-alone reading of Vol. 4 only. I see a great potential for characterization and world-building here. The story, as I hinted at above, teeters on the edge of freshly charming and depressingly eye-rolling. It’s a thin line. I certainly didn’t love Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, but I’m definitely interested to see where it goes next. I’m also surprised that fucking-terrible-shit-horrible Hollywood took this material and made it better? Very rare thing when that happens. But maybe people don’t agree? Maybe people like the books more? Not me, at least based upon Vol. 4 alone.
Oops. So I started writing about Scott Pilgrim and then I kinda got into the EU / Brexit stuff. Sorry about that. Also sorry if anything I say accidentally causes offence. Just keep in mind that I have no real idea what I’m talking about it….
So. Everyone is looking for a way to understand the world that makes it make sense to them. I mean: I’m shaking my head at myself even as I type this: but they’re looking for a story you know? The story that makes everything fit into place. Only well – most of the time there aren’t any easy answers and everything is hopelessly complex (“complex” is one of my favourite words).
Zainabb – hey! Welcome to the fun! I really like what you wrote: and well – yeah: you’re totally right that it’s a problem when “self centred young white guys” use Scott Pilgrim to legitimize their shitty behaviour. Only well – I’m not sure what the solutions are. Like: it kinda reminds me when Borat came out (you guys remember Borat right?) and there was a lot of think pieces about how lots of racists loved Borat because hey yeah it uses a whole bunch of Anti Semitic ideas and whatever (“Go, kids! Smash the Jew chick before he hatches!”): which when I’m watching it with my friends I’ll admit that I find really funny altho if I was watching it in a Neo-Nazi rally I’d probably: well – I’d imagine it’d actually pretty scary actually.
But rather than saying (as it seems most people tend to) that we should try and make things more obvious and less open to misinterpretation (maybe Borat would open with Sacha Baron Cohen out of character talking directly to the audience about how the following film is a comedy and is laughing at racists rather than laughing with etc? Altho erm: I kinda feel that would be a bit of a buzzkill no?). And also: well – instead of thinking that Borat is the problem – I kinda feel like the problem is with the racists and people who aren’t good at understanding things.
Like: imagine if there was a giant rock that had “Don’t be a dick” and most people were like: oh yeah that means don’t be a dick. But then there were some people were like: oh yeah – that just means that the rock shouldn’t be a dick. Or that other people shouldn’t be dicks. Or they couldn’t read or whatever. Like: the problem isn’t with the rock. It’s with the people who are dicks. Same thing with Borat. And Scott Pilgrim. Like: as cool it would be otherwise: self centred young white guys aren’t going to learn to become less self centred through just one comic. Especially when well – the rest of our culture out there is still reinforcing that mindset in all of the worst possible ways.
In terms of pernicious influence the biggest factor out there is the news: which does all sorts of evil in invisible ways – especially in how they frame the terms of the debate.
Like: I know that all of you are here for comic book / Scott Pilgrim chat and probably sick to death of talking about Brexit: but you know: what’s either I write stuff or post it up on facebook (LOL): and anyway – it’s all kinda relevant (maybe)…
I read this article (There Is No Left Exit) which was written before the election that says a whole bunch of interesting things such as:
For one thing, the coalition tends to downplay the EU’s close ties to national and trans-national capitalist accumulation imperatives. Among other things, the EU is where these imperatives are transformed into coherent strategies to organize and embed the hegemony of dominant sections of European capital. This is why it has become one of the main vectors for the imposition of neoliberal and austerity measures across the continent.
The AEiP approach tends to miss, too, how the European Union manifests and expresses the unequal power dynamics between member states.
In addition, they overlook how EU institutions are relatively insulated from popular pressures in a way that national states cannot be if they are to maintain their legitimacy. The unelected European Commission wields huge power, and the virtually ornamental European Parliament — and indeed the absence of a European demos to speak of — cannot balance it.
Also, the European Union might function, partially, to bolster national state legitimacy: the union takes responsibility for neoliberal reforms “imposed from without” that state elites — who helped draw up the measures in the first place — can then disavow.
which ok yeah is probably a bit more wordy than it needs to be: but basically – the EU isn’t the utopian dream that it’s been painted inside my head for the past few weeks (oh yeah: maybe just to say this now just so you know: I voted Remain ok?)
Because then the article gets to this bit:
The troubling fact is that while staying in the European Union is certainly a horrible idea, the prospect of withdrawal seems, as things currently stand, much worse.
The case for a left Remain should pivot on a sober assessment of the balance of social and political forces at play and the likely consequences of a victory for Leave. It should rest fundamentally on the observation that the existing Brexit campaign is led by reactionary and dangerous arguments, ideas, and political forces. Lexit is simply not on the agenda.
The hard right has dominated the Leave campaign from the start, shaping the entire terrain of the debate.
Which well yeah – is pretty darn accurate no? Especially now where it feels like we’ve stepped into the pages of a Frank Miller comic. My flatmate said that he heard someone had a pint glass poured over them because they were foreign and jesus fucking christ – that’s in London which is supposed to be at least a little immune from well – I dunno: all the worst aspects of humankind? (But yeah – that’s kinda a dumb thing to think I guess).
But then I guess what’s weird is how the question of one thing (should Britain stay in the EU) becomes another thing (full on xenophobia): and isn’t that the fault of the people who decide how stuff is framed? (so – the news and also the politicians too I guess).
Like it’s kinda messed up in two ways: like at the start we have these enormously complicated issue that is reduced to to a simple Yes or No? All of these issues upon issues funnelled into the ultimate binary. And then once that result are in: we interpret it in the same kinda binary way: oh this means that we live on an island with a bunch of closed-minded ugly racists (and hell: that would accurately reflect my feelings on Friday morning when I was all like).
And yeah: even as someone that doesn’t read newspapers (i know – go me) it’s interesting how they’ve framed the way that we understood the result. Like: judging from the things I’ve seen on my social medias and whatever – it seems like the people who voted for Leave are either total racists or too stupid to understand what they’ve done (you want examples? ok – here you go: View from Wales: town showered with EU cash votes to leave EU / The Mail has explained what Brexit means and its readers seem shocked / ‘I’m full of regret’ – extraordinary moment Brexit voter changes her mind / Google search spike suggests people don’t know why they Brexited )
That last one in particular kinda got me thinking tho (basically: people googling “What is the EU?” after all the results were in): like – when I first read it I was all “oh my god – who are these bloody morons and why were they allowed vote?!” only then kinda realising that actually – I don’t really know what the EU is either. Like: I kinda know emotionally what I think of – it’s a lovely club of people holding hands and giving us all human rights and making sure we don’t have any wars: but well – that’s not exactly the most expert analysis is it? And if I was pushed to go any further then I’d be all like: I dunno. It’s a big boring bureaucracy thing or something isn’t it? Leave me alone and let me read some comics…
(Speaking of yeah: I know I really should stop writing about all this stuff and get back to Scott Pilgrim: but come on – the tangents are part of the fun right?)
But anyway: yeah – getting back to my point: I guess the thing that I’ve been thinking is that – isn’t it kinda weird that those are the only two options when it comes to representations of Leave voters – racists and idiots? Because like: let’s check the numbers – 33,551,983 people voted which is 72% turnout and oh my god guys: that’s an awful lot of people. And like: I have a hard enough time trying to understand the people around me and myself: and the thought of trying to understand the thoughts and motivations of 17,410,742 human beings is beyond the capacity for my brain to take. Like: I can drink a glass of water – but I can’t drink the sea.
Of course it would be great if there was a way to make it all make sense: but – you know – what if there’s not?
Like: I get that the news is full of interviews of people on the street talking about “making Britain Great” again: but man that’s the one they’ve chosen to cherry pick from lots and lots of unseen stuff (maybe some people saying: “Actually you know what? Fuck the elites. Fuck people telling me what to do. I’ve lived a life that’s been miserable from start to finish. I can’t get a job. Neoliberalism has stripped everything of value from my life. And if David Cameron says I should do something then I’m doing the opposite.” But then – hey – I don’t know: those aren’t the kinda things that are being reported are they?).
The Jo Cox sound bite that’s been repeated a lot is: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” I’ll admit that my privileged London mind has mostly interpreted that as “Yeah. London is a united place: where we’re multi-ethnic and multi-cultural and beautiful. But hell – as soon as you go beyond the M25 it’s racist o’clock and small-minded little Englanders.” Which yeah: makes me feel better and good about myself: but isn’t that much of a united attitude to have is it? You know: it’s easy to agree with people who already agree with you – but what do we do with people who disagree with us? The easiest way obviously is to vilify them and get behind the battlements and hell: you know and talk about London leaving the UK and stuff like that.
All of the above I should admit has kinda been inspired by reading this David Eggers article (‘Could he actually win?’ Dave Eggers at a Donald Trump rally). I’d recommend reading it – but the basic gist is this:
Believing that Trump’s supporters are all fascists or racists is a grave mistake. This day in Sacramento presented a different picture, of a thousand or so regular people who thought it was pretty cool how Trump showed up in a plane with his name on it. How naughty it was when he called the president “stupid”. How funny it was when he said the word “huge” the peculiar way he does, without the “h” (the audience yelled back “uuuuge!”, laughing half with him, half at him). In the same way we rooted for Clay a few years ago when he showed up as an actual actor in a Woody Allen movie, the audience at a Trump rally is thinking, How funny would it be if this guy were across the table from Angela Merkel? That would be classic.
Americans who have voted for Trump in the primaries have done so not because they agree with all, or any, of his statements or promises, but because he is an entertainment. He is a loud, captivating distraction and a very good comedian. His appeal is aided by these rallies, and by media coverage, and both are fuelled not by substance but by his willingness to say crazy shit. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, has insisted that they “let Trump be Trump” and the wisdom of the strategy is undeniable. As long as he continues to say crazy shit, he will continue to dominate the news and will continue to attract crowds. The moment he ceases to entertain – to say crazy shit – he will evaporate.
or to put it another way – maybe we’re not surrounded by evil and hate. Maybe people just have concerns beyond what political message they’re sending out and they don’t care about the news media thinks of them (because hey – god knows: there’s lots of reasons to distrust the news media right? Mostly because it’s the mouthpiece of power – and power mostly just wants to keep us all in place right?). But then also: the stuff I said about how it’s kinda impossible to all understand anyway…
I hope some of that maybe made sense? Thanks for giving me the chance to get it all off my chest anyway 🙂
But yeah – anyway: back to Scott Pilgrim:
Sorry Collin: I kinda started writing all of the above before you sent your thing and so didn’t really get a chance to reply to the stuff you said…
First up: Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “fake manga art.” I could be wrong: but this is the first time the whole fake manga-ness of Scott Pilgrim has come up. Like: I should admit up front that I’m not really any kinda of manga-aficionado (I think the only “proper” manga I’ve ever read is Death Note) – but yeah – it’s very much tied into what Scott Pilgrim is and how it works: basically “Manga: the Canadian version.” Thanks to cultural-osmosis I feel like I recognize some of the tropes (the main being I guess: every issue ending with a massive big climatic fight scene – no?): but I’d be really curious to hear from someone who’s more versed in this stuff to go into the ways that Scott Pilgrim brushes up or against manga stereotypes and ideas (Knives Dad seems like a stock character in that way – like quiet dude with the super sharp sword: but is that right? Or am I widely off base?).
Also: I mean – at the risk of occurring some wrath of my own: I mean – yeah Scott does is an immature dickhead at lots of points throughout Scott Pilgrim (“Manic Pixie Dream Boy” does have a nice ring to it I’ll admit…): but I don’t think he should be utterly condemned into the fires of hell or whatever. Like if anything: I’d just say that he’s a rounded character. He’s got faults but that doesn’t make him a totally bad guy. Plus – altho he probably shouldn’t have let himself get drawn in so far with Lisa Miller – isn’t it good that you know – nothing happened? (or do we want to do a reading of the book that actually that both got it on and then just lied about it afterwards? Because that’s always a possibility I guess?).
Plus also well – as much as it pains me to say this – isn’t Ramona Flowers just as bad? Like: obviously it would be a much shorter series: but if both of them had been completely honest with each other at the start about all their issues – then there wouldn’t have been all that drama and they could have just got on with it. Like: jebus – I don’t know if we want to get into this: but what kind of person makes their new boyfriend fight their seven evil exs anyway??? Like: just from a psychological point of view – that stuff is messed up.
Scott isn’t THAT awful in this volume, tis true. He sort of teeters on the edge of making mistakes and being “bad.” After all, this is him “Gettng It Together,” no? Are his actions, thoughts, and words more cringeworthy in other volumes? I haven’t read the rest, so I’m not sure. But on the whole, he’s treading in dangerous territory. Generally speaking, I’m not too keen on reading about characters that choose to dwell where he dwells.
Is there a definitive metaphor for Scott having to fight the exes? Might be the obvious route to take, but I view the ex-fighting to be linked to Scott’s heteronormative insecurities and borderline sexist bro-dude hangups. He goes ga-ga over lesbian stuff, getting-off on the idea of Ramona with other women, but simultaneously can’t stand the thought of his gal being with anyone else. We’ve all had these jealous and confusing hypocritical thought processes run through our minds, whether we are straight, gay, queer, or whatever. We’ve all been there at some point in our lives. O’Malley is really honing in on this part of human psyche quite well, but it does get strange trying to make analytical sense of it all when it’s portrayed in such bro-tastic video game style. It kind of reminds me of the average Kevin Smith film—a ton of potential with some really deep and important things to say about relationships, but it just misses the mark because it’s coming from a perspective that can’t really handle the weight.
In a related note—something that has come up with our LGNN Book Club twice in a row and also something that I was chatting with a lapsed Club member on Twitter the other day: How much nostalgia factors into our current opinions. It seems that most people fervently cling onto their adolescent loves. I’ve long considered this “giving in” to childhood nostalgia to be a weakness or blind-spot for critics. But recently, especially since I’ve been a part of the Book Club, I’ve started to realize the importance of what resonates for us in our past. There is something undeniably essential about a comic book’s ability to latch onto and dredge up those old feelings, even if it still seems cheap to say “I’m going to defend this tooth-and-nail because I loved it 15 years ago and it shaped who I am.” It SEEMS cheap, but there’s something very powerful (and good) in a story’s ability to, one, shape you and deeply impact you in the first place, and, two, stay with you, even deep down inside, so many years later. Like Preacher, Scott Pilgrim is one of those books, methinks.
My prior relationship with those titles was either negative or non-existent. I wonder if I’d had a different experience withPreacher when I was younger, would I hate it so much today? And likewise, if I’d read Scott Pilgrim when it first came out in 2004 (instead of waiting until 2016 to read only the fourth volume), would I have liked it? Would a teenage/early 20s reading of Scott Pilgrim have influenced my re-reading of it more positively today? I guess we’ll never know, but it is something that shouldn’t be overlooked.
I’ve seen the film, not read the books, nothing much to say about Scott Pilgrim.
But Collin, I just want to reply quickly to your point about nostalgia to say that I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. The stuff we absorb in late adolescence resonates, in a different way from things we read as “grown-ups”, however good the latter is. Thanks or your balanced response to this, I’d been looking at nostalgia as solely negative, but I’ll think again
Barbican Comic Forum
Hi. More thoughts on dickishness and nostalgia:
My introduction to Scott Pilgrim came around 2005 through a recommendation from one of my best friends. We were in university, and it was among the first comic books I ever read (if not the first). But I wouldn’t say it changed my life or shaped who I am or anything like that. It was just a thing I enjoyed because: Video game references! Small nods to obscure Canadian bands! Conversations not unlike ones I’d have with my friends! Characters easily identifiable in probably any city’s indie music scene! And Kim Pine, who was so much like me, except so much cooler!
I re-read the whole series over the last month and was struck by two things. The first, smaller thing: As previously pointed out, Scott’s a dick. And Ramona’s a dick too. I don’t recall my younger self picking up on this much, if at all—and if I had to guess why, I’d say it’s because when I first read it I was just as much of a dick and therefore the characters being dicks wouldn’t’ve registered. It just reflected, and didn’t challenge, the way things were within my own group of early-twenty-something friends.
And taking that point further, here’s the second, bigger thing that hit me. Revisiting Scott Pilgrim a decade on, I didn’t feel nostalgia for the series itself, but for the period of time and the places it portrays: those early adult years, full of self-centredness and big emotions and confusion, spent walking through snowy playgrounds on winter nights, or sitting in a garishly lit late-night diner with your best friends, or hanging out in someone’s dank basement apartment, or going to whatever venue-of-the-month the current band-of-the-month is playing at. I can’t say Scott Pilgrim changed my life or shaped who I am, but those experiences did. Re-reading the series made me ache for that.
Scott Pilgrim has been background noise to me in comics for about a decade now, I guess, from looking at the copyright dates. I’ve always known it was there, it just didn’t ever really speak to me, and after plowing through the first four volumes of the color edition to catch up over the course of a couple evenings, that’s an assessment that more or less holds true. It’s really interesting to me that Scott Pilgrim and Y: The Last Man came out somewhat contemporaneously, because they have that similar cultivated aesthetic of an utterly mediocre cis het white guy surrounded by more engaging women. I was 17 when YTLM started in 2002 and pretty close to the same age as Scott when that series kicked off, so it’s mostly a matter of storytelling and cultural touchstones that had me go towards one and not the other, I guess. (I came out as trans in 2011, so as far as the world and my own fuzzy understanding of myself was concerned, I was well within the presumed target audience at the time.)
Brian K Vaughn, if I recall correctly said something towards the end of the series about how he’d changed so much as a person and writer over the course of it that he loathed a lot of the early issues of Y, which is intriguing to me in the case of Scott Pilgrim, because there isn’t really any indication that O’Malley’s worldview has changed one iota since the beginning of Scott Pilgrim. He’s evolved incredibly as an artist and designer, and this is really the volume where we first start to get an indication of that growth, but his conception of interpersonal conflict and relationship dynamics are just so banal and dull. I’m really glad that Seconds didn’t carry over any of the sexism, hipster racism, or transmisogyny baked into Scott Pilgrim, but that one still left me scratching my head at the mediocre relationship at the core of it. I just don’t care about anyone in Scott Pilgrim because they just misuse each other in the most predictable ways without ever really remarking on it or engaging with it.
I mean yeah, Scott is somehow getting it together this volume by finding a job or whatever, but are we supposed to be cheering for this guy who is vaguely doing the most basic things in life for the first time without actually facing a serious reckoning for any of the shit that he’s doled out along the way? For every questionable or exploitative dynamic that Scott finds himself in, we get this backstory from the other side that kind of makes it a wash and appears to let him off the hook. After we see his awful treatment of Knives in the opening volume and his pretty cruel indifference towards Lisa Miller, the counter narrative of the shitty stuff that Ramona has done in the past appears and then it’s like oh well, they’ve both been pricks. That’s been remarked on in this discussion before, but what bugs me about it is that it just lessens the impact of the things that Scott does. You see it again this volume with Wallace. Scott’s been more or less supported by Wallace for no good reason, allowed to skate on rent and use his credit card whenever he wants. There’s no reckoning with that. Instead we get this flashback to how Wallace has just sort of insinuated himself into Scott’s life and then Scott just kind of slithers in to live with Ramona when their lease comes up. The narrative is really desperate to coddle Scott and it really just devalues the whole thing in my eyes.
On the artistic side of things though, O’Malley shows a lot of really interesting growth here. He’s warping perspective and finding more interesting ways of depicting the setting, and more critically, learning how to actually block out a credible action sequence. Having seen the movie when it first came out, I was pretty surprised at how much Wright had to expand on and improve the original sequences. Until the skirmish with Knives’ father and Roxy, there wasn’t really much ambition or emphasis on these sequences. Which is ironic because the actual Roxy fight in the movie was cobbled together from the 2006 FCBD story and Ramona’s fight with Envy. It’s the first big genuine set piece in the series and pulls together a big nadir for Scott by forcing the showdown with Roxy and Knives’ father in the middle of his having to account for spending the night with Lisa and discovering Roxy at Ramona’s.
But the air gets let out of the balloon yet again because Knives’ dad just peaces out in the middle of it and tells her that Scott’s a decent dude after all. Which is really the biggest cop out of the comic so far. Scott is a 23 year old dirt bag dating the guy’s 17 year old daughter. He’s well within his rights to leave Scott in a stew of his own blood, vomit, and urine but he’s cool with Scott now because he saw him handle himself in a fight? You probably could find something like that in a generic shounen anime, but it’s not examined or engaged with here at all. What frustrates me the most about this comic is that there’s no friction, no consequences, no actual drama. Scott just glides through life adding nothing to the lives of the people around him, and instead of examining that, the narrative seems to tell us instead that yeah, Scott’s pretty useless, but his friends are all kind of terrible in one way or another so yeah here’s Scott wearing a t-shirt with the Ontario provincial logo on it.
“Are we supposed to be cheering for this guy?” is a v interesting question.
I mean we’ve established at this point that Scott Pilgrim engages in a hell of a lot of douchey behaviour throughout the first four books and gets no real comeuppance. And yet – like I’ve said at various points: I love the hell out of this book. So reading what you wrote Emma I guess I feel like I should try and explain myself because well yeah: even tho he’s a douche there are points in the book where I cheer for him (that scene where he earns the power of love and pulls the sword out of himself = very cool!)
But then I guess that I don’t think there’s any conflict between a character being a dick and yet still being on their side and wanting them to succeed. A good example (as per the link above) would be Homer Simpson. I mean – mostly his heart is in the right place: but there’s lots of episodes where he’s being a doofus and yet we still cheer for him don’t we? Even when he’s getting something wrong he still keeps my sympathy. But then I guess that my sympathies tend to go further than most peoples. Like: I’ve often spoke to people talking about comics or books or films or whatever and they’ve said that they “couldn’t relate to the main character” which yeah ok: personal taste and we’re all different and maybe there’s people out there that don’t enjoy the taste of pizza – but like I’ve said – there’s a part of me that thinks that the whole point of fiction is to take us out of ourselves and see things from other people’s point of view. And what’s more – the opposite of that and the place that the demand for main characters who aren’t too unappetizing gives us the blandness of characters like Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen or every single main character in a film ever (like not to have a go at Leonardo DiCaprio or anything because I know he did lots of acting and everything: but seriously – the guy he played in The Revenant: I mean – what the hell was his character apart from someone who suffered lots but then struggled through it?). You know – I don’t want to start blaming capitalism for everything (again): but it seems like the demands of the marketplace / the demands of “I want a character I can relate to” is giving us nothing but two-dimensional ciphers – as if a story was a computer game and the main character was just the blank avatar that you choose at the start to take you through things. Which yeah – I guess is how it works.
(Just in case I haven’t made my point – like: imagine sitting down and having a conversation with Hermione Granger or Ron Weasley: I mean – it’s pretty easy to picture what it’d be like – but I mean – sitting down and having a drink with Harry Potter: I mean – what the hell is he going to say apart from “do you want to know how I got this scar” or whatever.).
Or to put it another way: I mean yeah Scott Pilgrim is an immature thoughtless douche. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing you know?
And I guess in reply I’m curious to know what would make the book better and – I don’t know if this is right way to say it? – but more moral? Like if it was called “Scott Pilgrim is a Douch and Don’t Do What Scott Does: Vol 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together (But is Still an Unrepentant Douch)”? Or if Bryan Lee O’Malley came out and denounced the book (Interview: O’Malley Calls Scott Pilgrim a Douche and Implores People Not To Learn The Wrong Lessons From His Book)? Or if each book ended with a laundry list of all the things all the characters should have done differently that would have made things better (altho if they all acted in a better way then I reckon you could have fit everything into one volume rather than six)?
(btw I’m saying all of this with my tongue in my cheek and I hope I’m coming across as playful rather than obnoxious: you know – this is all just like my opinion man: and I hope that if I’m messing up somehow then someone will do the decent thing and shoot me down…)
And yeah – I do agree that the book coddles him: and damn it – Emma you’re right: why doesn’t Knives Dad chop him into little pieces? (Apart from the same again I guess: it’d kinda stop the story in it’s tracks if Scott died at the end of Volume 4 – Bryan Lee O’Malley is a lot of things but he’s not George RR Martin).
But then hey: my best guess is (and please correct me if I’m wrong here) but it feels like maybe we have different ideas about what stories are and how we like him to work? As far as I understand you seem to be coming from a place where stories main priority should be to be moral – no? Scott Pilgrim is bad because Scott gets away Scott Free: and the book would be better if it indicted his shitty behaviour? Or something else? (Please do tell me if I’m getting this wrong).
For me: well – I just like it if a book is interesting and does lots of cool formal stuff (lots of examples in Scott Pilgrim: but the one that springs to mind in this Vol is when Wallace hits the blender and the noise from it obscures Scott’s speech balloon? That stuff is cool): but also – how do I say this? – I get a kick out of recognising character types or rather maybe: enjoying a creator managing to make a character seem fully realised with just a look and a well placed line. And yeah – everyone in Scott Pilgrim is kinda an arse: but I could imagine having drinks with all of them because they all seem so fully realised you know? Which is a very beautiful magic trick. Some lines on a piece of paper and it’s like there’s a person in front of me.
And also – damnit – and here’s a compassion that I’m surprised hasn’t come up so far (has it?) but Scott Pilgrim is a lot like Lena Dunham’s Girls and this feels like the same kinda conversation. Namely: why can’t the characters be better behaved? And my answer is the same for both: damn it – it’s kinda fun to watch characters act in shitty ways to each other when it’s been doing with such a deft fashion. The pleasure isn’t in how much you agree with the characters (and oh my god if you think the characters in Scott Pilgrim are douches – then never watch Girls because they’re all like a 1000 times worse) but in the artistry in how they’re brought to life (and fuck yeah – Girls is one of the best things of all time: and if you haven’t already you need to watch it right now).
But also: (and I’ve got to give a major hat tip to Amanda here: because she hit the nail so completely on the head): but man the ache of Scott Pilgrim is also the main draw. Because yeah: everytime I come back to it: because it draws that certain type of life in such an accurate way there’s a part of me that well – aches. (“Aches” is a v v v good word).
Which actually – maybe screw everything I said above – because how Amanda described it is at core the reason I think probably why I respond so deeply to this book. Like growing up as a mixed up kid and being well – ethnically diverse (to put it mildly) a sense of belonging is something that always passed me by. But yeah: being a twenty-something watching bands and running through the city. I guess for a while there: those were my people?
And there’s a whole bunch more I was going to say about nostalgia and forward-thinking art but maybe that’ll have to be some other time…
I wouldn’t say that I think stories should be moral. I think that they should engage with cause and consequence in some easily discernible way towards some kind of a further point. The outcome could correspond to a conventional system of morality, subvert one, or resolve itself with bleak nihilism, but at the end of the day a choice has been made. Scott Pilgrim is a case where I think there’s more pressure to actually engage with Scott’s choices in a meaningful way because this is a book aimed at teenagers navigating these kinds of relationship dynamics, and as has been pointed out before, there’s plenty of guys who read it as teens or college aged young adults who have clearly engaged in no self introspection whatsoever as a result. It just reinforces cruddy behavior, and that’s a big problem in YA lit in general.
My question of whether or not we should be rooting for him isn’t a question of the ethics of it, it’s that O’Malley has left no discernible answer to the question in the story so far. It kind of feels like we’re meant to be in his corner because we get his basic nature reinforced here and there like with Knives’ dad saying he’s a decent dude, but there’s no commitment to it. You read an arc of Hellblazer and John’s done a shitty thing to get what he wants, and it’s left up to us whether we believe that the context justifies his actions, but the dilemma and the consequences are laid out quite clearly. Without cause and consequence to deliver the ramifications of John’s decisions, Hellblazer would be an incredibly boring comic about a magical street hustler flouncing around England’s underworld. For long stretches of the comic, Scott Pilgrim is just about people being passively shitty to each other without really remarking on it. It’s not interesting or engaging.
Amusingly though, Knives’ dad sure could have killed Scott. He got that extra life back in volume two or three, and may have hit the save point before that. The cosmology of the series certainly allows for it. We still really don’t have a narrative function for the evil exes at this point either. Like, they could be a vehicle for Scott to work through his individual hang ups around relationships as the series progresses, but we haven’t really seen that happen. They’re just pit stops along the way to make the comic feel like it’s structured like a Mega Man game. And that’s just it. They could be used to make Scott bleed, literally and figuratively. Force him to take some kind of decisive action about something, anything.
This is one of the things that means I don’t give up on the film as a mistake, because it was taking an almost finished work that had been made over years it’s able to tie themes together and I think it’s a lot more successful at both pointing out Scott’s douchey-ness early on (though still milder than he deserves) and allowing him to redeem himself at the end. For me it’s the handbreak turn at the start of the last volume of the graphic novels into ‘actually Scott put some kids in the hospital and has reimagined his past to cast himself in a more heroic light’, I mean, sure, I guess, but to me it always read like BLO suddenly freaking because he realised his silly little comic book about immature boys fighting was now going to be read by people who weren’t comics fans. I wonder if there’s any pre-2010 (when the last book came out) critique of the structures and themes of Scott Pilgrim?
I finished the last two volumes today, and I’m going to save those full thoughts for the weeks and months to come, but it has me reflecting back on the movie in roughly the same way that Akira or X/1999 relate to their film adaptations. They were really condensed versions of pretty vast epics, but there’s an intriguing interplay that results from it. In Scott Pilgrim the movie feels like it tales place over the course of like a week when the comic is well over a year from beginning to end, which radically alters how we receive Scott and Ramona’s relationship, among other things.
I think there’s a lot of merit to the movie, but most of it lies in the visual shorthand it created. Film had really struggled in how to capture the look and feel of a comic book up until then with stuff like the Ang Lee helmed Hulk movie and Sin City, and Scott Pilgrim really transcended it. It does realy kind of reduce and cheapen some of the characters like Kim, Knives, and Envy though. Which is stuff that comes to the forefront in volumes five and six, natch.