Scott Pilgrim Volume 5: Scott Pilgrim vs the Universe
By Bryan Lee O’Malley
Where we reach the penultimate volume of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim saga and ask ourselves: How much of the world does Scott Pilgrim show us? How much does Scott Pilgrim have in common with Harry Potter? And why is pretty much everyone in Scott Pilgrim white when Bryan Lee O’Malley isn’t?
I read a thing that said that Scott Pilgrim is the Harry Potter of the comics world. I think that they meant it more in terms of how towards the end (what with the movie and all that) it became like “the big comics success story” and everything: like the anticipation for the final volumes and the blockbuster sales and people queuing up and everything (this volume had a glossy cover and everything). So yeah ok whatever yeah sure: Scott Pilgrim = Harry Potter in terms of the impact and market value and etc. But it kinda got me thinking about it in another way: mostly how Scott Pilgrim (the character) compares to Harry Potter (the character). I mean – because on the surface both of them are pretty similar right? Chosen ones with cool skills / straight white guys world at their feet kinda thing. Yeah. Ok. Sure.
Only well thing is: as much as I’m a Harry Potter fan (as in: the books. Although I should admit now that I did come to them kinda late and only actually read them last year: which yeah ok – more fool me): I always thought that Harry Potter (the character) was always a little lame. And well you know: yeah – fair enough. Like I think that’s probably by design you know? He’s the blank avatar that let’s us into the world. He’s the one who asks the obvious questions and takes the necessary steps to lead us through the story and the magical wizarding world etc. You know: Hermione and Ron are proper cool rounded interesting characters. Harry – not so much.
But Scott Pilgrim is well yeah: I mean – I know he kinda starts out as seeming like the same kinda thing: but at this point surely it’s pretty evident that he’s full of flaws and doesn’t really know what he’s supposed to be doing? You know: like he attacks his own brother and stuff: this is obviously not really a guy that we’re supposed to be want to emulate right? Like: if there’s another that book 5 really drives home it’s that Scott and Ramona are bother kinda really flawed people – but then: aren’t we all?
And yeah: I kinda like how all the “cool action stuff” actually gets backgrounded in this book (Scott’s fight with the robot literally so). I mean: back when it all started in Book 1 that first fight with the first evil ex-boyfriend was the main event. The thing that everything lead up to. And now it’s all just – a distraction from the main issues – namely: everyone’s relationship with everyone else.
And the whole thing with Kim in the cage being hungover and just wanting to go home and go to bed: I mean yeah – I like it. It’s makes all the hyper-realistic stuff seem grounded (is Scott Pilgrim Magical Realism? Answers on a postcard please).
Altho – if I’m being honest the thing that really made an impression this time round when I read it was: OH MY GOD – how did this get dated so quickly? I mean: when did it first come out? (looks up publication date): oh wow – February 2009. But wow – man: all those shots of their phones: I mean – it makes it feels like it was written in the Stone Age or something. It’s like – I rewatched The Social Network (2010) the other day: and it all feels like modern and stuff until you see the versions of facebook they’re using and then all of sudden it feels like it was made in the Victorian Era or something. I mean – is this just me growing old (yes) or is it also that technology just changes shape like a motherfucker (also yes).
But hey – what did you guys think?
(Oops: just re-read it on my lunch break and realised that actually – it’s set in 2005. Which erm yeah: would totally explain all completley out of date phones. Also: random thought – does Scott Pilgrim pass the Bechdel Test? I mean – it passes 1 and 2 but 3 “the women talk about something other than a man” – I mean: everyone is always talking about Scott Pilgrim. Which does make sense (it is called “Scott Pilgrim” after all) but I wonder if that’s like a bad thing or what? Or something else?).
I think a key part of looking to Scott Pilgrim as a parallel or analogue to Harry Potter is that its original readership came of age alongside it. Harry Potter was really brilliant and somewhat unique in how Rowling started with this short little adventure story for a pretty young audience and evolved in length and complexity along with Harry and that original readership, so kids who got into these books within the first couple and followed them through publication had this really core presence in their lives up through adolescence.
Scott Pilgrim was never really engineered to do something that specific, but the series does evolve and, to a point, mature as O’Malley built on the experience of creating the early volumes and shaped the later ones to reflect his own changing outlook. Scott Pilgrim was pretty unique at the time for being a series that evolved like that over time in print, along with Blue Monday and Wet Moon, but it’s a phenomenon that proliferates a lot now in long running web comics. You’ll somewhat frequently see advice from established pros saying not to start your career with your magnum opus, and I guess I get the motivation behind it, but I completely disagree. I mean, obviously O’Malley made it work for him in a spectacular and non-representative way, but even if your big personal (coming of age) epic doesn’t explode into a commercial juggernaut, it can still be a great thing. If you look at Wet Moon it’s been the backbone of Sophie Campbell’s career for years and it functions as this amazing journey through her evolution as an artist and storyteller that she returns to between stints on TMNT, Jem, and so on. Brandon Graham’s Multiple Warheads, which he’s picked up again through Island is another great example of it.
There’s a part of me that’s tempted to go off and google some Bryan Lee O’Malley interviews and do like a proper analysis of the whole Scott Pilgrim creation process. Like: which bits he wrote when – which bits he changed his mind about and whatever. Like: the image that’s in my head is that he planned out the whole saga before he started and then changed bits of it here and there as he went along – but I’m not quite sure where I got that from and it’s possible that I just made it because that’s what I want to believe (LOL).
My fuddled memory is getting things said here on the LGNN mixed up with things said at the Barbican Comic Forum (and yes I tend to talk about Scott Pilgrim a lot at both): but it seems like there’s a theory or narrative or whatever (?) that Bryan Lee O’Malley course-corrected during the writing of Scott Pilgrim in response to his critics or whatever. And I mean: I guess I can see how that makes sense: Vol 1 is very much bro-tastic and fight heavy but by Vol 5 everything is a little more muted and the tone has slipped into something more serious and thoughtful (if that’s the right word? I dunno – but yeah: it’s like the further it gets the more it kinda opens up: becoming wider and deeper and cooler).
Altho I guess it’s interesting how actually maybe it doesn’t take things as far as I remember? Like: I mentioned the Bechdel test before. And like my memory of Scott Pilgrim is that all of the secondary characters kinda come into their own and expand and become fully grown and reading it ends up having the strangest sensation that all these characters are off having their own lives and doing their own thing and the book of Scott Pilgrim is only giving you a small slice of the world of Scott Pilgrim and that it would be perfectly possible to do a whole book on Kim or Wallace or Julie or Knives or Neil or Envy or Stephen or etc
Except well yeah: if Vol 5 is any indication – even when the non-Scott Pilgrim characters are talking: they’re all still talking about Scott. Which I dunno – does make sense. That’s how the story works. And Scott is so self-obsessed that it does kinda make sense with the narrative that it would be so insular and focused around him. But then also: (my memory says) that does get upended in Vol 6 right?
There is kind of a hard turn this volume in tone and content, it’s a lot more subdued and talky but I feel like other than the hard landing into this volume the progression seems very naturalistic, so I dunno how much I’d expect the evolution of the series to have come from exterior influences like critiques of prior volumes instead of O’Malley’s outlook shifting over the years. It’s definitely possible, though. Something that’s always intrigued me and is probably deeply informing how I’m looking at Scott Pilgrim is that Brian K. Vaughan sort of struggled when he was winding down Y: The Last Man because he’d matured and changed in his outlook on life so much since starting the series that he more or less didn’t want to see it through as he’d originally conceived it. I think there’ll be more to analyze about how intent and execution evolved across the series next volume when we get to a much wider view of Ramona’s history and experience of the whole saga.
I think we certainly do get a much bigger sense this volume that everyone else has changing and evolving lives. There’s so much more happening to people, mostly in terms of relationships and there’s more happening to people that doesn’t explicitly involve Scott, but those happenings are always presented to us either for Scott to react to or as part of a wider conversation about Scott. So from the definition of the Bechdel test, I don’t think there’s been any real positive or negative movement. There’s more things going on simultaneously, but I don’t think the focus has changed measurably.
Barbican Comic Forum
Mentioning Harry Potter made me think of the typical western white teenage fantasy hero, but when I look at Scott Pilgrim it reminds me, at least on the surface, of a Japaneses manga. Mostly due to the art style, but also due to the character and story structure. Naruto comes to mind.
Western teen fantasy (i.e, Harry Potter):
Introverted, misunderstood, (white) protagonist, with absent or estranged parents, discovers they they are extra special. Their close support network of undeserved allies help them on their journey, while a darker jealous rival occasional gets in their way, before ultimately fulfilling their destiny as the (white) saviour.
Japanese teen manga fantasy (i.e. Naruto):
Extroverted, misunderstood, underdog protagonist, with absent or estranged parents, strives to achieve something beyond their reach. A dark secret is uncovered about them on their journey. They are joined by relatively unimportant allies, and are opposed by a darker, jealous, rival counterpart, before they eventually full fill their destiny as the saviour (with questionable western physical features).
Scott seems like a blend of the two. Maybe closer to the manga. The series is even numbered as chapters, just like manga.
Five books into Harry Potter, Harry gets (briefly) expelled from Hogwarts and is re-inducted. By the end he learns of his destiny and the legacy of his absent parents, and nothing is the same for him again etc. At this point he’s a new man, no longer the naive kid he was before.
Five years into Naruto, there is a sudden time-jump, Naruto is couple years older, and even wears black now. That year he learns more about the legacy of his absent parents in the form of the dark power inside of him. At this point he’s a new man, no longer the naive kid he was before.
Five volumes into Scott Pilgrim he tuns 24 year old , eventually gets his own apartment, and becomes a new man. What dark truth does Scott face here? Well he knows the evil ex formula already, and this time proactively confronts them. And we, through him, meet his brother for the first time, and the legacy of his parents is brought to the forefront through both his brother and the fact that his parents paid for his new apartment.
What does this all mean? From what I’ve read through, Scotty P. reads like spoof of the teen hero, with a little bit of 21st century young adult humour thrown in, and aged up to make it appropriate. By setting in an a world where real world issues are exaggerated and overblown, I can better see how melodramatic the regular teen heroes of western fiction and Japanese manga can seem in comparison. But they often get away with it due to their fantastical end of world scenarios looming overhead. So it makes me view Scott’s like, even at this five volume turning point, as just white escapist nonsense.
The funny thing that no one seems to have mentioned so far is that (according to his wikipedia page) Bryan Lee O’Malley is “half Korean and half French-Canadian.” Which yeah – does make it sort of weird that he decided to make Scott Pilgrim into (what looks like – I mean who knows right?) a straight ahead white guy. Like: is that just because of the “straight white male” cultural defaults wired into his brain (wired into all of our brains)? Or is it weird to even bring it up? I mean: isn’t it up to Bryan Lee O’Malley to write whatever the hell he feels like? (Yes). Altho now we’re talking about I wonder if anyone has ever brought it up in an interview with him? “Hey Bryan – why did you make Scott a white guy?” Or you know: would that be way too awkward for everyone involved? You know – what with race being oneof those things that permutates pretty much every aspect of our lives but we’re all too shy and scared and timid to actually talk about just in case we get accused of “racism” or “reserve racism” or “triple opposite squared racism” or etc
Question for Emma and Tari (or anyone else who wants to take it): what would the perfect “non-white escapist nonsense” version of Scott Pilgrim look like? Like: if you just made Scott a black guy would that solve everything? I mean: the whole book is kinda sophistic so it seems kinda tough to bring in a more nuanced political more “right on” version without basically destroying how it all works – no? Or is there something I’ve missed? A better alternative?
I found this interview a whole back which might answer some of your questions, Joel.
I totally sympathise with O’Malley on this because I’ve been creating stories since I was able to write and I only started creating characters who aren’t white (or who aren’t some high fantasy African/Asian/Middle Eastern stereotype) in like, the last five years. The white male default is sooo easy to internalise.
If O’Malley wanted to create a story with a wholly white cast (which he didn’t) then of course, he can, but that interview pretty much sums up the issue: creators should be intentional about it. It’s not really enough to just blindly create a narrative and characters and THEIR narratives without appreciating the contexts you’re creating in.
I mean, other aspects of that interview (or statement or whatever it is) really don’t sit well with me, including the minimalising of the whiteness within the comics right at the end. I haven’t read a lot of manga so I can’t make comparisons, but again, context matters, and the western context of some of Scott Pilgrim’s Asian characters is that they’re stereotypes.
O’Malley is under no obligation whatsoever to produce an ethnically diverse story just because he himself is mixed-race. But it is important for creators to think about what it means to create an ethnically diverse cast – and what it means not to. Which maybe O’Malley does more of now? And whatever decisions creators make, if they put their work out into the world, if you share your work with consumers, you also have to be willing to receive critique (like, “maybe include more people of colour next time”) even if you don’t accept the critique!
Also, frankly, I think it would have been more relevant to his old ‘race is over’ perspective if he’d made Scott Pilgrim (or Ramona or another key player – or, shock horror, maybe even more than one of them!!!) mixed race or Asian. Ethnicity is something many people of colour avoid thinking about or don’t consider a prevalent part of their lives – but those people still always turn to the white default when relevant instead of any other ethnicity, including their own. If O’Malley felt like race is irrelevant, then why NOT have a diverse cast? Or at least one full of Asians like he grew up with? Why not default to his own ethnicity? (Because internalised racism is a thing.)
On that same note, in terms of what could change with Scott’s ethnicity – well, plenty could change, or nothing might. O’Malley himself was able to live what seems to be a middle-class childhood and adolescence, internalising the whiteness around him, and living with a relative amount of privilege based on ethnicity. That’s pretty common amongst middle-class 2nd+ generation people of colour. So really, making Scott mixed-race like himself wouldn’t necessarily change much about the story, except it might feel less alienating for people who aren’t white? I don’t know, I never really related to the story, in part because I’ve never had that privileged middle-class male experience. I’ve also never experienced all the extra privilege Scott gains from being white.
But as his experiences are based heavily off O’Malley’s own, and O’Malley didn’t examine his experiences with ethnicity til much later – from O’Malley’s perspective whilst creating Scott Pilgrim, ethnicity had nothing to do with his experiences (whether it actually did or not, I don’t know.) The point being, I think relating to Scott and his story is partially but not entirely due to internalised whiteness (whether the reader is actually white or not). Taking away the whiteness might make it harder on a surface level for all those white teenage boys to relate to Scott, but ultimately the experience is the same (unless Scott’s background is also changed): privilege, class entitlement, male entitlement, confusion, and life lessons.
O’Malley’s comments at the time, about being post-racial, are a very revealing thing about how race actually functions in Canadian society relative to what the narrative we’re sold about it is. So much of Canadian public policy is defined, justified, and argued for in contrast to whatever the equivalent American perspective is and it’s hard to find a more ideal example than race and immigration.
The American mythology of immigration is the idea of the melting pot, that you bring your culture along with you and add it to the mix, but you are also effectively meant to assimilate into wider American norms. That’s a pretty upfront part of the equation. The Canadian ideal, or so we’re told, is multiculturalism which is supposed to de-emphasize the assimilation aspect and create a space where there isn’t a single dominant culture. The doctrine was a very necessary political evolution from the previous status quo of biculturalism that explicitly defined the descendants of the English and French colonists as the dominant cultural and political force, but it isn’t really questioned or examined for its effectiveness in a thoughtful way.
If Canadian Multiculturalism worked the way it was intended to in 1971, O’Malley’s comments about being post-racial would be a pretty spectacular departure from those values. The reality though is that in practice, the pressures to assimilate into whiteness are no less pervasive here than they are anywhere else and O’Malley’s perspective in that interview is, if disappointing, unremarkable for his generation of Canadian (or mine).
What really interests me on the topic is how all of that reads in the UK. Despite one of my first stuffed animals as a kid being a Paddington Bear, I don’t fully grasp what England’s national narrative on immigration and assimilation are. The limited perspective I’ve gleaned from the Thatcher Era up until Brexit seems to be characterized by anxiety and a lack of concensus. Which is peculiar in the macro view because two of the key (white) writers driving conversations around diversity and portraying the other in the American comics industry are Kieron Gillen and Paul Cornell.
As far as Scott’s race goes, I think Zainabb more or less has it. Given that Scott is a surrogate for O’Malley himself, I don’t think that, without radically altering the narrative, it would achieve anything more than the clarity that finding out that O’Malley is biracial brings to his creative choices.
I don’t honestly know what a non-white Scott Pilgrim produced in North America or Western Europe would look like, because those comics don’t seem to be allowed to exist without being mitigated by white masculinity, or at least in the mainstream. The post-Scott Pilgrim comics, in the sense of being magical realist (or Nintendo Realist if you want to get technical about it) coming of age stories that signify on the same network of cultural references are pretty much all written by white men. It might actually be Snotgirl if Lotte’s race is ever codified. Outside of comics, well that’s easy. It’s Dope.
For me, the biggest parallel between Potter and Pilgrim (outside the saviour narrative, which could be paralleled with any number of characters) is the way they’re established as being reflections/elements of their main villains.
With Harry/Voldemort, Harry is the final horcrux, the last trapped bit of Voldemort’s soul, so Harry needs to die for the villain to be defeated. He has a little bit of evil incarnate in him, and it needs to be expunged. With Scott/Gideon, Scott’s own behaviour is the reflection of Gideon – the self-centeredness and self-pity present in all his previous relationships is the element that could harden into more explicit misogyny and cruelty over time. That’s the part of him that needs to die for him to overcome the villain, and the potential villainy in himself.
To me, Scott Pilgrim is explicitly not post-racial. The heart of the story is about Scott realising he’s not special, and that he doesn’t deserve special treatment. While the most crucial aspect of that arc relates to his gender, it is also clearly informed by his race. The power of love pales in comparison to the power of understanding.