I should disclose right away that prior to the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, I had never heard of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s superlative graphic novel(s). The only reason I watched it, in fact, was a combination of my friends’ rave reviews (despite lackluster box office performance) and the fact that I absolute adore directory Edgar Wright’s previous films1. My reaction to the film was positive and visceral, as it seems to hit all the right stylistic notes, and of course its contents were a geekfest of epic proportions.
The Scott Pilgrim series came in six parts between 2004 and 2010, with the last entry arriving a mere month before the movie’s debut. Though the movie is named after the second book of the series, its plot comprises the entire six books, so either my information is wrong or O’Malley let the screenwriters in on the secret well in advance.
It’s difficult to talk about the graphic novel without talking about the movie, at least for me, since the I enjoyed latter the both first and tremendously. Upon beginning the graphic novel, I was immediately struck both by how spot-on the casting was for the film2 and how faithful the movie was to the graphic novel, at least until about halfway through, at which point the movie appeared to diverge for the sake of time. I will now stop talking the movie, since there’s nothing more obnoxious than someone reviewing one medium by prattling about a different one.
Everything about the story of the Scott Pilgrim series is great. I say that unabashedly, even though it sounds rabid and not very helpful. Scott Pilgrim is a 23-year-old Canadian slacker with no job, who plays bass in a crappy band (the Sex Bob-Ombs), lives in a run-down apartment with a gay roommate named Wallace, dates a 17-year-old Chinese schoolgirl named Knives Chau, and—worst of all—lives in Canada. In other words, Scott Pilgrim is a loser, and we have very little reason to like him other than (a) we sometimes like losers and (b) he’s good at other things, like fighting robots.
Everything changes when he meets Ramona Flowers, a hipster chick with dyed hair and rollerblades, fresh from America, for whom he falls like a hammer-head. In order to date Ramona, however, Scott must defeat her Seven Evil Exes. This takes the form of literal fights in the style of anime and video games; in fact, much of the fantastical aspects of Scott Pilgrim come straight from that geek tradition, and the whole series is full of such references, either generic genre references…
…or even very specific but unstressed references to particular games, such as this obvious (I think) allusion to Final Fantasy VII…
What’s so interesting about Scott Pilgrim is the way O’Malley blurs the distinction between what happens literally in the comic, and what is a fantastical representation of something mundane. Scott Pilgrim, for instance, fights Ramona’s evil exes until they burst/explode into a pile of coins—of course we aren’t supposed to take this literally…. right? Remember too that Scott Pilgrim is a scrawny loser, and yet he’s renowned in his small town as a fighter. This makes sense only when you consider the real/fantasy fights as a proxy for the sort of video game expertise so valued by Scott Pilgrim‘s likely readers. Even more interesting, though, is that although O’Malley appears to initiate a sort of contract with his readers in which we agree to suspend our disbelief and accept either that Scott Pilgrim literally fights people in the manner of Anime or read the fights as an interesting metaphor for social turmoil, it becomes clear later on in the book that the representation of these fights, especially when told through the lens of Scott’s memory, is unreliable.
Realistically, would the tale of Scott Pilgrim be interesting without the videogame physics? The mithril skateboards or extra lives or subspace purses? I don’t necessarily think so—at least not in graphic novel form. And yet by the end of the book, we’ve come to realize (or at least I did) that boss fights and other such geeky fantastika aren’t nearly as interesting as we thought, and in the meantime we’ve come to care for Scott and Ramona and the rest of the roster, even though their problems are stupid and dramatic soap opera nonsense. It’s a dirty trick, of course, but it’s also a small slice of genius on O’Malley’s part.