By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
The year was 2010. The new decade brought promise and optimisms that would not be realized. The Olympics were in Vancouver and the World Cup was in South Africa. The Affordable Care Act passed, and still exists today as we now routinely need to call our congressmen and beg them not to leave us to either die in poverty or die from illness. The BP oil spill rocked our ecosystem, reminding us that building our energy infrastructure around fossil fuels was a terrible idea. And one comic book character threatened to take over the world. A graphic novel star who was set to become a multi-media star, which his own film and video game. A character who blended comics, video games, young adult angst and manga into one delightful, wonderful package. And that character was Scott Pilgrim.
In my years of writing this column, I find it amazing I never found a way to talk about the Scott Pilgrim. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s second and signature work was one of my high school obsessions, the kind of comic that I could gush about endlessly. And in 2010, when the Edgar Wright helmed film was released along with a retro-style video game, it looked like the brand was set to be a permanent pop culture fixture.
And yet, a decade after its release, Scott Pilgrim remains mostly a cult fixation. With creator Bryan Lee O’Malley focusing on new—and excellent work—the brand has been fairly dormant, save for the recent release of a lengthy card game. So I thought it might be a great opportunity to reminisce and talk about why the series was so remarkable.
For those unfamiliar, Scott Pilgrim is a six book series about Scott Pilgrim, a 20-something living in Toronto and slouching through life. Said life is flipped upside down when American Manic Pixie Dream Girl Ramona Flowers. They hit it off pretty quickly, only to run into one tiny problem: Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes have formed a League dedicated to sabotaging her love life, and Scott needs to fight his way through all Seven to get the girl.
But that’s just the premise. It is the style that brings it all together. Scott’s world runs on video game logic, where stats and scores and titles appear out of thin air, everyone has either incredible fighting skills or magical abilities, and when someone is defeated, they burst into coins.
There is not an opportunity lost with this rich premise. The ‘what if the real world was like a game’ angle has been done countless times, but no one has leaned harder into it and gotten more out of it than O’Malley. The obvious area where this is seen is in the fight scenes, where the excellent choice in sound effects, imagery, and flow makes each fight feel unique and progressively difficult. The fight scenes pop with speed and life, making every encounter feel fresh, magnetic, and kinetic. More than most comics, the sense of motion is absolutely palpable. If Scott Pilgrim were just a boss rush, running from fight to fight with nothing in-between, it would still be an entertaining look into a world of larger than life characters, and still feel like a satisfying narrative arc.
But it’s the mundane, every day moments where the video game style makes the difference. O’Malley makes it clear that this is world running on video game logic, not a world where people fight like video games. Tasks as mundane as cooking, skating from place to place, and talking about feelings are given a level-esque vibe through text pop ups, stats, and progression. The world is littered with visual gags and lore waiting to be notice alongside the frame, creating dozens of lived in environments. The delightfully, pixalized absurdity of everything is met with casual reactions and quippy zingers. Possibly my favorite moment from any of the books comes near the end of the first book where, out of almost no where, Evil Ex Number One bursts through a wall during a concert prompting Scott, who to this point has shown no fighting prowess, to promptly wipe the floor with him. His two band mates simply remark, “doesn’t this guy know Scott is the best fighter in the Province” and “64 hits, new record!” This is a world where the absurdity has been normalized, making it feel utterly real.
And most importantly, the video game aesthetic plays into the character’s journey. This is a series about a 20-something slacker getting control over his life, and learning to be an adult and a better person. And if a guy like Scott needs to conceptualize that growth through a video game progression system, that’s what we’re going to do.
If you’re worried this all sounds a bit too twee, a veers dangerously close to the problematic “Pixie-Dream Girl” territory, don’t worry. The series secret strength is how every single character in this series is given three dimensions, and both Scott and Ramona are elevated from tropes to complicated, difficult people. Even in the earliest parts of the series, O’Malley doesn’t hide the fact that Scott is behind the curve when it comes to handling relationships. As the books progress, it becomes clear that this isn’t some adorable, empathetic quirk, but a toxic, destructive quality. Scott hurts people because of his refusal to grow up and handle real emotions. The series starts with him in a plutonic rebound relationship with a 17 year old, which goes even worse than you’d expect, and ends with him realizing that he’s been creating a revisionist history for himself.
Meanwhile, Ramona sheds her ‘Pixie-Girl’ persona quickly to become a fleshed out character. She never pulls punches when it comes to calling out Scott’s behavior. She’s the exact opposite of a damsel in distress, demonstrating fighting prowess of her own. And as it turns out, she’s working through many of the same problems Scott is. What quickly becomes apparent is that most of the Evil Exes are not ‘Evil;’ rather it was Ramona’s behavior in the relationship that turned them Evil. While Scott tries to fight his problems away, she runs from them. If the series was just made at face value, and the characters were tropes running around in this vibrant world, it might have been enough. But by having the poppy action counter with quiet moments of self reflection, the series becomes something extraordinary.
I wanted to focus on what makes the comic series special, but the film and game are both incredible. Edgar Wright’s movie is flawlessly shot, capturing the energy of the series, as well as perfectly cast, and the game is a blast, if controller smashingly difficult. Unfortunately the film under-performed, leaving Scott as more of a cult fixation as oppose to a household name. Perhaps the series was just too weird, or too difficult to market. But that doesn’t change that the series stands as one of the most unique, engaging, and heartfelt you will read. If I were to give one recommendation this year, it would be to give Scott Pilgrim a try, and see why this Canadian seems poised to take over the world once.