SCOTT PILGRIM, THE SERIES SO FAR
Finally read “Scott Pilgrim” this week. I read the first two volumes when they came out, and then something happened. I don’t know what, but I didn’t keep up. Kept collecting them, but never read them. I think with each volume, I felt the desire to re-read all the previous ones to freshen up my memory, and blocking out that amount of time became too much. That happens sometimes with long series that take place over a longer period of time. It killed me on a few manga series, I think, with the exception of “Lone Wolf and Cub.”
So I blew through the current five volumes in the last couple of weeks, squeezing in time to read any few pages I could. It’s funny, but with a standard trade paperback collecting six comics, I wouldn’t dream of opening it if I couldn’t read to at least the end of one of the books being collected. With “Scott Pilgrim,” I’d read whether it was for three pages or 30. Didn’t affect my enjoyment of the series at all. It was a fun experience.
I can remember reading the first volume while sitting in the parking lot of a restaurant waiting for some friends to arrive. That was, what, 2004 sometime? And I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. The first half of that first volume is a fairly standard hipster romantic comedy of sorts. It has a little bit of the surreal and the fantastic in it. It has some funny video game references. The art, in retrospect, is a cross between manga and Doug TenNapel. Looking back at it today, I’m amazed at how some of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s uneven ink line reminds me of TenNapel’s stuff.
But, then, out of nowhere, Scott Pilgrim is fighting one of the evil exes of the girl he’s interested in with a Bollywood number and it all came together for me: this is a series that’s bound to integrate any number of influences of modern pop culture into something that should be a lot of fun. Sure enough, in the volumes ahead, Scott fights robots, evil twins, a magic powered hammer, a one-sided skateboard duel and a “Lone Wolf and Cub”/”Samurai Jack” style double-page spread showdown. With each win, he’s collecting coins, as if he’s defeated a Big Boss from a Super Mario side-scroller. And along the way, we see eight-bit heads-up display graphics letting us know when Scott scores life points. There’s a willing breaking of the fourth wall, with multiple references to the book numbers. There’s…
Well, at this point, you don’t need me to break down what the series is any more. There are countless thousands of words being written about this book this week. The sixth and final volume of the book is being released tomorrow (possibly even at midnight tonight), and the movie adaptation is due out soon. The trailers are a spectacular recreation of the comic, complete with sound effects (even for a doorbell ring) and speed lines. Rather than break it all down for you book-by-book or attempt to sum it all up in pull quote-worthy fashion, let’s take a larger overview of the series to date, and talk about three things that I found interesting:
Scott Pilgrim is a complete and utter loser. He’s that kid you grew up with who got addicted to video games — possibly a Nintendo eight-bit system — and never got over it. He’s self-absorbed, he’s awful with people, he’s socially awkward, and he’s a mooch. He’s a jerk.
But damn it all if O’Malley isn’t able to make him a sympathetic one that you kinda want to root for, even when he’s doing everything wrong. Why is that? How is that? Aspiring writers ought to look at “Scott Pilgrim” for answers to that.
The first trick is that Pilgrim doesn’t suddenly change. He doesn’t learn one life lesson after another. There’s not a moment in this series where he makes the right decision and it turns his life around. Pilgrim is a bumbling idiot who occasionally finds himself backed into corners and successfully fights his way out of them. He’s not mean. He’s not willfully evil. He’s just a loser. He’s the complete underdog of the story, though, and we all love to root for the underdog, even when we’re rooting for him to keep the girl, who happens to be keeping plenty of secrets from him and might just be a bigger jerk than he is.
But by not having that one moment where everything changes, it never feels like O’Malley is forcing the plot onto the character. He’s not trying to get from Point A to Point B at any cost. He does have an end goal in mind, but he’ll get to it on his own schedule. And if that sometimes means a lesson learned is a step in the wrong direction, so be it.
The thing about Scott Pilgrim is that the character is set up as such a loser that it doesn’t bother me at all that he’s so inactive in his own book. He’s the protagonist of this series, right? Shouldn’t he DO something? He’s always reacting to things. He wants to fight Ramona’s seven evil exes, but does nothing to seek them out, and often runs away from them at first sight. He has no plans going in. He often beats them by “outsmarting” them or by means other than direct confrontation. And when he does fight them, half of those fights winds up occurring off-panel. This should be the most confounding and most annoying series of all time. Yet Pilgrim is such a loser that it’s all we expect of him. It’s in character.
It’s remarkable. It truly is.
The Highs and the Lows. Volume 3, “Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together,” gives us all hope for Scott. He effectively gets the girl in this issue, makes a huge step in the world of relationships, gets a job, and takes care of some dangling plot threads that have been around since the opening pages of the first volume. There’s a new hope for Scott.
Volume 5, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe” destroys it all. Just two volumes later, O’Malley completely disassembles the book. Everyone is mad at each other, the band is failing, the relationship is failing, and everything goes completely to pot. It’s like a very bad episode of “DeGrassi High.” (Wait, O’Malley’s Canadian. Am I missing more overt references to that series?)
On its own, it’s a depressing and maddening book. Just when you think Scott is going to “get it together” for good, it’s all ripped out from under him. Well, some of that is his old mistakes finally coming home to roost, but still…you hate to kick a guy while he’s down, but O’Malley stomps on Pilgrim here. I’m very glad I didn’t read this volume until the week before the finale comes out. I can’t imagine sitting on this book for a year and a half before seeing how it all plays out.
But that’s also storytelling for you. It’s always darkest before the dawn and all. The third act of the movie begins just as the protagonist is at their lowest point. That which doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger. You always hurt the ones you love. Etc., etc.
After 180 pages of downbeat storytelling, this last volume could prove to be a joyous experience. I hope.
The Evolution of an Artist. O’Malley’s art is fun to track over the course of five original graphic novels, hundreds of pages, and six years. Something happened between volumes 3 and 4 in particular, I think. That’s where I see the jump. O’Malley’s art becomes more stylized and more confident. He’s found his characters and his style. The book looks cleaner. By the time the fifth volume comes around, things are slickly polished. There’s not a lot of wasted ink on the page. The characters are more cartoony with more open lines. Storytelling is more considered. It’s not just a series of small panels on a page, arranged as they go. This seems like a much more planned effort. O’Malley still plays games with the format and the storytelling, but it feels more important when he does.
This isn’t a case where the artist simplified and lost his edge, either. O’Malley traded in chaos for slickness. The energy is still there. The layouts now mean more, because they feel like something that’s been designed, and not something that just happened on the page. Pay attention to the way he frames a shot, or his use of silhouettes, or his stylistic tricks.
I think the biggest change by Volume 5 (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe”) is just that the character designs look almost more chibi-ish, or more likely to be designs for an animated series on the Cartoon Network. Without losing any of the emotion in the characters and without turning the book into an absurd farce, O’Malley’s style became simplified and less chaotic. Whether that was a natural progression or a focused attempt at mixing things up, I don’t know. It was certainly a lot of fun to watch.
“Scott Pilgrim” may become the defining book for a generation of comics reader. Everything about it feels modern and fresh. It takes the best parts of a variety of pop culture and smashes them together into something that never loses its playfulness. O’Malley’s artistic style, while evolving, is also capable of changing at will for comedic effect or for satirical purposes. I’m very eager to read the last volume now, and hope to get my mitts on it this week in time for the next Pipeline.
ABSOLUTE PLANETARY, VOLUME 1
Speaking of the evolution of art, I read “Absolute Planetary Volume 1” this weekend, in preparation for the second volume’s release this week. Seeing John Cassaday’s art evolve and develop over the course of this single volume was interesting, too.
Chronologically, you have to start with the eight page preview story Warren Ellis and Cassaday did in 1998. Continuity-wise, it would probably fit somewhere in the middle of the first dozen issues of the series, but it gets tucked neatly away at the back of the “Absolute” volume, where it belongs. For as little difference in time there was between that preview story and the first issue of the series, the difference in Cassaday’s art (all of it self-inked) is enormous. It’s almost cartoonish. The anatomy is a little rougher. The Drummer looks off-model. (Had Cassaday not yet looked in the mirror for inspiration there?) The ink lines are thicker.
Cassaday’s art in the regular series becomes much more straightforward. It’s a lot of wide panels, medium shots, and classic simple “camera” angles, the likes of which you’d find in movie or television series. There’s no single panel that wouldn’t be possible to use if these were movie storyboards. A couple of special effects might be necessary here or there, but that’s it. Everything else is straight on, and it’s a style that works for Cassaday’s art.
He also specializes in lighting in his figures. I’m not sure the light sources are always consistent, like they would be for a movie set, but they’re interesting. The lights are placed 90 degrees to one side to envelop half a face in shadows, or separate lights are placed to either side, just behind the face, to give that single black line straight down the center of the face along the nose line. That’s a favorite look of Cassaday’s. You can see these techniques, the more you look for them. I’m a photography nut, so they jump out to me.
Cassaday’s art works best when it’s mostly thin lines, with some open spaces for the colorist to come in to work between the shadows. There’s not much need for cross-hatching or feathering his lines. The book looks extraordinary in the “Absolute” format. The open art and the bold colors (mostly from Laura Martin) pop off the page. And while there were a couple of pages showing signs of pixilation, the black ink lines are overwhelmingly preserved, and beautifully so.
One thing I’m not completely sure I get after reading twelve issues of the series, though: What’s it all about? Yes, it’s cool. Yes, it has the classic Ellis archetypes and the great one-liners, and a certain self-awareness. It tackles a different genre each issue, from Hong Kong action flics to monster movies to pulp fiction to DC and Vertigo comics. But all of that is the window dressing that’s provided to move the story arc forward. And in this first volume, we’re introduced to Elijah Snow and a whole lot of mysteries. By the end of the book, one mystery is solved, a lot have been pushed further down the field, and I’m not sure I know just what the point is. The “4” are manipulative and evil people who must be stopped. Is that it? The archaeological angle is the most fun, but those stories aren’t the point of this series. It reminds me of “100 Bullets” that way, too. I liked the moral quandary the anonymous briefcase gave us, but the series veered from that quickly.
I’m hoping that the second volume has enough answers alongside those cool moments to provide a raison d’etre for this series. I guess we’ll know soon enough. Volume 2 hits stands this week.
TWO FINAL AND UNRELATED THOUGHTS
- I attempted to kick off a Twitter Storm for #AbsolutePowerGirl and failed. My attempt at #AbsoluteHeckler/Vext was met with the sounds of crickets. Ah, well.
- Remember: rumors are only rumors until something is announced. Just in case, I point you all to a column I wrote two years ago (January 2008), in which I imagined Joe Quesada giving a speech at Wizard World: Chicago in 2009 about the end of “Brand New Day.”
My timing is off, but might my predictions come true?
Next week: Quite possibly, an exact sequel to this column. Most likely, some last minute San Diego talk. And as the leaks line up and the news breaks, you just never know what there might be to talk about.