Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour
Writer/Artist: Bryan Lee O’Malley
[Four and a half stars]
It’s easy to get swayed by the hoopla of the forthcoming Edgar Wright adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series and not recognise the book for what it really is ”“ a game-changer for the comic book medium, an unbelievable mash-up of styles, various tropes and genres into something that is contemporary and nostalgic at the same time. Look at the facts: A black and white series that was published as digest-sized volumes by a fledgling company, written and drawn by an individual with no previous track-record. Six years and multiple awards later, Scott Pilgrim is an acknowledged publishing phenomenon. The sixth and last volume, released last month, ends the storyline. (The sound you just heard? The rabid howling of Scottheads demanding more.)
So what’s it all about? On the surface, Scott Pilgrim is a straightforward bildungsroman. Our protagonist, a 22-year old slacker with a poor relationship track record finds the girl of his dreams ”“ a roller-skating delivery girl named Ramona Flowers. But to date her, Pilgrim has to defeat Ramona’s seven evil exes ”“ an ultra-bizarre concept that turns the initial rom-com premise of the series on its head in the concluding pages of the first volume. The first five books have Scott defeating the majority of the evil exes in fight sequences that merge video-game references with a shonen-manga sensibility. Along with that, there are the convoluted relationship graphs among the supporting cast – the other women in Scott’s life, his gay roommate, the circle of friends who frequent the same downtown Toronto nightspots.
By the end of book five, however, Scott’s life is in shambles. Ramona has disappeared. The mysterious Gideon Graves, Ramona’s seventh boyfriend and the Boss Villain of Scott’s beat-em-up odyssey finally makes an appearance, and you get the epic showdown one would expect when nemeses clash. But wait, this is the part where I remind you that the series is not all pop-culture references and Nintendo in-jokes. (If it were just that, it would probably be just another comic book, without the kind of fandom that it has spawned. I mean, midnight release party-level fan intensity, man, that’s so Harry Potter!). The series is primarily about growing up, and the complicated nature of relationships, which means that the most insightful revelations and the most compelling moments in Finest Hour deal with Pilgrim and Pilgrim alone. Scott’s perennial challenge has always been his precious little life, which he whiles away playing video games, shirking a regular job and sucking at his vocation of choice (bass player for a band named Sex-Bob-omb). Even as he asks ex-flame Knives Chau if they should have some casual sex, or tries to make out with best pal Kim Pine, little tidbits of information about Scott are deliciously squeezed out to the reader, pieces of a puzzle that enlighten us about the real nature of Scott’s dilemma. That sometimes, in order to get what he wants, a boy has to become a man.
Minor spoilers ahead ”“ yes, Scott and Ramona meet again, and yes, Gideon is far more diabolical than you ever imagined. But the reunion is not exactly a starry-eyed love-fest, and Gideon Graves is not really all black and no white. Though I am not aware of O’Malley’s motivations, I am willing to put money on the hunch that this book is, for the creator, a way to exorcise his inner demons as much as it is about the protagonist. That does not mean it’s not funny, or emotionally unsatisfying, hell no! This is a book where every loose thread, every plot point comes together brilliantly, filtered through Bryan O’Malley’s tongue-in-cheek humour. His style is a minimalist version of what is taken for granted as “manga-style” ”“ big eyes, oddball expressions, the works; but it’s surprising to see how much of an emotional wallop he can pack with precisely that lack of details. Obviously, the action scenes are where O’Malley goes nuts, and it’s a revelation to compare sequences from the first volume, which came out in 2004, and this one to see how far he’s come in terms of draftmanship. And ooh, the artistic tics ”“ flashback sequences shown as childish, fuzzy scrawls, startlingly original use of perspective, funky transition sequences. Only in Scott Pilgrim would you see “closure” as a video-game power-up.
Yes, you will need a slight amount of knowledge of classic video-games to get a chuckle out of everything that’s packed into these 300-odd pages. Then again, if you have followed the twists that the creator has thrown your way so far, you will take it in your stride even if you are not familiar with the eighties arcade scene. You will fist-pump at all the right “fuck yeah!” moments, and heave a contented sigh when you turn the last page. And like me, you will probably contemplate buying a PS3 for the downloadable Scott Pilgrim game, just to relive the series all over again.