Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe

The name alone throws me. Not “Scott Pilgrim Versus the Universe” – but the shortened, handy “Scott 5” one. So far, when talking about Scott Pilgrim books, internally I’ve been drawing lines between Scott Walker’s Scott 1, 2, 3 and 4. They’re familiar names. They fit inside that mental bookcase of mine. Conversely, “Scott 5” sounds strange. It’s unknown territory. The landmarks and signposts are missing. I don’t know where we’re going.

Of course, that’s just about how I process the universe, which is simultaneously irrelevant and the point which I’m going to work towards.

Scott Pilgrim, for those who haven’t been following it, is best described as the Canadian Spaced — appropriate, as Edgar Wright is directing the forthcoming Film Version. It’s an early-twenty-something comedy-drama about the eponymous Scott Pilgrim, fired through with riffs on pop-culture. The back bone of its six issues is Scott’s relationship with Ramona Flowers, the mysterious American Courier girl. To date her, he has to defeat her seven evil Exs in pitched battle. This is the penultimate volume. It’s my definitive comic of the 00s, and I can’t recommend it highly enough — but, as anyone who knows me will testify, I can recommend it often enough to be really annoying. And from now on in, there’s going to be masses of spoilers, so if you haven’t bought them already, just get to it already. It will only improve your life.

In terms of the rest of the series, Scott 5 is the first since the second to not actually emotionally resolve. Rather than closing a chapter, it leaves us on a cliff-hanger. And, like two, the cliffhanger it ends on doesn’t surprise or compel. In the second, yes, we all knew that the genre demanded Todd Ingram to be both Ramona’s third Evil Ex and the boyfriend of Scott’s very own Evil Ex. In this, we know that Gideon is going to want to fight him. That was the plot all along. In fact, were I to critique his technique — instead of doing what I normally do, being work out what I can safely rip-off if I file off the serial numbers – the final panel is one bit where O’Malley doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. When he’s hammered comics into such fascinating shapes throughout the volume, a small caption, an explosion background and the words doesn’t quite cut it — neither explosive or world-drops-away-from-Scott enough.

(My main frustration with the reviewing culture around Scott Pilgrim — in fact, my main frustration surrounding comics criticism generally — is that it doesn’t grapple with the craft nearly enough in favour of approaching it solely in terms of theme-based literary analysis. I’m half way through the (on its own terms, good) Timothy Callahan’s Grant Morrison: The Early Years and it — so far – hasn’t actually grappled with how Morrison creates aesthetic effects in the work even once. The avoidance of doing so fails to engage with comics as comics, rather than just as a vessel which carries ideas. The turn of the phrase counts. A notable exception in the writing around Scott 5 is Abhay over at Savage Critics, who breaks the deep alienation goodbye-fuck scene down in lovingly anti-love fashion.)

So — leaves on a predictable cliffhanger and I’ve compared it to 2, my least favourite of the season. Total failure? Oh, Christ, totally not. It’s as good as anything else I’ve read since the last one — 4 being my favourite volume, which married O’Malley’s growing technical excellence to a more closed, satisfying narrative unit. Scott 5 doesn’t close. It’s happy with being the lead in to its final part. And within its pages, it’s dark as hell. It is, as a Scott Pilgrim character may comment, gone a bit Empire Strikes Back.

Putting aside the horribleness of humans to humans — I recall Jamie and my standard line when asked about how nasty the characters in Phonogram are: Write what you know — the section which chilled me, and kept me flipping through it during my down time at the con, wanting it to be different this time around, was Ramona’s exit and Scott’s heartbreak following. Oh — and Kim Pine’s finest hour. And… oh, we’re getting off-point.

The key thing about the Ramona scene is that it’s an inverse of the magical highpoint of volume 4. There’s been a lot of talk in comics criticism circle about right-brain storytelling. As in, stuff which makes sense solely on an intuitive level. That moves you like song, like opera and all that. And the sequence when Scott expresses his love to Ramona, levels up and — obviously! – gets a magical sword grow out his chest strikes me as the absolute pinnacle of it, if only because it’s so obviously perfect no-one felt the need to describe it such a way. If we’re talking about feeling, it shouldn’t prompt so much cold analysis. It should be overwhelming. In Scott 4, the +9999XP panel made me smile, but I was moved to sheer awe on the page turn and the sword-sprouting. I couldn’t imagine a sword NOT sprouting from Scott’s chest. It was totally necessary. It made no sense. It was glorious.

(To wander into state the obvious territory but: metaphor. Look at the central device of the series — Scott fighting the the Evil Exs is metaphor for what any of us have to do when we start to date someone, especially with heavy baggage — which is, basically, everyone. Scott gets to keep Ramona’s heart when he manages to do so. It’s with Volume 5 where it becomes clear that the evil-boyfriends are as much an internal as an external conflict).

Which leads us to the Ramona disappearance scene. It’s a mirror. Last time Scott threw his emotions down, he raised himself up with that flaming sword. Here, he does so, but it really doesn’t matter. She’s already gone. The glow consuming her. She may as well never been here.

(And, the foil cover! Foil cover as actualisation of alien element in narrative. Technical awesomeosity!)

Something else about this volume: it keeps Scott’s charm and clear-world-view, with never being laugh-out-loud funny. It’s as witty book as you can wish for, but we’ve moved past laughing, at least for now. This shows how analysis of Pilgrim as “Videogame reference gags” is absolutely myopic. Take the GAME OVER legend over the barren streets, of the CONTINUE? one over Scott, locked outside the flat again with the Evil-Ex-monikered cat. They aren’t funny. They’re tragic. They resonate.

And this sort of thing brings the key value of Scott into clear focus. This isn’t (just) gags. This is about how humans of a certain generation process reality. I mean, take last week in New York. Jamie, 2000-AD writer Al Ewing and myself went up the Empire States Building. When looking over one of the greatest city of Earth, the reference points which were voiced were: Bioshock. Sim City. Risk pieces. That Scene In Preacher Where Cassidy Threw Himself Off. Point being, our art shapes how we relate to reality. Scott’s joy — and why it speaks to so many people — is that it understands the pulp through which we see the world, and assumes that’s as natural as blinking.

Scott Pilgrim compels because of its fundamental honesty, its fluency in a shared tongue and its lightness of touch. I can’t believe there’s only another volume to go. I wish that volume was out tomorrow.