Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour

Posted by on November 12th, 2010 at 11:25 AM

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
–Opening line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer

The Scott Pilgrim series is the first comic for cyborgs.  Or maybe not the first, but the first really good one.  It’s a comic by and for the generations that grew up online, the people for whom cyberspace is as real as meatspace.  Cyberspace looks a little different than William Gibson imagined it.  Turns out there are more coins and mushrooms.  But when you’re there, it’s real.

The opening sentence of Gibson’s Neuromancer, the novel that launched the “cyberpunk” genre, was hammered out on an olive-green manual typewriter by a man with no special interest in computers.  He didn’t realize he was writing something that would resonate so strongly with the generation coming up behind him, the young people for whom computers were as common and essential as toasters.  The funny thing is that the meaning of that first sentence changes depending on how old you are.  It’s the same with Scott Pilgrim, I think.  Just look at the sharp divide of opinion over the recent movie: the Internet populace rallied fiercely around it while the rest of the world scratched its head.  The rest of the world, maybe, is not yet sufficiently jacked in.

Scott Pilgrim is what the less computer-literate and more book-literate might describe as magical realism, the genre that deliberately blurs the line between pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ways of perceiving the world.  Except that with Scott Pilgrim, what we’re looking at is post-Enlightenment and post-post-Enlightenment, the perspective of young people whole relationship with the world bleeds out of physical reality and into the virtual spaces of the mind.  It operates by video-game logic, like more and more people do nowadays.  One of my favorite scenes is a small moment early in the saga: Scott, curled up in bed, idly comments that he wishes he could curl himself into a ball and roll into the bathroom, Metroid-style, and his OTP Ramona Flowers says she knew someone once who could do that.  It wasn’t that great.

The series starts as a high-concept, tongue-in-cheek portrayal of dating as a video-game battle, then develops into a casually sprawling relationship drama as Bryan Lee O’Malley becomes less interested in Nintendo jokes and more interested in his expanding cast of characters.  By the final volumes, Scott has squeezed himself into a ball and is rolling toward an overwhelming question: is it possible to be Scott Pilgrim, in the reality Scott inhabits, and grow up?

That’s one of the great puzzles of every American generation to come along since the Baby Boomers: what does it mean to be a grown-up, anymore?  Grown-ups play video games now.  They fool around on the computer.  It’s a happier kind of adulthood, or maybe just a more pleasantly deluded one.  When people Gibson’s age read the first sentence of Neuromancer, they picture a gray, stormy sky, because that’s what a dead channel was when they were growing up.  People my age–I’m 32–picture a flat blue sky, because that’s what a dead channel looks like when you have a cable hookup.  The sky of an easy summer day.

Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, the sixth and final book in the series, finds a satisfying resolution to Scott’s dilemma, because O’Malley understands his lead character.  One of the saving graces of the series is that Scott is kind of  an asshole, and the comic knows it.  His feckless man-child behavior charms people, then hurts and alienates them.  Arguably the most serious flaw in the Scott Pilgrim movie was the casting of Michael Cera in the title role.  It should have been perfect, but Cera is apparently incapable of projecting anything other than gentle cluelessness, whereas Scott Pilgrim should project aggressive cluelessness.  Cera plays him as a nice guy, rather than a guy who thinks of himself as nice, which, as many women can tell you, is a very different thing.  Growing up, for Scott, doesn’t mean leaving his video-game reality.  But it does mean letting other people in.

Now that the Scott Pilgrim series is complete, its possible to see its flaws.  The plot meanders in the central volumes, as O’Malley kills time between battle scenes with manga-style side trips and new possible love interests for Scott, like he needs them.  Smug rock promoter Gideon is somewhat lacking as a Big Bad, and it’s sometimes hard to say exactly why he’s supposed to be so evil, except that Ramona can’t get over him and Scott finds him annoying.  (Spoilers: It’s entirely appropriate that Gideon is far more powerful and menacing inside the characters’ heads than he is in the external–I hesitate to say “real”–world.)  Ramona herself doesn’t develop much of a personality beyond Hipster Dream Girl until the final volume, when O’Malley makes a hurried but convincing case for her as Scott’s perfect distaff.

And, well, the video-game and anime references can get oppressive.  One of my other favorite moments in the series is a single panel, in the last volume, of a ruined Scott muttering desperately to himself, “I beat this one guy…video games…”  Sums it all up, in a way.  (Finest Hour contains many such moments of wry self-awareness, another indication that this is a comic for cyborgs: it’s pretty clear O’Malley has been following all the discussion and speculation online.)

But discussing the storytelling flaws in Scott Pilgrim is like discussing the storytelling flaws in Star Wars. What it does is so new, and speaks so strongly to a particular segment of the population–the younger segment, mostly–that such criticism is almost beside the point.  Scott Pilgrim comes from a place that’s new to literature, but it’s a place many of its readers know well.  Especially readers younger than me.  I didn’t have Internet access until college, for heaven’s sake.  I didn’t grow up as a cyborg.

Readers younger than me…they don’t know what a dead channel is.  In their reality, the TV always has a signal, and you mostly watch things online anyway.  I don’t know what they see when they read the first sentence of Neuromancer.  I don’t know what they see when they read Scott Pilgrim.  Whatever they want, I think.  Scott Pilgrim was written by someone my age, but, whether he knew it or not, he wrote it for them.

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3 Responses to “Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour

  1. Ng Suat Tong says:

    I enjoyed reading this.

  2. subdee says:

    One of the saving graces of the series is that Scott is kind of an asshole, and the comic knows it. His feckless man-child behavior charms people, then hurts and alienates them. Arguably the most serious flaw in the Scott Pilgrim movie was the casting of Michael Cera in the title role. It should have been perfect, but Cera is apparently incapable of projecting anything other than gentle cluelessness, whereas Scott Pilgrim should project aggressive cluelessness.

    Totally! The very first time you see Scott, he’s doing something jerky (dating a high schooler because it’s easier than dating someone his own age), but as the comic goes on O’Malley drops more and more hints that Scott’s not going to get away with this – that MEANING WELL doesn’t let you off the hook when you are constantly opting out of mindfulness of the negative consequences of your actions.

    Not sure Scott Pilgrim, the comic, should get a pass for being a totally new thing that has never been done before. But I do think it deserves a lot of credit for being a gamer comic with much more finely observed and nuanced psychology than you normally ever see in gamer comics. It blends the geek world of video games and comic books (seen in many webcomics) with the mid-twenties world of shitty jobs, house parties, going out to see bands and being in an adult relationship. I think it’s the emphasis on psychology and consequence that makes Scott Pilgrim feel substantially different from other comics with fantasy elements – as if the video games are REAL, as real as real life. Which, of course, they are.

    I wrote up the sixth volume and the movie here:
    http://sub-divided.dreamwidth.org/6980.html

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