COMICS: John Reviews “Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1” by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Scott, is your book worth reading?

Hey Scott, is your book worth reading?

In the post-everything world of today, where “Family Guy” and the latest [Genre] Movie movie have mercilessly beaten the dead horse of reference-as-punchline jokes and “hipsters” abuse irony so badly that they use it to make fun of already-ironic humor, are we all too burned out to enjoy a story that blends over-the-top pop culture references with clever characters and slice-of-life dramedy?  Hopefully not, because I would hate for Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series to fall on deaf ears and not get the praise it deserves.  I’ll be going through each of the existing 4 volumes separately rather than trying to sum up the series as a whole, which should help to show any changes or progression of O’Malley and/or his characters along the way.


Hopefully the bit of arcade nostalgia above helped to set the mood.  Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life is the first in a series of OGNs chronicling the adventures of a twentysomething, unemployed, video game-obsessed musician named – you guessed it – Scott Pilgrim.  At 23, Scott is currently “between jobs” and playing bass guitar in a band called Sex Bob-omb.  He’s finally getting over his last bad relationship, and as the first page of Vol. 1 exclaims, he’s “dating” a high-schooler (though their physical contact is limited to a brief hand-hold.)  Said high-schooler is 17-year-old Knives Chau, who is still naieve enough to think that Scott is the coolest person in the world (and Sex Bob-omb the greatest band ever.)  Things get more complicated when Scott starts having dreams about a mysterious young woman on rollerblades, then runs into her at a party.  Her name is Ramona Flowers and she’s ten different kinds of awesome, but she has some serious baggage in the form of a League of Evil Ex-Boyfriends who attack anyone she might try to date.  Will Scott be up to the challenge?  What will he tell Knives?  Will Sex Bob-omb be able to out-perform their arch-rivals at the show on Wednesday?  Find out in the pages of Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life!

Bryan Lee O’Malley tackles the mix of geeky pop culture references, refreshingly witty characters, slice-of-life relationship drama and over-the-top action comedy with a zeal and brilliance not seen since the brilliant-but-short-lived Britcom “Spaced” (whose creators and stars went on to have astounding success with offbeat comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.) But where “Spaced” used glimpses into the characters’ overactive imaginations to justify their over-the-top sci-fi action and parody humor, O’Malley makes the fantastic seem as real as the mundane in the Scott Pilgrim universe.  Subspace highways are totally real!  DIdn’t you learn about them in school?  You must’ve been cutting class that day, you slacker.  Scott himself is a loveable loser, a guy with tons of heart who knows how to enjoy life but has no idea where he’s going.  O’Malley knows his audience, it would seem, because that would be a pretty glowing and accurate description of me as well (if I do say so myself.)  Scott’s roommate Wallace is the Felix to his Oscar, and he manages to be one of the most enjoyable and well-developed gay characters in a (relatively) mainstream comic that I’ve ever read.  He has his “Will & Grace” moments, but they’re played with enough craft to show that he’s more than a pants-chaser.  The rest of Sex Bob-omb are fun, yet underdeveloped in this volume.  I imagine that O’Malley has more in store for them.  Knives is an example of how college graduates view high-schoolers, her youth and inexperience simultaneously enviable and damned irritating.  Ramona is cool, clever and more than a bit enigmatic.  It’ll take several volumes to get a better picture of her as a character, but I’m sure O’Malley is up to the challenge of making her more than another damsel in distress who needs a gallant young hero to save her from her perils.

Scott Pilgrim and friends!

Scott Pilgrim and friends!

The romance (both between Scott and Knives and between Scott and Ramona) is of the adorable variety, and surprisingly devoid of sex.  Scott knows better than to get physically involved with a 17-year-old, so no worries there.  He and Ramona almost go all the way on their first date, but decide to play it safe and not get carried away.  Hooray for this new generation of sexually responsible youths (of which a certain governor’s daughter is clearly not a member!  OUCH, BURN!)

As an avid video gamer, I was cracking up at many of O’Malley’s sly references to the genre and some of its more obscure entries.  Everything from the band names (Sex Bob-omb, Crash & The Boys, The Clash at Demonhead) to Scott’s gems of dialogue (“I wish I could turn into a morphing ball and roll to the bathroom”) to game-styled exposition (one character’s “status” said that he had recently leveled-up) leaves plenty for gamers to enjoy while remaining subtle enough to not alienate non-gamer readers.  That, in my opinion, is the best type of referential humor: It gives those in the know something extra to laugh at, but doesn’t force casual readers to run to wikipedia to find out why a joke is funny.

Art-wise, Scott Pilgrim is another entry in what apparently is a popular style of cartoon drawing in Canada (judging by fellow Canadian comics writer/illustrator Faith Erin Hicks’s work on Zombies Calling) that mixes elements from cartoon favorites like “The Simpsons” and “Clerks:tAS” with those of more traditional big-eye-small-mouth manga.  The result is enjoyable, accessible and expressive without looking juvenile.  In particular, I would say that O’Malley makes excellent use of characters’ eyes as tools of emotional expression, especially on the last few pages.  WIth nonverbal reactions like those, you don’t need words!

Scott rocks out

Scott rocks out

Some people might think that Scott Pilgrim is a great, quirky indie comic about relationships that is ruined by over-the-top geek fantasy sequences.  Others might see it as a great send-up of geek culture that tries too hard to have a serious story underneath.  Personally, I see it as a successful blend of clever storytelling and outrageous humor, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.  Here’s hoping the momentum only builds with the second volume in the series, Scott Pilgrim Versus The World.

P.S.: Great news for SP fans!  Edgar Wright, director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, will be directing a feature film adaptation of the SP series – Scott Pilgrim Versus The World – starring Superbad‘s Michael Cera as Scott!  Read about it here!


2 Responses

  1. […] years.  The story builds on each previous volume, though, so if you are unfamiliar with volumes one, two, three, or four you should pick them up or at least click the links to read my previous […]

  2. Absolutely brilliant review of the Scott Pilgrim series (at least the beginning of them in any case). As a huge fan of Scott Pilgrim I think your review hit it spot-on in terms of describing the quintessence of the comics epicness.

    Great post!!

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