Book(s) Review: Scott Pilgrim rules the world

Like the chicken and the egg question, I can’t remember which came first for me: Scott Pilgrim the comic book or Scott Pilgrim the movie.

I know that I read the entire series before the film came out, but I can’t recall if I heard about the comics first and was excited they were making a movie, or heard the plot of the film and decided to read the source material before I saw it. Since I'm always coming to things later than I would like, it's probably the latter. Either way, I remember one fall and winter period several years ago when I borrowed all six black and white books, one at a time, from the New York Public Library, plowing through them with abandon. 

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: the 2010 film, starring Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and directed by the inimitable Edgar Wright (in his first North American film!), is amazing. Playing on video game tropes with glee, it has fantastic action sequences, great performances and brilliant editing. It’s really, really fun. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the source material, a six-book tour de force by Bryan Lee O’Malley, published by Oni Press. It is the books, which I recently had the pleasure of re-reading thanks to finding the entire set for $25 at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and not the movie that this review is concerned with. 

On the surface, the concept of Scott Pilgrim sounds a bit gimmicky. Scott is a 20-something schlub, living with his roommate Wallace in a studio apartment in Toronto, playing in a crappy band and dating a high schooler, Knives Chau. When a mysterious American girl named Ramona Flowers starts literally showing up in his dreams, he becomes obsessed. After meeting her in a person at a party and asking her out, Scott discovers that Ramona has seven evil ex-boyfriends who have joined forces to keep the new couple apart. In order to win her heart and date her, Scott must defeat all seven of her boyfriends in battle. But this isn’t your normal, every day fight club: Scott encounters exes with mystical powers, ninja training, and “vegans” with psychic ability due to the fact that the majority of their brain power is not filled with “curds and whey.” In the meantime, Scott has to deal with the fallout of his treatment of Knives, getting a job, the meteoric rise in the music career of his ex-girlfriend, Envy Adams, and just generally trying to grow up. 

This is where Scott Pilgrim defies convention. It's a mash-up of many different genres and styles. It’s video games tropes are easy to spot, but it’s also not a video game. For the majority of the books, Scott and a colorful cast of supporting characters are grounded in the real world, until they're traveling through "subspace" and walking through each other's heads. The fight sequences are martial-arts-meets-Looney-Tunes, with characters smashing through walls, flying through the air, and pulling random weapons out of their own chests (yes, that really happens). But it also has genuine character development, moments of real empathy, and is drawn with nods to anime, gaming and superhero culture. Not to mention that it is really, really, really funny. Re-reading the series, I laughed out loud several times, something that rarely happens to me while reading. 

It’s interesting how pieces of art speak differently to you when you’re at different stages of life. When I first read Scott Pilgrim, all of this was a little lost on me. I struggled to get into it because it almost a little too weird. I didn’t understand this world that O’Malley was building, where characters could have such realistic, normal conversations about relationships and then suddenly start pounding each other with “46 air-punches.” But then I was 25 or 26, not much older than the title characters, and in a similar stage of life. 

Now, I’m 31 and married, a little more settled in my life, with my 20s behind me. I now have the benefit of a little bit of hindsight, and with hindsight, I can appreciate how truly brilliant Scott Pilgrim really is. Because underneath all of its humor and schtick, Scott Pilgrim is about navigating an enormously complicated and difficult stage of life. It’s about striking out on your own, trying to hold down a job and a social life all while trying to meet someone you maybe want to spend the rest of your life with. And anyone who is either going through or has gone through that period of life knows that it's no cakewalk. Let’s face it: no matter how old you are, relationships are not easy. You make mistakes, you hurt people, and those mistakes sometimes follow you around longer than you'd care to admit. Ultimately, Scott Pilgrim is about not letting your history define you or have control over you. Ramon's exes may have started a league, but in the end, both Scott and Ramona battle against the baggage they've both brought into their relationship. 

I love Scott Pilgrim probably because he reminds me a lot of myself, especially at that age. He’s a total doofus, clueless when it comes to women, often a bad friend and a self-involved person who’d rather stay at home and play video games than get a decent job. In the beginning, he is terrified of telling Ramona that he loves her, but eventually he learns that there are things in life worth fighting for. 

If you can’t tell already, this is one of my favorite series, not just in comics, but in any art form. It will remain a classic for years to come, a perfect encapsulation of the first generation to grow up on video games and a reminder (or a preview) of a time of life when not everything is as clear-cut or perfect as we'd like it to be. And ultimately, that's okay.