Kung Fu Graphic Novel Achievement Unlocked: The Scott Pilgrim Series

August 11, 2010 | 2 books mentioned 1 5 min read

We’ll skip the part where I talk about the graphic novel’s underappreciated place in contemporary literature/art. Firstly, because I haven’t read enough in the genre to be one of its ambassadors. Secondly, because I suspect the graphic novels’ marginalized niche is what allows their creators to be so inventive and unpredictable. Without the scrutiny that comes with critical acceptance, there are no established rules to follow. It’s like pirate fiction.

coverBut even within this unruly genre, the Scott Pilgrim series is unique in its flexible relationship with convention, borrowing freely from anime, video games, movies, and pop culture. Created by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the sixth and final volume was published earlier this month by Oni Press. The basics of the story are as follows: Scott Pilgrim is an unemployed, bass-playing 23-year-old from Toronto who meets Ramona Flowers, an American delivery girl, and they start dating. Soon after, Scott learns that he must defeat Ramona’s seven evil exes, who each come to kill him in turn, at the average pace of one per volume. Scott, we soon find, is a skilled fighter, and the fight sequences are elaborate, martial arts battles. His life also shares some of the traits of a video game. Whenever he defeats an evil ex, he earns gold coins, a la Mario Brothers, and on one occasion a mithril skateboard.

When not fighting for his one true love, Scott leads a pretty normal life. He is in a band, Sex Bob-Omb, with his friend Stephen and his high school sweetheart Kim. He and his friend Wallace live together and, because Scott doesn’t have a paying job, they share a bed in their one-room apartment. Scott’s younger sister Stacey works at a coffee shop with Julie, who who is Stephen’s sometimes girlfriend. Scott’s ex-girlfriends, one of whom is now a famous pop singer, certainly don’t make themselves scarce. (Although none of them are as homicidal as Ramona’s exes. Scratch that, one of them is.) You see what I mean. It’s a group of friends, they’ve know each other a long time, and their relationships can get complicated. They’re a really likeable bunch – sarcastic, offbeat, underemployed, wearing clothes that even in line drawing look like they came from thrift stores. It’s as if all the oddball sidekicks, usually relegated to comic relief, are playing the main roles. They spend a lot of time at cheap food joints and unproductive band practices, where they bicker and banter and make fun of Scott.

The gang’s dynamic – comfortable, static, routine – is a nice counterpoint to the drama of Scott’s relationship with Ramona, but after a while even that world turns out to be a lot more tricky than it seems. Scott is a sweet but often oblivious guy, and he learns little by little that his carelessness has hurt people. His friends and ex-girlfriends are loyal to him, but tend to roll their eyes at what an idiot he can be. It becomes clear that if he wants to have a stable, mature relationship with the girl of his dreams, he has to do a lot more than roundhouse kicks. Throughout the first five volumes, as Scott contends with one ex after another, he also has to contend with the emotional enormity of Ramona’s past, and his own.

Ostensibly his quest is to fight his way through Ramona’s dating history so they can be together, but while he’s doing that, they’re also struggling to put themselves together as a couple. By the end of volume 5, Scott has turned 24, got a job, and moved in with Ramona, but their future is more tenuous than ever. At some point he starts wondering what kind of chick has seven evil exes. At this point, does Scott have the strength to defeat another ex? Has the enormity of his quest overwhelmed him, to the point that a simple victory isn’t possible? Do he and Ramona even stand a chance after all they’ve been through? It’s a bit like Harry Potter. It’s a bit like High Fidelity.

And no, the fact that a handful of lazy twenty-something Canadians are skilled in martial arts is never acknowledged as a paradox. Scott Pilgrim wears its mythology lightly. The only time the volumes truly lag, especially volume 6, is when O’Malley tries to explain the overall premise – why Ramona’s exes are evil, why they want to kill Scott, why they’re so organized. For the most part, elaborate kung-fu fight sequences come to pass much like the musical numbers in Glee, as if they were natural and unremarkable.  And even though they are the series’ signature, they are far from its strong point.

What I like best about the series is how intuitive it feels. The characters and plotting haven’t been structured for narrative perfection. The fight sequences come at odd times, in some volumes they serve as the final climax and in others they happen offstage while we’re out on the balcony with other characters. O’Malley often begins scenes in the middle of a conversation and ends them as soon as it stops being interesting, with nothing but the words “SO YEAH” as a heading to segue into the next chapter. When the gang has a dinner party, we get the recipe. When they have band practice, we get chord charts. This air of the lackadaisical in his storytelling is most likely carefully crafted, but it’s very successful. The books are suspenseful, engaging, and heart-winning, while maintaining the feeling of a choppily edited reality show. That may be why, despite the fight scenes and the video game references and the hard-to-believe coincidences, the series is so relatable. It doesn’t feel like a writer’s description of 24-year-olds, it feels exactly like being 24.

This is one aspect of the books that I’m worried the movie adaptation, which comes out August 13, won’t get right. With puppy-eyed Michael Cera as Scott, it would be so easy for the movie to become just another tale of an unconventionally attractive young guy trying to find love. The books never over-emphasize the fact that the characters are maturing and figuring out their relationships. If anything, they emphasize the fact that when you’re in your early twenties and all you do is eat burritos, you don’t realize that all that maturing is going on. Graphic novels don’t have the written word’s capacity to dwell on an idea. After a (kung fu) fight, or a (girlfriend) fight, or a concert, or a party, O’Malley can’t give us 20 pages inside Scott’s head while he walks home and thinks over what just happened. Maybe he can give a frame or two to an emotional close-up, but for the most part he has to move on to the next time people are moving or talking. Despite the fact that all the action comes from the desire for human connection, it avoids being contemplative.

Because how great would it be, after all, if getting the girl was just like winning a video game? Difficult, yes. Dangerous, yes. But ultimately achievable, concrete. What Scott lacks in emotional intuition or sensitive courtship demeanor, he makes up for in his unblinking willingness to fight for Ramona. It’s the best thing about him. When, after some bashful falterings, he finally admits that he loves Ramona, he goes up a game level and pulls the Power of Love sword out of his chest. Only in Scott Pilgrim’s world, where you earn points for emotional milestones and you can break down the barriers between yourself and the love of your life with literal force, does this seem like a normal part of growing up. It’s such a great world.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.

One comment:

  1. Nice review, but one little point. Graphic novels and comics are not a “genre.” Sequential art is a story-telling medium like film or prose.

    It is used to tell stories in many different genres. Look at the shelves in your local comic boom store, or in the graphic novel section of your own bookstores. You’ll find Fantasy, Science Fiction, Biography, Non-Fiction, Westerns, Horror, Romance, etc., and of course Super-Heroes. All different genres.

    In fact the comics form can be used to tell stories in every single genre.

    Stories of a specific type are classified as genres, the printed, or digital, products used to communicate this stories are a type of media.

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