Comics Time: Scott Pilgrim Vol. 5: Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe

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Scott Pilgrim Vol. 5: Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe

Bryan Lee O’Malley, writer/artist

Oni Press, February 2009

192 pages

$11.95

Buy it from Oni

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The greatest trick Scott Pilgrim ever pulled was convincing you its conscience didn’t exist. For a long time, the series’ skeptics criticized the shortcomings of the characters as though their existence was a shortcoming of their creator–as though writer/artist O’Malley was unaware that Scott was kind of shiftless and feckless, or that Ramona Flowers was a little bit cruel and aloof, or that their group of friends was cliquey and catty. I definitely see where such critics are coming from, for a couple of reasons: first, that was pretty much my line of attack when I first read Jaime Hernandez’s Locas material (newsflash: Hopey’s a jerk and Maggie’s a mess!); second, I am now a 30-year-old married homeowner in Levittown, and the further I get from Scott’s situation, the harder it gets to relate to, or even in some ways really care about, his plight.

But over the past three volumes, O’Malley has slowly pulled back the operating curtain to reveal the beating heart of the series; if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors, what this means is that the chickens have been coming home to roost. It turns out that all those evil ex-boyfriends aren’t just plot devices, but people who’ve had a lasting effect on how Ramona lives. It turns out that Scott’s glibness both hurts his relationship(s) and enables him to see their potential when others can no longer do so. It turns out that Knives’s lasting crush on Scott isn’t just a funny recurring gag, but something that’s screwing up her life and causing her to screw up the lives of those around her. It turns out that all the “we suck”isms the band indulges in actually have power in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way. It turns out that supporting players have lives of their own and that they can really grow to dislike how oblivious the main characters are to that fact. And so on and so forth.

At the risk of saying what I say any time a new Scott Pilgrim comes out, the singular achievement of the series is conveying all this stuff through the visual language of video games, action comics, and shonen manga. By all means, let the evil ex-boyfriends whose attack finally splits up Scott and Ramona be Japanese hipster versions of Tomax and Xamot, the creepy Crimson Twins from G.I. Joe. Let the fact that Scott is going to have a very rough time in this volume be foreshadowed by not collecting any loot when he defeats a tiny robot at a party. Let the whole emotional tone of the book be telegraphed in a pair of anecdotes about ’80s Chris Claremont X-Men storylines. Let trying to figure out Ramona’s big secret be represented by having her inexplicably glow every once in a while–and then let that be conveyed in part through having a foil cover!

I’m not trying to make the case that Scott Pilgrim fleshes out its characters or connects emotionally the way a good Clowes or Burns or Tomine graphic novel about young people trying to form and maintain relationships does, or that addressing such people is completely unprecedented. It doesn’t and it obviously isn’t. It’s still as much or more about screwball comedy and banter and clever visual elements as all that. But it’s a really fun book, and a lovely-looking book, and ultimately, surprisingly, a complex book. Pretty sneaky, Scott.

4 Responses to Comics Time: Scott Pilgrim Vol. 5: Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe

  1. “I’m not trying to make the case that Scott Pilgrim fleshes out its characters or connects emotionally the way a good Clowes or Burns or Tomine graphic novel about young people trying to form and maintain relationships does,”

    Oh, but you should. Look, I’m a huge fan of those three guys, but I think part of what makes Scott Pilgrim connect so strongly with its fans is that O’Malley, at least by indie comics creator terms, is a pretty well adjusted guy who isn’t tainted by strong misanthropic tendencies. Scott Pilgim has its dark moments, and certainly in volume 5, but it’s still basically a fun story about cool people, like a fantasy about the people who you probably already have in your life if you’re going to be into this sort of thing. I can’t speak to your experience and totally get why you would personally keep this stuff at arms length emotionally, but I think that the majority of characters in the series are very well fleshed out, and very much seem like real people in a way I find to be rather rare in comics in general, particularly those that are not hung up on misery.

  2. There’s no doubt that I’m speaking from my own experience with my own emotional life, which for whatever reason I don’t experience as a lot of rock and roll fun with the occasional bummer mixed in, even if that is in fact a more objectively accurate view of what my life has been like. Maybe it’s just a preference thing, maybe I feel like darker material more accurately reflects what is important/lasting in life/art, I don’t know. I do know that I don’t see my life as a rollicking adventure, or more accurately, something that might be a rollicking adventure were the occasional metaphorical robot fight thrown in.

  3. Yeah, that’s fair. You’re a dark dude, Sean.

    I just feel like I rarely see people I feel like I’d actually know in comics, and Scott Pilgrim gives me that. My life isn’t much like Scott’s, but I know people like Scott, and Kim, and Ramona, and Wallace, and Stephen, and Young Neil, etc.

  4. Sam says:

    I’ve been a fan of Scott Pilgrim, mainly because of the fun, cute, wackiness, with occasional heart-felt moments. However, in this volume, his story really hits home because I have experienced this kind of lifestyle, where everything is fun and nothing is serious and life is just an adventure. I have friends who still live that way, or at least they try to, and they go on and on not recognizing the feelings and happenings of those around them, just the way Scott does. The thing is, that eventually catches up to them, and so those unpleasant moments, which they try so hard to avoid, become real, and they don’t know how to cope. The scene where Scott is quietly asking Ramona not to break up with him, brought me to tears because, to me, it’s the moment where he realizes that everything isn’t all happy and good, and he has no idea what to do. And then it’s even worse for me at the end, where he’s trying to get the cat to come back to him. He’s lost Ramona, but if he can just get that damn cat to come to him, maybe everything will be okay. To me, the juxtaposition of Scott’s wacky, video-game, rock and roll lifestyle and the reality that is starting to set in, is more powerful than a lot of straight forward tragedy. When you know you’re screwed and everything goes wrong, it’s sad, when you think everything’s great and then the world falls apart, to me that’s heart-breaking. I’m very excited for volume 6.

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