Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe
This article was originally published over at Comics Daily, and if you want to read a shorter, non-spoilery version of it, that's where you should go. This extended edition contains some mild spoilers for the book's plot and ending.
Okay, let's get the formalities out of the way first : yes, of course, it's absolutely brilliant. Depending on what MorrisonQuitelyBatman and GillenMcKelviePhonogram come up with, Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe will in all likelihood retain its status as "best comic of the year" for the entirety of 2009. If you're already reading Bryan Lee O'Malley's magnificent action-comedy-romance series then it's such an essential purchase that you obviously already own it (and if you don't, hard luck, because it's probably sold out where you live); and if you're not already reading the series, then this is clearly not the place to start, but it does nothing to change the fact that you should be reading the series.
However, I'm here to try and say something vaguely insightful about it, so here goes. And... it's difficult, actually. Book five has managed to inspire a completely different emotional reaction at its close to that of any previous volume. To say exactly the same thing that every other review has or is going to have said... it's dark. Not by normal, "my entire family's been stabbed to death" standards of dark, of course - I don't think I'm giving away much if I tell you that no-one dies or anything - but in comparison to the tone previously set by the book, as a character piece it's pretty downbeat. There's something ominous about almost every page, and it culminates in a truly, genuinely heartbreaking final act for those of us who feel fully invested in these characters and their story. Comparing Scott Pilgrim to Spaced is one of the first things that any new reader does, but if we're talking equivalents, then ... vs. the Universe really is the episode "Dissolution".
Of course, like that episode, a downbeat penultimate chapter doesn't necessarily mean that things suddenly aren't going to work out well in the end. It would be a cheat of the mood established by the previous four volumes to do that, and it is of course a standard feature of the hero's journey that all will seem lost shortly before a triumphant victory. But O'Malley's trick is to convince you utterly and entirely that he has pulled a bait-and-switch. Even though the book ends on the mother of all cliffhangers, so much about it feels final. Even though we probably will do, it's not unreasonable to feel like we may never see Ramona or - in particular - Kim ever again. That final act I mentioned sees the narrative jump to "some time later", and the setup that we're given as a result feels more like an epilogue to the entire series. And even if the tone does shift back to something more traditionally Pilgrimish in book six, the overriding sense is that the ending that we all expected, the predictable outcome that jumps to mind as soon as anyone describes the book's overall scenario... well, it's not a given. Not by any stretch.
Not least because the basic concept of what the book is about has changed so drastically. Talk of the upcoming movie pitches it as "Scott must defeat Ramona's seven evil ex-boyfriends in order to win her". But it's not about that at all any more. Yes, we will surely see the much-hoped-for face-off with Gideon in the final book. But that's not the battle that Scott's facing in order for his and Ramona's relationship to work any more. For, while the series has always relied on the reader identifying with that need that a certain generation (and I feel almost every NTS reader probably "gets" this) has to express their life experiences through references to shared cultural touchstones - in Scott's case, primarily video games - we've always taken his "game boss" style battles with the Evil Exes entirely literally as representative of the strange "world" in which the characters live. Here, though, their allegorical nature becomes more clear. Scott isn't simply fighting Ramona's exes for the "right" to date her. They represent her past, his immaturity, her closed-off nature - all the obstacles that must be overcome by the pair of them, not so that their relationship can be allowed to exist, but simply so that it can survive It's telling that the scenes in which Scott battles the Twins' robots quite deliberately take place in the background of scenes in which Ramona has conversations - first with Kim, then with Knives - about him. In the final analysis, the true threat to their relationship is far more complex than the simple and convenient external force of an "evil ex-boyfriend" - simply put, it's each other.
Throughout the series there have been aspects of Scott and Ramona's relationship that have felt difficult to the reader, and they come to the fore here. While we've seen glimpses of what might have made Scott fall for her in the previous books, there's also been a nagging doubt over just why she's worth these battles. Here, they're made explicit. We know Scott is far from perfect, and we know that the series essentially began with him asking out Ramona before he'd had the courage to dump poor, naive Knives Chau. But Ramona's sheer hypocrisy in using this as a reason to break up with him makes it extremely difficult to root for them as a couple. Words that Scott has used throughout the series to explain why he likes her include "cool" and "hot" without any real elaboration. And she is cool (and hot), but is there really anything more to her? If she hadn't invaded Scott's dreams with her weird hairstyle right at the start of book one, would he even care about her at all? And most importantly, if all those questions remain, then why do the book's events still upset me so bloody much?
Ongoing plot developments (because despite our usual liberal stance to spoilers here on CD, I really don't want to ruin things for people who are desperate to read it but haven't been able to get their hands on a copy) and emotional reaction aside, what really jumps out of the book is the way in which O'Malley has grown as a storyteller. His visuals are far more consistent than ever before, allowing him to actually break out some more experimental stylistic tics (one panel of Ramona appears to have been deliberately drawn with a running-out pen), and page/panel construction that occasionally looks like he's been reading his McCloud. The evil Twins are an absolutely brilliant piece of design, entirely different to what you'd expect but slotting in perfectly. And there's one absolutely staggering piece of craftsmanship in particular, where two almost identical drawings of Kim use the subtlest of changes in expression to suggest almost polar opposite mindsets. Those who often write off O'Malley for his "simple" or cartoony style have absolutely no grounds to criticise him here.
More importantly, though, the construction of the narrative is more evident than ever before. When one individual suddenly becomes almost the third "main" character, you realise (unless you're Julian) that it was the one you'd always hoped would get more page time, and for whom the seeds of significance to the story had already been planted. When two characters you thought you'd never see appear show up out of the blue, there's a simple and effective reason for both their prior absence and immediate presence. And there's one panel particularly late on in the book (it involves a mirror) that suddenly throws a new light on a particularly oblique image from the previous volume, and leaves you wondering what the hell it means and how it might be relevant to book six (because to show up once might be a one-off visual metaphor, but to show up twice suggests significance...)
Of course, despite all the drama and emotion, none of this is to say that SPVTU loses sight of the one thing that makes the series stand out more than anything - that is, it's still bloody funny at times. It's just that it's not really about the humour quite so much this time (and again, I expect this to be a deliberate stylistic shift for this book alone, rather than a marker for the whole back third of the series), so while some of the gags are among the best in the series (Wallace's text messages, the new "Knives Chau" caption, the gig posters, "Make out!", and so on), it's fair to say they're not quite so heavy in volume - possibly due in part to the disappointingly low amount of page time granted to the glorious Mr. Wells. But that just emphasises the feeling that Scott Pilgrim has grown far beyond being a simple, laugh-out-loud funny, video-game-inspired romantic action comedy romp. It's one of the most perfectly-pitched character pieces in comics history, and is rapidly becoming as accurate and compelling a reflection of the emotions, experiences and vernacular of "our" generation as you could hope to find.