3P Reviews

The Deserts We Make of Ourselves – Scott Pilgrim, Book One

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The world is a cold place. Life takes a lot out of you, even when the stakes are as low as they can get. This series is about a lot of things. It changes as you get older and see new ways to interpret its subjects. It’s more than it appears on its surface. But before it shows the harder side of life, it gives us a charming introduction to its style and characters to keep the cold of the world at bay.

 

3P Reviews Series: Scott Pilgrim (graphic novels), Book One – Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life

 

Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: None

Star Rating: ****

 

Part One: Spaces

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This series is so cute, it hurts. It hurts in a lot of ways, actually. Mostly good ones.

The art is unmistakable, drawing heavy inspiration from manga and arcade-style video games, though the characters themselves look like something out of a news strip cartoon. The first book of the six is not the most visually impressive, though it is consistent with the baseline standard set by the others. It allows its highly expressive characters to believably conduct a variety of actions, ranging from mundane to absurd, in a way that a more realistic art style probably couldn’t. Hyperbole is regular, even when characters are doing things as ordinary as buying groceries. The focus on dialogue sets a more relaxed atmosphere for character interactions, making this graphic novel series twee beyond belief. But between the adorable Canadian banter and the quasi-manga fight sequences, the books reveal the heart that makes them what they are: moments of quiet, with a small character in a vast space, face barely visible, utterly alone in the world.

From the outset, the plot is simple. You probably know it if you’ve seen the film, which follows the first book rather closely and gives a summary of the main plot of the series. Scott Pilgrim is a young Canadian a year out of college trying to get over a bad breakup by pretending to date a high school student. This problem and the underlying issues surrounding it become a big part of what this series is about, particularly the first book. Scott’s pseudo-girlfriend, Knives Chau, is naive and sees nothing wrong with the situation; Scott is only a few years older than her and a dweeb who acts immature for his age, so he seems like a perfect fit. Scott has no real romantic interest in Knives, only wanting someone to talk to so he can fill the void left by his former girlfriend and feel like he’s figuring out his life. Obviously, he is not.

He chances across a young woman his own age, Ramona, and immediately falls for her. They hang out and get along, Scott ditches Knives, and they all live happily ever after.

I kid, obviously. It’s not that sort of series. Not quite.

As it turns out, Ramona has her own personal baggage (quite literally, we later learn). She has a long line of evil exes whom Scott has to defeat in combat in order to win her hand in… girlfriendry, I guess. As the first book establishes, Scott has to rely on his many friends, most of whom he has screwed over in one way or another, to help him defeat Ramona’s exes and get his shit together so he can have that happy ending. Effectively, the whole series is about a very flawed person trying to become better. Also swords.

 

Part Two: Scott Pilgrim is an Asshole

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Anyone who has read, uh, pretty much any of my other pieces will probably realize that I’m not much for romantic relationships in stories. Frequently, I can’t stand it. So what the hell am I doing here talking at length about a series that is basically a rom-com where the stakes lie mostly in whether or not certain characters get together?

I mean, fair question. It’s not like I’m rooting for Scott’s love life to be settled. The opposite would probably be better for everyone.

This is not a perfect series. In fact, despite its charming exterior, it may not be palatable to many readers. Its perspective is somewhat limited, with a character like Scott as its protagonist, and the characters spew around the R-word like it’s 1999 and they haven’t yet discovered less infantile alternatives. Knives’ interaction with the main group of twenty-somethings is frequently iffy, and the series isn’t really woke, especially where its female characters are concerned. It strives for a particular aesthetic with particular influences, and it gets everything that comes with them, for better or worse.

I don’t think these flaws should be overlooked — the R-word thing bothers me in particular, less because it’s gross (though it is), and more because it’s a constant tonal mismatch with any scenes it’s used in. Yeah, I get it, time and place and whatnot, and its not like the characters are supposed to be especially considerate, but it’s a badly dated slur for a series that only concluded in 2010. You’ve gotta choose your language more carefully or you end up in the same pile as old children’s media that casually drops something incredibly racist. Not a pile you want to end up in, friends.

But for the rest, I’m willing to bite because the books are well aware of these issues and spend a lot of time addressing them. Usually through its surprisingly nuanced characters. It doesn’t push its boundaries in the way a darker graphic novel series might; characters don’t seriously hurt each other, and even the more villainous figures or dubious scenarios resolve without debasing characters for drama. I wouldn’t say that the series is appropriate for young kids, but its maturity is based in how the characters handle their emotions, rather than the typical things that warrant a mature label. Teens can understand and appreciate the story, but I really think it’s aimed more at an audience that is about the same age as Scott himself — the age when you’re trying to figure out your life and you’re realizing that you’re not a kid anymore.

Every character in this series is emotionally stunted in some way, but, with one notable exception, they’re at the stage in life they’re supposed to be. Knives is a teenager, and that comes with crushes on people way too old for you because you haven’t quite figured out the difference between intelligence and wisdom yet. This is a part of the learning process, and it’s not a knock on Knives herself. Every kid goes through this sort of obsessive phase. That in itself isn’t necessarily harmful. It’s the other characters, particularly Scott, that create problems by both encouraging her to hang out with them and simultaneously isolating her. Throughout the next book, Scott’s friends keep telling him to cut Knives off, and he continuously fails to do so, to the point where even when she’s no longer dating him, she’s still there. Spending time around older kids with far more experience forces Knives to grow up faster than she otherwise would. It also puts her through a lot more than most of them.

Ramona seems more like the sort of character Scott needs in his life — enigmatic and exciting, but tempered. She’s apparently had a sordid history, but at the other end, she’s come out as a normal person. Her enigmatic nature and inexplicable interest in Scott make her out to be something of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but even in this book, it’s readily apparent that there’s more to her than being sexy and twee. As the story delves into her past with the League of Ramona’s Evil Ex-Boyfriends, we quickly start to see her flaws fall into place. She’s not woefully immature like Scott, but she has personal issues she needs to work through as part of her character arc.

Then there’s Scott himself.

Scott Pilgrim is an asshole. This feels like a strange thing to say because I’ve just gushed over how adorable and wholesome the series is, and he’s the main character. Not just that, but he’s the audience vector for the adults reading the series. He’s meant to be relatable, the character you want to see succeed and make it out okay.

And yet, he’s an unquestionable asshole.

I think that writers tend to overestimate the appeal of their protagonists. You frame this story around a person, and when you pour that much time and energy and effort into them, you can’t help but see them with rose-tinted glasses. Your protagonist is beautiful and tragic and deep and compassionate and all of the things you wish other protagonists would be. And sometimes that turns them into assholes by accident. Sometimes the hero of the story steamrolls everyone else so that they can be front and center, sometimes they act like their problems are more important than anyone else’s, or that they should be able to get away with things other people shouldn’t simply because they have a better grasp of the situation. Your protagonist is far more capable than the Lestrades they hang out with, so the protagonist should be the one to do anything important, lest another character fuck it up.

Scott Pilgrim is that sort of protagonist, but the books know it. The series harbors a sympathy for him that it hopes to imprint onto the audience, but ultimately it’s thesis is that Scott needs to realize how bad he is and learn to be better. This is a tricky plot to handle effectively, because while unlikable male protagonists abound in stories where romance is involved, the stories they occupy are rarely willing to see them for who they really are. The character’s flaws are framed as “boys being boys,” the resolution being finding true love and maturing by protecting a hapless wench. The Scott Pilgrim series initially looks like it too intends to go down that path, but as we’ll find in later books, it’s cleverer than that. There is no easy solution when your vices reach deep.

Scott Pilgrim is a childish whiner who thinks he’s better than he is and has no sense of self-reliance. Thoreau would be disappointed in him. The first book frames these as the main obstacles for him to overcome, but it soon becomes apparent that they’re only a surface patina obscuring who he really is. In the opening of the book, Scott’s friends chastise him about Knives. After trying to rationalize his decision to date a high schooler, looking pathetic in the process, Scott’s friends soften on him a bit, at which point his confidence surfaces and he starts to humble brag. His roommate points out the wrongness of what he’s doing and how he needs a healthier outlet for his grief over his last breakup. Scott seems to know this too, but he keeps dating Knives anyway. He becomes obsessed with Ramona the moment he sees her, and coerces her into dating him, all while still technically dating Knives. He mooches from his friends and makes their lives all far more difficult, offering nothing in return for living at one friend’s apartment and barely contributing to the band he’s a part of. As the story goes on, we learn that in coasting through life, Scott has left a wake of disappointed friends and family members, and taken far more from the people around him than he’s ever given.

 

Part Three: WALLACE!

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Okay, I’ll admit that the reason I’ve started adding pictures to each section of these reviews is mostly so that I could include this panel. If you’re not sold by the way this book handles its premise, you will be sold by this scene.

While the core of the story is arguably Scott, Knives, and Ramona, and one could easily tell the bulk of the narrative based on them alone, the side characters are far more interesting. They’re what flesh out the story, making the three more major characters deeper by proxy, and it’s the relationships between Scott and all of the recurring side characters that give the story its gooey emotional center.

First Wallace, because Wallace is Best Char. Of the side characters, he is arguably the most important, being Scott’s roommate and sort of best friend. A gay best friend, specifically, as Scott and the book are wont to remind us. At times, Wallace fulfills the expected trope, being at Scott’s every beck-and-call and frequently providing levity that ranges from dry to silly to wholesome. However, he’s also more than that. Despite clearly being the more mature of the two, Wallace is similarly bad at getting his life together, as evidenced by his perpetual string of short-term relationships. We’re introduced to him having a distinctly uneven power dynamic with Scott where Scott is effectively his dependent. Scott has no job and therefore pays no rent, and also has no things of value, so he uses Wallace’s. Wallace is not especially well-off, which complicates the situation, but he seems to keep Scott around out of a combination of pity and genuine friendship. Scott’s constant fights also give Wallace the opportunity to be the group cheerleader. Best Char.

Kim is about on par with Wallace as far as her significance to the whole series. She’s an old friend of Scott’s from school, and one of his band mates. She takes her drumming very seriously. While there are moments that hint about her having a more complicated relationship to Scott, such as her being especially concerned about Knives, she’s mainly a bit player along with Stephen in the first book. Like many of the characters, she’s immediately distinct in her personality, bold and sarcastic in the best possible way. I do think the series tends to shove her aside a bit too much, but as one of only a few recurring characters who seems continually unimpressed by Scott’s personality, she carries a fair bit of sway.

Stephen, or Stephen Stills more specifically, is a very middling character and does little over the course of the series. He also has the best damn character design. He seems to be the head of the band, being lead guitarist and singer, and also the one to arrange their (underwhelming) gigs. As such, he’s introduced looking about as haggard as a person can look, and somehow he just gets more haggard as the books go on. Seriously, watching Stephen’s descent from rock bottom to lower, for very little reason, is one of the many joys of this series. He looks like he’s always having the worst possible day, and any minor problem can break him. What’s more, when something of note does happen, suddenly he gets energized to the point of snapping. Great character. Does almost nothing, but great character.

Of note in this book, perhaps more than in any of the others, is Stacey, Scott’s sister. Scott’s family plays a mostly background role throughout the series, providing one of many safety nets that makes his constant helplessness all the more frustrating. Stacey lives in town and interacts with Scott semi-regularly, in part because she’s familiar with his friends and works at the same coffee shop as Stephen’s girlfriend. Stacey is one of the more minor figures in the story, appearing frequently enough to be named, but not enough to have her own arc, unlike the aforementioned characters.

There are other minor recurring characters throughout the series — Julia, Young Neil, and Other Scott (this series has a lovely combination of characters with completely normal names and ones with wonderfully boring nicknames) — but Stacey tends to walk the line between them and the major ones. She’s similar to Kim in her personality, giving Scott an earful when she learns he’s dating a teenager, but her main role in the story is to act as a sister in all possible ways. She has a teasing relationship with him, not especially close, but there for his big show at the end of the book. She’s the first to call into question Scott’s reasons for acting so strange with Knives and draw up the idea that he’s acting out as a coping mechanism. She’s there for him, but in a more realistic way than I find most fictional siblings tend to be.

But, of course, the story as a whole is about Scott, and most summaries of this book, or perhaps even the rest of the series, might leave out all of the less important characters. This is very much an A-Plot/B-Plot series, in which I would define the A-Plot as Scott’s attempts to defeat Ramona’s evil exes, and the B-Plot all of the character interactions. The A-Plot in a series like this is designed to drive the pacing, giving structure to the overall story (one evil ex or set of evil exes per book). The B-Plot eventually takes over, though, and the story becomes ultimately less about defeating the main villain than about self-actualization and personal growth.

What’s notable about the side characters is that every one of significance has a unique relationship with Scott, and gives him something he depends on. They’ll continue to help Scott throughout the series, and he’ll continue to rely on them for support. However, they all have their own lives they need to figure out, and the one commonality between them is that for everything he takes, Scott gives nothing in return. He’s superficially friendly and openly unintimidating, begging for things rather than demanding them, and not the sort of person who would look like a thorn in his friends’ side from a distance. Scott is highly likable, despite his frequently shitty behavior. This is a large part of why the series works. He presents himself as someone who is trying his best but still has a lot of things to figure out. He dates a teenager because he sees himself as younger than he is, and he acts pretty much the same way he did as a teen while the people around him have slowly started becoming real adults.

This book is considerably shorter than any of the others, so it doesn’t delve deep as far as Scott’s personality is concerned, but you start to see glimpses of his dueling inclinations. In truth, he is immature in a harmless sort of way, as evidenced by the video game- and anime-influenced magical realism — much of which is a reflection of how Scott sees the world. Scott is an empathetic person who can’t endure a lot of pain and would rather not be a burden on others. However, he is selfish on a deep level, and this makes it easy for his harmless immaturity to spiral into something more sinister. He’s the sort of person who ignores things when they go wrong rather than try to fix them. He tunes out the pain he causes people by accident because he’s unwilling to look them in the face and admit that he’s fucked up. When he fights people, they turn into coins.

His insistence on viewing the world as a child frequently becomes a mask for his worse behaviors. As the books go on, they build to him finally working up the courage to lift it and face what lies underneath.

 

 

Breakdown Rating:

Characters and Character Development: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Humor: 7
Main Plot: 7
Subplots: 8
Sum: 37/50

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