3P Reviews

Meals and Mimickry – Scott Pilgrim, Book Two

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Relationships are hard, what with boyfriends and girlfriends and friend-friends, some of whom have secret evil exes that attack you at random with lethal weaponry and sick finishers. It’s a common problem. We rejoin Scott and company as they struggle through the difficulties of Canadian adolescence, Scott with the dual quests of breaking up with his fake high school girlfriend and battling the rest of Ramona’s exes, and everyone else with the quest of dealing with Scott. The book takes a leaned-back approach to its storytelling, settling the characters into routines punctuated by the occasional face-off. It’s leisurely, it’s sweet, and it starts to peel back the surface of what the story has to offer — though what it itself offers is not overly substantial.

 

3P Reviews Series: Scott Pilgrim (graphic novels), Book Two – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

 

Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: None

Star Rating: ***

 

Part One: Manipulation

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On the whole, I feel this is one of the blander books in the series. There are three different fight sequences, so it’s not lacking in action, but as action is only peripheral to the point of this series, the lack of it is not what makes any part of it bland. There aren’t many poignant character beats, nor significant events. It’s a passageway to later issues, setting up conflicts that will come to a head later. One or two panels stick out despite the gentle plodding pace of the rest of the book, particularly Scott receiving a call from his former girlfriend, Envy, but on the whole, the visuals are simple, the characters are simple, and it lacks much clear definition.

This is, I think, intentional. Scott defeats Ramona’s second evil ex, Lucas Lee, in the least combative fight of all of them halfway through the book. No one bats an eye when Lucas, who on the whole seems pretty chill, takes up Scott’s dare to ride down dangerous rails on his skateboard and wipes out at the bottom. Villain down, now what?

Banter, I suppose. Most of the scenes in this book progress in no particular pattern as a series of vignettes of characters talking to each other while they cook, dye their hair, watch TV, or wait for a show to start. Most of the series is made up of quiet moments like this, despite the surreal battles, but this one especially draws attention to conversation. Particularly conversation between two characters, usually that has little to do with anything important.

Again, phone calls are critical. I find that many series only use phone calls for dramatic effect, either to show a character receiving dire information, or to set up a conflict when the call gets cut off. Horror films are famous for their bad cell phone reception because lack of a safety net is usually what makes realistic horror frightening, and both video essayists Every Frame a Painting and Nerdwriter have noted a lack of phones in film compared to how we use them in reality.

The Scott Pilgrim series makes phones not only an integral part of the plot, but also characterization. There are a few amusing turns, like Scott’s conversation with Stephen Stills in which the former asks the latter if he knows Scott’s sister’s phone number. More often, though, phone calls take on a somber tone. One of my favorite scenes in this book involves Scott receiving a phone call from his parents in Italy. It’s a comedic sequence, with Scott playing the typical embarrassed adult child and his parents the playfully teasing sort. But all throughout, the scene is dark, literally, with Ramona sleeping over. While she pretends to sleep through most of it, at a seemingly random point in the conversation, she becomes suddenly less bemused and starts to get ready to leave. She and Scott briefly discuss his parents and what they’re doing in Italy, at which point it becomes obvious that Scott doesn’t really know. This is played for laughs, but it cuts ever so slightly into that persistent idea that Scott’s antics disguise his lack of awareness of others.

Elsewhere in the book, Scott’s naivete serves a similar dual purpose of comedy with a hint of deeper issues. One of the more perplexing runners is that Scott continues to mix up a musician named Luke Wilson with the ex that he’s supposed to face in this book, despite being reminded on about four or five occasions which is which. He refuses to say the name of his own ex-girlfriend, or even let other people say it, collapsing on the floor when she eventually calls and pouting about her the whole while. Scott has all of the grace of an angry toddler throughout this book.

But his friends are still there to help him. Kim lets him check out movies from her work even though he owes over $500 in late fees, Wallace rescues him after Envy calls, Knives and Ramona are nothing but kind to him, and even his rival in this episode admits to not really wanting to fight. Scott never tries to actively turn on his friends, but sometimes his reactions turn on them to get them yo baby him. One of the major early plot points is that Wallace demands he break up with Knives, which he does, but only after side-stepping the issue and letting her imagination run wild thinking they’re meant for each other. He doesn’t let her down gently, or cruelly, he just dumps her and goes off, thinking about Ramona. We get a scene immediately after where he recognizes he’s handled the situation badly and feels guilty about it, but as long as it gets him what he wants, he’s willing to forget.

He’s willing to forget a lot of things that way.

 

Part Two: Memory

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This book opens with a flashback to Scott’s childhood, where he meets a girl named Lisa and also Kim, whom we learn he was romantic with before his family moved to Toronto. The flashback is curious in than it informs almost nothing of the rest of the book. There’s a later flashback to when Scott became friends with Wallace that parallels the opening a little (and it is nowhere near as gay as promised), but the opening stands mostly on its own. It has little to do with the plot, but the themes are another matter.

One of the major themes of the story is escapism, specifically destructive escapism. In this book, the fantastical elements start to bleed more into daily life as Scott settles into facing down Ramona’s evil exes. Fights are commonplace, not just for Scott, but Ramona and Knives as well. One particular moment stands out to me, where Ramona casually dismantles an art sculpture to block a sudden attack from Knives, and Kim’s response is to complain about her defacing the sculpture.

The normalization of these fantasy elements contrasts with the otherwise grounded environment. This sets the tone of the story more fully than in the previous book, bringing the action scenes down to size and enveloping them in the more casual experiences of the characters. Comics are especially good at reflecting normalized strangeness, but this one manages to use it to its advantage for the sake of humor and character.

While regular conversations rarely address magic or fantastical elements, the books regularly break the fourth wall for the sake of comedy. It’s a defining style of the story in its earliest chapters, with notes and diagrams added to comment on events as they happen (a hallmark of some mangas), but starting I believe here, characters reveal their loose awareness of it as well.

Fourth-wall breaks are tricky to pull off and their reward wears thin after you’ve seen them once or twice. I won’t pretend that characters in the Scott Pilgrim series referencing that they’re in a book is especially funny or insightful. It does serve to point out that the characters’ lives are tethered to how the books show those lives. Many fourth-wall breaks are pointed interruptions of the story that address the audience directly. In this series, characters discuss the fact that they are characters in a book in the same breath that they ask how much a donut costs at a coffee shop. It’s a normal part of their existence, nothing special.

This alone makes for a charming environment where characters can witness incredible things without blinking once, but what I especially like is how the series uses the chaos of its action setpieces to accentuate the moments afterward that are utterly human. One of the best examples comes in the opening, which shows Scott meeting a girl named Lisa and later Kim. Partway through the school year, Kim is kidnapped by a crew of teenagers from a rival school, who Scott faces down to save his and Kim’s geography project. In the subsequent montage, they grow close, fall in love, and then in two panels, Scott tells her he’s moving away and leaves.

Suddenly, Kim’s antipathy toward him and concern for Knives comes full circle.

 

Part Three: Metropolitan Mid-air Melee

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The main appeal of this book is probably its humor. It’s what makes the earlier books worth reading at all for me. There are later scenes that hit harder and on the whole, the first half of the series is more frivolous than the second, but you don’t get any of that without these simpler stories. People tend to remember the payoff, but payoff on its own only means so much.

Before things start to get serious, the books are action comedies above all else. Perhaps even more than in the first book, this one is twee beyond belief. Scott and his friends frequently time their words in such a way that what they’re saying isn’t in any way funny, but you can’t help giggle all the same. The story revels in the sort of childish humor that comes from the most inane nonsense, like when someone drops an egg on the floor to see what happens. If you’re the serious sort, you’ve probably ducked out by now. It’s not an especially clever sort of comedy, and plenty of people have only so much tolerance for it.

I am five, so I’m here for lines like, “If bad was a boot, you’d fit it!” and Scott’s perpetual confusion over Lucas Lee and Luke Wilison. I don’t think these are the most hilarious jokes in the world, but they do tickle me. Combined with expressive characters and the pacing of a well-made graphic novel, line delivery becomes an essential part of what makes the world believable.

Actually, I haven’t really talked about the characters yet, have I? As in the first one, the plot’s emphasis is on Scott and the little love triangle formed between him, Ramona, and Knives. He breaks up with Knives, gets closer to Ramona, and Knives is furious when she finds out.

I’m not much one for love triangles, but the sort where there are two girls fighting over the male protagonist tends to hit a lot of potholes. Often the boy’s desire for both women is framed as relatable rather than sleazy, while the girls are escalators of the situation. That’s certainly the case here, but as with the first book’s introduction to Scott, I think it’s at least a little self-aware. Knives literally attacks Ramona with little stiletto stabbers (I know they’re called sai, but stabbers is funnier), which kicks off a completely redundant and ridiculous fight sequence at the library. Ramona is used to this sort of thing, having more than a few weird exes of her own. Knives, between shouting insults at Ramona, accuses her of stealing her boy and brainwashing him and the like. Grounded third parties like Kim and Knives’ friend see through Knives’ threats; she’s acting childish, putting far too much trust in Scott and seeing him as a paragon who would never do the crummy things he does unless there was a strong reason for it. It’s on Knives to grow up about being dumped by a boy, but the scenario isn’t wholly on her. It’s something of a natural development of Scott dropping her and leaving without a thought about the consequences. He’s used to this sort of thing (not that he’s much better at handling it, as evidenced by his reaction to Envy), and he knows Knives isn’t, and he knows Knives is throwing a lot into this relationship right as it’s about to end, but he just drops her like hot sewage. I’m honestly surprised he didn’t do it via text.

The side characters remain such, though the book emphasizes and complicates them just a little more as the main characters settle into familiar roles.

Kim and Wallace are still the most prominent supporting characters, Kim getting nods to her history with Scott and unexpressed feelings about how they left off. She doesn’t ever seem like she’s going to enter into the love triangle fray, more like she’s a wizened bystander who knows how it will end and lacks the compassion to do anything about it. She’s made her peace with Scott as a hapless numpty, and she’s just the drummer now. A damn fine drummer, too, not that her ambitions were ever especially high. Kim lacks motivation a lot of the time, though she gets things done and occasionally takes delight in wielding rare control over the other characters.

Wallace, meanwhile, is still Scott’s highly unqualified mother. He gets Scott through the things Scott needs to do, mostly by poking him until he elicits a response. Wallace therefore plays a more active role in this book, “training” Scott and keeping track of which evil ex he needs to fight next. He also gives Scott an ultimatum that he has to break up with Knives, so if we want to, we could blame Wallace for the whole library debacle. Why he does any of this stands to be seen. He doesn’t show it often, but he seems to enjoy the authority taking care of Scott provides him. He and Scott have also just known each other for a while and, as evidenced in the brief flashback to their meeting, he seems to recognize a similarity between them. He slots himself into Scott’s family with or without Scott’s contribution, he crashes at Scott’s place when drunk, and he seems fascinated by the inner workings of Scott’s relationships. We don’t see much of Wallace’s life outside of his interactions with Scott, which isn’t unusual among the side characters, but because he spends so much time with Scott, the story seems to imply that Scott gets priority over everything else. It’s not an especially healthy relationship for either of them, but it’s kind of what they both need to get by. I love it when a series can form a believable relationship with tumultuous scaffolding. It makes otherwise dubious characters far more likable.

Most everyone else just hangs out in the background and could almost be exchanged with half a dozen other minor characters. I will point out Stephen Stills again, though, as he gets a few memorable scenes as the resident worrier. The guy has two settings, decaffeinated and terrified, and I relate to both on a deep level. His main motivation for the book is getting the band a gig and fruitlessly trying to make the band less sucky in the short time before they play. Also cooking.

There are two new characters added in this book (other than Ramona’s exes) worth mentioning. Neither are fully explored so much as presented to the audience; we only get a brief glimpse of them and few words exchanged. How they appear is important, though, as they’re both closely connected to Scott and his history.

The first is Lisa, who we only see in the flashbacks. She and Scott hit it off early on but not in a romantic way and she acts as a kind of guide to him. A proto-Wallace, if you will. Lisa doesn’t get much characterization on the whole, which I’ve noted is a trend for the female characters in this series, but unlike perpetually juvenile Scott, Lisa at least seems to act her age. She’s proactive, the one who decided they should firm a band, and she has a more grounded sense of reality than Scott, even pointing out his social oddities when the situation calls for it. Presumably he left her behind along with everything else when he moved.

The other new figure from Scott’s past is Envy, who we see in snippets of other flashbacks. She’s Scott’s most recent ex-girlfriend and ultimately the reason for Scott fake-dating Knives. She broke up with him and he’s not really okay with that. He’s so upset about it in fact that Envy haunts the book at every other turn. Scott’s bandmates, or at least Stephen Stills, used to know her because she played with them before hitting it big. Now she’s a towering figure Scott can’t seem to escape, even from his parents.

We don’t get a good sense of who Envy is — Wallace doesn’t like her and Scott passes out after she calls him, but neither of these are necessarily related to Envy’s character. The book actually ends on a cliffhanger, somewhat unusually for this series. It feeds more or less directly into the next book with the revelation that Envy’s new boyfriend is Ramona’s next evil ex. Bit of parallelism there. Funny.

Perhaps it’s because this book is the first of a two-parter or perhaps it’s because it has to follow up the first entry. Second books, seasons, and so on are often shaky because they know where they want to go, but don’t always know how to get there. It’s not a bad addition to the Scott Pilgrim canon, but I get the sense the series hasn’t quite found its legs yet. It’s worth a look, but like I said, it’s mostly setup for later events in the series.

 

 

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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