3P Reviews

The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Scott Pilgrim, Book Three

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The culmination of tension in the past two books as to the identify and significance of Scott’s former squeeze precipitates here as we finally meet the mysterious Envy Adams. To further complicate matters, she’s here with Todd, Ramona’s third evil ex. Unlike the short fights in the previous two novels, this one extends through the whole book, with ample recesses between for characters to connect and simmer. I come down on this book a little disappointed in the series’ direction, its disregard for Ramona or really most of Scott’s female friends coming to the forefront. Yet, its best moments still hold. The humor is often ridiculous, and quiet moments still abound, but it’s up to later books to make up for the simplistic morality of this book’s antagonists.

 

3P Reviews Series: Scott Pilgrim (graphic novels), Book Three – Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness

 

Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: None

Star Rating: ***

 

Part One: In Short

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I did not care for this book my first time through the series. On the whole, I felt the first half of the Scott Pilgrim books were cute, but a bit simplistic.

I was wrong. I mean, this is still one of my least favorite of the Scott Pilgrim books, but it’s more tightly packed than I initially thought. I’ll be completely honest, my first round through I was mainly focused on Wallace’s bits, and he doesn’t feature prominently in this one. Because so much of the book is spent on battle sequences, it also has a much shorter story than most. Where the series is often highly efficient in its pacing, with scenes that last three to five pages on average, this one stretches individual scenes into multiple segments, only occasionally separating them with flashbacks or brief asides.

Actually, the flashbacks are simultaneously the more interesting parts of the book and quite frustrating. Their content is often ambiguous but insightful, showing Scott’s behavior to be pattern-based, and hinting that he’s hiding things, both from the audience and from himself. His band apparently got a record deal back in college, which is how Envy managed to become a sensation, but Scott and Stephen Stills bailed at the last minute because they (or Scott, more specifically) were afraid to commit. (This is also where we get Wallace’s brief backstory, which I think I mistakenly implied was in Book 2.)

However, the flashbacks are only visually distinguished from the rest of the scenes by a thin dark border, and as the scenes in this series tend to change rapidly, it’s easy to miss important past-present transitions. Which is a problem, because understanding what happened in the past is crucial to reading subtle interactions between characters in the present. While all of the books indicate that Scott is a more complex person than he seems on the surface, this is the first one that extends that trait to other characters as well.

 

Part Two: Vegan Psychic

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Let’s back up a bit. At the end of Book 2, Envy invited Scott and his band to play as a warm-up for her group, at which point Scott learned that Envy’s new boyfriend, Todd, is Ramona’s third evil ex.

After playing, Envy invites Scott, Ramona, Kim, Stephen Stills, Julie (Stephen Stills’ girlfriend), Young Neil, and Knives (who is dating Young Neil in a misguided attempt to make Scott jealous) backstage to chat. Everyone spends most of that time glowering at each other, until Knives, who is a huge fan of Envy’s band, awkwardly shouts, “I’ve kissed lips that have kissed you!” which prompts a brief but no less cruel thrashing by Envy via her cyborg bandmate. Scott faces off against his evil ex foe, only to discover that Todd is a vegan, and therefore psychic. His first encounter ends in sound failure on Scott’s part, so they call it a night and decide to regroup later at the bargain retail store Honest Ed’s.

Between encounters, Scott hangs out with Ramona and tries not to think too much about Envy. Ramona and Envy have a nascent rivalry similar to Todd and Scott’s, and not entirely for the first time, Ramona is left on her own to figure out Scott’s past. She tries to ask questions, he dodges them, and they grow further apart. It would seem that neither of these characters is particularly good with words.

There’s a short silly sequence in the middle of the book where Scott and Todd fight in Honest Ed’s, which was made doubly confusing for me and I’m sure a lot of other readers on account of it being something very specific to Toronto, and possibly Bryan Lee O’Malley in particular. As envisioned by the author, Honest Ed’s is like a monstrous IKEA full of deals on nonsense items. The way it’s framed, I imagined it as a Canadian thing like Tim Horton’s, but no, it’s like a Toronto Wall Drug, and between the publishing of this book series and now, it’s closed down, so this surreal fight sequence will only ever exist in this strange little book.

The fight concludes with Todd accidentally imploding the store, which feels oddly appropriate given its real-world fate. Scott is still alive, though not yet victorious, so Envy invites his band to open for hers again.

This time, Ramona’s the one to start the fray after Envy starts up a conversation about Gideon, Ramona’s final evil ex. She faces down Envy with a giant hammer and nearly gets her head squished in until Scott touches Envy’s weak spot on the back of her knees and she collapses, all giddy. When it comes time for Scott to face Todd, everyone learns that Todd is a cheat at love and veganism alike, prompting a visit from the Vegan Police and confiscation of his psychic powers. Scott reduces him to coins with a headbutt.

Envy, now bandless, heads out, but not before she and Scott have a brief farewell that leaves them both feeling curiously empty. It’s the first time the books have ended on a bittersweet note.

Obviously, a summary doesn’t quite capture the feel of individual scenes, but you might be able to piece together from the sporadic fights that this book is unusually chaotic, even for the series. Its scenes are connected even more loosely than normal, and the action, while exciting, consequentially lacks much motivation. As the first two books have built up Envy to be a larger-than-life character, she often comes across as cartoonish, yet I think the book means for us to sympathize with her at times. There are a few solemn moments between action sequences, during flashbacks, and at the end that present her as a nuanced person, but the book elsewhere struggles to reconcile typical action archetypes with characters who contain multitudes.

 

Part Three: Idols

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Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not entirely comfortable with how this series presents women. While there are many female characters in the Scott Pilgrim series, and it’s far from turning them into pin-up girls, it noticeably simplifies and commodifies them for the sake if its protagonist.

Take Julie, for instance. Julie is Stephen Stills’ on-again off-again girlfriend, hoster of parties, and perpetual sixth or seventh wheel. She’s not a particularly nice person, being quick to criticize and often shallow, but she’s often used as an unhappy source of information. The books refer to her almost unfailingly as “the worst,” and “a bitch,” mainly because she’s almost never in a good mood. Not that she generally has reason to be in a good mood; everyone ignores her advice, her boyfriend cheats on her, people go to parties just to complain about them once they get there, and her boyfriend’s friends cower at her mere presence, calling her bitch all the time. All this well before Julie has done anything to merit the response. Yeah, I’d probably sic robot twins on someone if they treated me like that, too.

Julie’s main crime seems to be that she’s a social yet assertive woman, and the books disapprove. How dare she try to talk to Envy as a friend, even though she has no stakes in the outcome of the face-off? How dare she dress sexy-like but not smile? How dare she express her feelings directly instead of brooding like Scott’s main friends? How dare she have friends who don’t resent her? She’s popular, which must mean she’s a bitch.

The series occasionally offers a counter to its own immature treatment of Julie, like the multiple times she and other characters point out how much Scott likes to complain about her. On the whole, though, the books do little to question Scott’s dislike of Julie, and while most of the main characters get resolutions to their bigger arcs, she certainly doesn’t.

Envy gets something of a similar treatment, especially in this book. She’s framed as the sellout superstar corrupted by fame who cheated on and then dumped Scott because she’d outgrown him. She likes making people miserable, and she’s often exactly as vicious and shallow as a character in this role would be in most stories. The other characters all hate her, she often seems to be a bit of a ditz, and she’s brought down, not by Ramona or another girl, but by a sex move from Scott that she can’t resist. Her corruption is based in overpriced designer clothes and smoking to blend in with the cool kids. She looks girly and likes girly things, ergo, she’s a bitch.

(By the way, Sarah Z published a video recently about “Other Girls” that you should check out because it feels rather relevant to this topic.)

That said, this series does become more self-aware as it goes on, and there are early indicators in this book that Envy’s role in the story isn’t as one-sided as it might seem. There are a few moments of clarity where we see a bit of a different side of both Envy and Scott, one before the final show, and one right before she leaves, and a few small ones in the flashback sequences.

Near the end of the book, Scott runs into Envy smoking behind the theatre. He turns to leave when she stops him and asks sincerely if they could talk for a moment like normal people like they used to. Scott doesn’t exactly say no, but he responds by asking in turn if they ever actually talked like normal people before. Then he leaves.

At the end of the book, Scott apologizes for “stuff,” and Envy does the same, then she leaves.

The flashbacks clarify their interactions a little bit, with Envy initially being much like Scott. She’s nerdy and into anime, she wears baggy sweatshirts, she doesn’t drink, and she sings in Scott’s re-made college band. Over time, she and Scott start dating, and she gradually changes, losing interest in anime and becoming more serious about the band. She invites other people to join, to the point where the band starts attracting attention, and Scott tries to pull the plug on it. The narrative is generally one of Envy growing up, or at least growing in some direction, and Scott resisting. Scott doesn’t like her trajectory, as she starts smoking, cheating, and wrenching control of the band away from him, and because Scott is the protagonist, we don’t really question how the book frames Envy’s actions. She’s being a jerk, so she is a jerk, right?

I think that part of the reason I liked this book more after reading the rest of the series is that later books are much more critical of Scott than the first few, and the subtext of him being a lovable asshole his much more visible in the latter half of the series. I don’t think we ever actually see exactly what happened on New Year’s Eve when Envy broke up with Scott, but we do learn that Scott has a highly selective memory, and his account of events is unreliable. Stephen Stills’ account, where Scott got wasted and got in a big fight with her, seems close to the truth. In any case, Envy’s suggestion that Scott get a haircut is more about him growing up than actually cutting his hair, and him blaming the breakup on his haircut is further indication that he has yet to embrace any of his own shortcomings.

Before we wrap up, I wanted to set aside a paragraph or two to talk about my favorite scene in this book, because for all of the rest of the book’s faults, it’s kind of worth it for this one.

After his encounter in the back alley with Envy, Scott finds Knives sitting on her own as Envy’s fans stream by. They sit together and talk, Knives admitting that she’s kind of too far into this crazy mess of evil exes and young adult hormones to go back to just being a teenager, and Scott apologizing for Envy’s behavior, and his own. Still halfway naive, Knives tries to turn Scott’s bare-bones apology into getting back together with him, before she finally decides to call it quits. She doesn’t entirely leave, coming back to team up with Ramona against Envy, but she gets some closure in her relationship with Scott.

It’s a cute little scene, and bittersweet in just the way I like.

 

 

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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