3P Reviews

Figures in the Distance – Scott Pilgrim, Book Four

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This is the book I’ve been rearing to write about. The Scott Pilgrim books are all enjoyable, but the latter half of the series raises the stakes to much more than relationship drama and magical battles. I love both of those, but now they have layers. Now the books charge ahead with all of the literary concepts series like this excel at, and that I so desperately crave. This book in particular is the one that convinced me that buying all six books at once having read none of them was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It is my favorite of the Scott Pilgrim books, the one I find has the most cohesive structure, the best jokes, the most intertwined subplots, and more than a few scenes that just break my tiny fucking heart.

And yes, of course it’s the gay one. I know, I know, look, I don’t make the weather, I just report it. And if the weather is all rainbows and sunshine, then hallelujah!

This book doesn’t have much in the way of sunshine, but I’ll gladly take the rainbows.

 

3P Reviews Series: Scott Pilgrim (graphic novels), Book Four – Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together

 

Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: None

Star Rating: *****

 

Part One: How to Grow Up

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If you’re familiar with this series from the Edgar Wright film, the first three books will ring familiar, but by the time it gets to this one, it’s very much a different series. I’m saving most of my discussion of the film for a Lessons in Adaptation essay, but I think it’s worth mentioning here because this book largely doesn’t make it into the film. The ultimate direction of the books differs from the film because of their scope, the books being longer and therefore able to cover a greater depth of character established over a longer period of time. Different media have different advantages, and book series have a lot of space to explore.

The length of the books starts to matter in this entry, because where the first few books accelerate at a lightning-fast face, the latter few slow things down and shift direction rather dramatically — I think for the better.

It’s been a few months since Envy Adams and Scott has settled into a routine with Ramona. Everyone is celebrating birthdays, which brings up an exchange between Scott and his girlfriend which reveals to both of them how little he knows about her. She’s mysterious, she’s got six or seven evil exes, and she’s pretty. That’s all Scott can come up with. He doesn’t even know how old she is.

This kicks off a series of unrelated events that prompt Scott to reevaluate how his life is going. While his friends have always been there for him, letting him mooch, giving him emotional support, and watching his back in battles, they have their own lives to live, and they’re each steadily progressing through them while Scott remains in stasis. He’s nearly twenty-four, and he still has no career, lives with his best friend in a dingy apartment, and spends his time either playing video games or fighting people. He’s not an especially good boyfriend, and although he very much loves Ramona, he has yet to put his feelings to words. As the people around him get older, Scott starts to realize he’s getting older too, or at least ought to be.

All of the books have framed the plot of “defeat the seven evil exes” as the A Plot, but as is often the case, the more important story is what happens around this A Plot — in this case, Scott’s character arc and moral journey. This is arguably the first of the books to put the action to the sidelines and focus instead on the ordinary lives of the characters. It’s not devoid of action — far from it, actually — but the action is almost a background element, resolved predominantly at the end, with Scott spending most of the book fleeing from fights. In fact, this is one of the rare books where at least one of the battles isn’t resolved through Scott defeating the person involved.

Oh he defeats the evil ex. That doesn’t change. But the book is rather explicit that it’s not really active combat that defeats her, but Scott affirming his relationship with Ramona. His arc in this book is resolved through him telling her he loves her, and meaning it, coming to recognize that it’s not important that he knows everything about her, but he be there to listen when she’s willing to share.

 

Part Two: Spoons

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This series is big on one of my favorite literary concepts, parallelism, and it uses it to good effect in this book. Up to this point, moat of Scott’s friends have been there as background elements who occasionally offer support or nudge him to where he needs to go. Scott is a minor inconvenience to them because he offers nothing in return and needs constant coddling, but because the story has focused on Scott as a perspective character, the negative impact he has on his friends has seemed mold. This book expands upon the subplots of a lot of the minor characters, illustrating their own personal dilemmas in more detail. This continues into the last two books as well, and supports the idea that these characters would all really rather not have to jump in to help Scott constantly, because they’re only marginally more capable of taking care of themselves than he is.

All of the major characters share similarities with Scott, from their lifestyles to their language use to their clothing. Wallace is a more self-assured Scott, Ramona is a more restrained Scott, Kim is a more grounded Scott, Knives is a more adaptable Scott, Stephen Stills is a more capable Scott, Young Neil is a younger Scott, and Envy is a more successful Scott. These characters hang out together because of their similarities, but they come into conflict with each other, especially with Scott, because of they share the same flaws.

Knives is obsessed with Scott in much the same way he is with video games and Ramona. Young Neil feels entitled and dislikes the people around him having their own lives that don’t intersect with his. Envy is petty and indecisive, and not good at opening up about her deeper feelings. Half of the characters in this series are constantly cheating on their lived ones. Kim, Stephen Stills, and Scott all suffer from mediocrity in their band and self-consciousness about it.

As Scott goes about trying to get a job and act more mature, he runs into his friends facing their own life problems. But, rather than help them or consider what they’re going through, Scott remains jealous of them for being ahead of him in life. The book is structured so that many of the other characters’ subplots can go unnoticed, but check back after finishing the series, and they’re right on the surface waiting to be picked up. A lot of them are quite charming.

In this book, we see Kim moving in with her work friend Hollie and starting a relationship with a boy named Jason. Between the start of this one and the start of the next, Jason cheats on her with Hollie, making her new living situation just as crummy as the last one.

Knives is becoming a regular member of the group, now that she’s no longer dueling with Ramona, but she’s still in high school and the rest of the group still doesn’t quite know how to deal with her.

Stephen Stills has discovered that Kim’s other housemate, Joseph, has a recording studio, which begins the amazing throughline of the band getting stuck for months trying to record their one album.

Actually, this is one of the rare books where Stephen Stills gets a subplot. And because I relate very much to someone whose only settings are “tired” and “panicked,” I’d like to give him some appreciation.

I mentioned in an earlier review that this character starts the series looking broken and only gets worse as it goes on. Now I have a visual for it. Observe:

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(I don’t have a color version of the first book with me at the moment.)

Marvelous, yes?

Okay, so throughout this book, Stephen Stills is constantly at odds with his girlfriend, Julie. This is not unusual for them, as one of the runners of the series is that they’re constantly breaking up and getting back together. Here, though, they both have legitimate reasons for getting up in each other’s business, or at least Julie does. She suspects Stephen Stills is cheating on her with Knives, because Knives is spending more time with everyone and Stephen Stills is constantly ditching social events under the guise of “recording.” This is ridiculous, Stephen Stills is not sleeping around on Julie with Knives. He’s actually sleeping around on her with Joseph. Stephen Stills’ arc in this book centers around him realizing he likes guys, and poorly juggling two partners, one of whom is unaware of the other.

This is a good point to dive into the gay themes in this book. And they are thick.

First, I think I should say that for my money, this book having multiple explicitly gay characters among its main cast and letting them live their lives as normal people is enough to curtail my complaints about how the series portrays queerness. However, that may not necessarily be the case for everyone, so I want to acknowledge some potentially bothersome trends.

The big one relevant for this book is bi erasure. The series insists that its characters are only ever straight or gay, never bi or pan or more generally queer, even though they often read as somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. On a similar note, it also lacks anything really resembling trans characters. This isn’t uncommon for series that aren’t centered around queerness, but since it’s got this many gay characters, it strikes me as a little bit odd. There is no way Wallace doesn’t know at least a few people who crossdress. The most irritating slip in my opinion is that Scott comes across as fetishistic toward lesbians, especially when he discovers Ramona has dabbled with girls in the past. This book comes about as close as the series ever gets to addressing this as a moral failing of Scott’s, but even by the end of the last book, it’s not something he’s really over. It’s also not great that the book seems to equate characters questioning their sexuality with characters cheating on the people they’re currently dating. Again, I think the book offers some flexibility in interpretation here, as the characters in question are not especially reliable in the first place, but it’s still not a good look.

Sad stuff done, now only gayness.

There are four main instances in this book where queer relationships take the stage.

The first is at the beginning, where Kim and Knives make out after getting very drunk. The book doesn’t dwell on this, and neither Kim nor Knives seems to dwell on it either, but it comes as a shock to Scott, who isn’t entirely sure what to think about it. He’s titillated, but also a bit embarrassed. Scott has s very immature perspective on sex in general, like most young boys. From an external viewpoint, Kim taking advantage of Knives like this is part of the continuing trend of these older kids using the people around them for their own gain. Kim feels lonely, so she’ll take what she can get, even if it’s morally dubious to do so. Even if she’s criticized Scott for the same. Yes, she’s drunk, but so is Knives and Kim has more experience than Knives in this area. She and the others are supposed to look after Knives, who only wants to spend time with them because they allow it. They’re doing a bit of a shit job taking care of her, to be honest.

Not too long after, Stephen Stills meets Kim’s roommate Joseph and starts spending a lot of time “recording” with him. It’s not until the last book that the series confirms “recording” and “making magic” are exactly the euphemisms they sound like, but it’s not particularly difficult to guess what’s going on. I see you peeking behind the door there, Stephen Stills. I’ve seen enough sitcoms to know what that means.

As with the other queer relationships in the book, this one has an air of secrecy about it. Stephen is two-timing his girlfriend and Joseph isn’t an especially nice person in general, but while them getting together isn’t really healthy for anyone, it’s not much worse than any of the other shaky pairings in the series. It’s pretty tame by the standards set already. Yet the story still shrouds it in ambiguity, and Stephen Stills neither comes out nor do any of the other characters pick up on him being queer.

These are both minor events. The third occupies almost half of the book.

The evil ex for this volume is Roxy, Ramona’s former roommate she dated in college. Roxy is somewhat unique in that she’s the only ex that Ramona actually spends time with post-breakup, and through their interactions, we get a sense of the sort of person Ramona used to be. She’s not especially reliable, always the one to dump the other, and often for seemingly petty reasons. When an obstacle or new hottie (or two) comes along, she’s apt to drop her current squeeze and rush off to something new, effectively fleeing her previous relationship. Often, she doesn’t really know why she does this, nor do her exes. She’s just not great at communicating, and ends up leaving a wake of broken hearts wherever she goes. You get the sense that while Ramona isn’t a malicious figure, her exes didn’t become evil all on their own.

Her relationship to Roxy is complicated, especially because Ramona’s not entirely ready to give her up yet. Despite Ramona’s insistence that she’s not actually gay, and her reluctance to admit to Scott that one of her evil ex-boyfriends is actually a girlfriend, she still can’t get over what seems to have been a close relationship with Roxy. Even with Scott set to battle her, Ramona wants to spend time with Roxy and maybe go a bit further. Her relationship strongly parallels Scott’s relationship to his old school friend Lisa, to the point where Ramona starts to project her desire to spend time with Roxy onto Scott, and assumes the worst from him. That conversation where she kicks Scott out of the house? That’s not just about her being jealous of Lisa.

Ramona’s conflicted feelings about Roxy mirror her indecision about her own sexual orientation, a long-term stable relationship requiring her to come to some sort of understanding of who she is on a fundamental level. She doesn’t come to a clear conclusion, or if she does, she doesn’t share it, but she decides she’s happy with Scott and that’s enough for the moment.

For all of these characters, questioning their orientations is a sort of gateway to adulthood. They are all unhappy in their current relationships and curious, so they experiment. Some of them find they like this new direction their life is taking, some of them aren’t quite as into it. This isn’t an uncommon point for real people to go through in real life.

Scott doesn’t go through this stage, though, and the book is still firmly rooted in him as the main character.  While those around him figuring out their orientations is arguably another instance of his friends growing up faster than him, his reactions to them experimenting with their sexualities is perhaps more telling.

The series has been welcoming to gay characters since the start, and Scott is rather effeminate himself. But Scott is distinctly heterosexual and does that thing many straight people do where he sort of collects gay friends. He’s fine with the people around him being gay, but the reality of what that means, sex- and relationship-wise, is alien to him. It’s one thing for him to hear about Ramona kissing other girls, but very much another to meet her former girlfriend. While the world of Scott Pilgrim is nominally friendly to gay characters, it still isolates them, points them out, draws a big sign labeling them as “GAY, TOTALLY GAY, GAY AF, THE GAYEST.” The books seem at least somewhat aware of this, or at least this one does.

And, well, you know where I’m going now. We’ve got one more subplot that deals with a queer character and I’ve saved the best for last.

 

Part Three: Wallace.

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This is almost Wallace’s book. It’s certainly the book where we see the most characterization and development from him. His relationship with Scott, usually framed as comedic, is stressed to a point where Wallace becomes serious, pitiful, and almost unrecognizable. He doesn’t do anything especially cruel or out-of-character, but he has a lot of unusual scenes that serve to highlight his flaws. They show him to be far more complicated than his flamboyant demeanor would imply. Rather than Scott’s caretaker, in this book, we see him as a bit of a fuckup, not at all unlike Scott himself.

Here’s something: Wallace has a drinking problem.

I don’t just mean that he likes a good martini and sometimes gets drunk. Obviously he does that. But over the course of the forty-some scenes he’s in in the series, about a quarter of them feature him actively drunk. In the scenes where he’s drinking with other people, he usually drinks far more and becomes far more drunk than the others. Given the scenes are selective and often feature characters at concerts, this could just be a coincidence — except that Wallace alone among the major characters goes clubbing on a regular basis and even has friends specifically for this purpose. In this book in particular, Wallace gets sufficiently drunk while pregaming that he passes out and said friends abandon him at the apartment. This, the night before he and Scott have to get up early to go see their landlord.

The books don’t often portray Wallace’s drinking as problematic, and how severe it is seems circumstantial. It’s most noticeable in this book, possibly because there’s just more Wallace in this one. But the fact remains, it’s a problem for him, and he never really gets over it.

Scott also has a drinking problem.

Characters often ask him if he’d like something when there’s alcohol around, to which he consistently responds, “I don’t drink.” Usually, this provokes a response of “Oh, right,” because the other characters know that Scott does drink, despite his insistence otherwise. He can’t handle his alcohol and has a tendency to black out afterward. Whenever we do see him drunk, he’s completely plastered. When that happens, bad things follow.

Scott’s problem is far more egregious than Wallace’s, but the similarity is there all the same, and the books don’t shy away from it. In Wallace’s brief backstory, we see him and Scott walking home after a night out, both hammered, and Wallace even asks if he can crash on Scott’s couch for a while. The main difference between the two is that Wallace has managed enough control that his drinking doesn’t appear to affect his everyday life anymore (it’s kind of hard to tell, since for most of the books, we only see Wallace whenever he’s interacting with Scott). Wallace isn’t the one crashing on the couch anymore, Scott is.

Throughout this book, we see get a more complete picture of Wallace’s life than we’ve had before. He works a phone line as some sort of receptionist, which is not an especially luxurious nor high-paying job, hence the low-rent apartment — which Wallace can’t even really afford. He kind of needs Scott to contribute if he’s going to stick around, but Wallace isn’t ever willing to say this outright. Like many of the other characters, Wallace is quite bad at expressing his own needs in general. By the time this book rolls around, it’s clear that Wallace needs Scott to move out, yet he continues to only hint at this vaguely by asking about Scott’s relationship with Ramona. He even says the exact opposite, that he would be willing to sign on for another year’s lease if Scott needs him to stay, even though we learn by the end of the book Wallace never had any intention of doing that.

Wallace’s arc in this volume, as with many of the characters, is based around him moving on with his life, and his struggle to do just that. Wallace is probably the character with the most prominent difficulty in this, aside from Scott and Ramona. As we eventually learn, he’s become seriously involved with a man named Mobile, and is at the point where they’re ready to move in together. However, doing so would be a major upset to Wallace’s routine, which mostly consists of taking care of Scott, going out to drink, and picking up hot guys. Wallace isn’t quite ready to leave that life behind, and also seems to be a bit afraid of committing, so he keeps to his usual routine and pretends he doesn’t even have a boyfriend.

Eventually, this culminates in Scott walking in on him having sex in their apartment, and Wallace kicking Scott out for the night without prior warning. This is probably my favorite scene in the whole series. It’s a little tragedy that breaks your damn heart, both because of the way the characters are drawn, small and unsure of themselves, and because of where this scene falls in both characters’ arcs.

On Wallace’s part, its unclear if he’s with his secret boyfriend or sleeping around. Either possibility is embarrassing, as it’s not something Wallace would want Scott to know, especially at that moment. Normally, Wallace and Scott give each other a heads-up if they’ve invited someone over, and this is the second time Wallace has recently failed Scott on that front. Wallace feels guilty enough to lend Scott cab fare, but at the same time, he’s not feeling overly generous and needs Scott to take the hint that it’s Wallace’s apartment. He’s picked a bad time for it, but it’s a long time coming and Wallace is desperate to end what would otherwise be an emotionally difficult conversation.

Unbeknownst to Wallace, Scott has just been kicked out by Ramona and had a run-in with the latest evil ex. He’s trying to become a more self-sufficient person, but it’s a slow, uncomfortable process, and not one he’s especially good at. Wallace informing him that he’s been fired is another kick in the shins when he really doesn’t need it. All Scott wants right now is a tiny victory, or even just something that isn’t going to make his day any worse, and instead, he’s got his best friend refusing to even grab his toothbrush before kicking him onto the street for the night.

It’s a scenario where you can empathize with both parties, and where there’s not really any one thing or person that’s at fault. Wallace is being petty and Scott is asking too much of him — not for the toothbrush, but for everything else — yet, had circumstances not conspired against them, the situation might have turned out differently. It’s a series of mistakes and bad decisions and lack of forward thinking catching up to them both, crafting an awkward, unpleasant encounter that neither of them really knows how to deal with effectively.

The scene serves a few purposes, but prominent among them is that it wakes Scott up to the reality that his sassy gay friend isn’t just there to serve the typical role of that archetype. Wallace doesn’t have to be sassy all of the time, and even if he is Scott’s friend, that doesn’t mean he’s there to serve Scott in perpetuity. Wallace is gay, and most gay people are sexual beings with their own lives outside of their straight friends. He’s more than just a fun companion for Scott to brag about.

In order for Scott to move on with his life, Wallace has to do the same.

The book ends with Scott securing a job, reuniting with Ramona, defeating her evil ex, making peace with Knives’ vengeful father, and learning Ramona’s age. He also moves out of Wallace’s place and in with his girlfriend. It’s played as a joke, Wallace revealing that he’s already signed a lease with his own boyfriend, thus making Scott’s move mandatory, but it’s still sort of bittersweet to see them packing up and leaving. It brings their relationship to a nice culmination, Scott finally on equal ground with Wallace, and the two of them honest with each other. But it also means Wallace doesn’t get to be with Scott all of the time, and that’s very sad.

Wallace remains a part of the series for the next two books, but there’s a lot less of him, and his arc is more or less complete here. He doesn’t even really get a resolution in the finale. But hey, there’s a lot of Wallace in this book, and it’s all good. I can’t really ask for much more than that, now can I?

 

 

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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