Everyone has a set of entertainment by which they’ll swear, the ones they’ll eventually convince every friend to watch/listen to/read. Sometimes, those suggestions are echoed time and again all over the place, and even the most jaded, world-weary or dirt-poor fan of the medium has to get curious about just what all that fuss is for. That’s why I’ve started The Unread Canon, my attempt to experience a great deal more of comics than I already have and take a look at the books that, over the past few years (or, in some cases, decades) have achieved passionate, vocal critical and fan supporters that have nevertheless managed to slip by me and to try and look at how they grew, how they aged, why they work, or why they might not work so well anymore.
Even before its upcoming film was announced (and then previewed with two of the strongest trailers I’ve ever seen, and then followed by an amazing video game trailer, too), Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-volume “Scott Pilgrim” series had already garnered a great deal of attention in critical circles. Blending hyper-kinetic comedy with a surreal romance, stylized video game references, and action sequences that could charitably be called ‘off the fucking wall’, Scott Pilgrim is often cited as a breath of fresh air in a medium known far and wide for stagnation. With each arc released completely as a digest-sized book, it was affordable, daring, and most of all, flat-out fun, I was told. It was an immediate cult success, and if its cult isn’t quite as sizable as that of most major superheroes, it’s rumored to have a consistency of quality and vision that many modern comics lack.
In reading its first volume, I found its reputation to be somewhat… enhanced, though that could have something to do with the pacing, or the fact that any introductory story is bound to go through some growing pains. The book plods along at a strangely confident pace, introducing us to the cast of broadly-drawn indie-tastic characters without worrying about rushing into Ramona or her rather unique dating problem.
But, despite some minor pacing issues, I don’t think that’s my problem. The events of Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life are few and far between, but they’re also charming, believable, and fun. O’Malley also proves adept at setting up and executing some pretty great jokes, both visually and in the dialogue, and with a brisk pace that reminds me more of an excellent sit-com than most comics I can think of. Take, for instance, this two page interlude, where Scott tells the story of how he met his girlfriend.
It’s a simple scene, but one that wouldn’t feel out of place on a lot of great modern sit-coms (How I Met Your Mother in particular springs to mind, because of both the easy camaraderie of the friends and the flashback based humor). A story that Scott, an unrepentant romantic, is particularly proud of is quickly and lovingly deflated by his friends. It’s simple, but it does do a good job differentiating Scott from much of the rest of the less oblivious cast. It also very successfully hits the right atmosphere of hanging out with your friends and teasing each other, something the book does very well, very often, and something almost no other comics successfully pull off (Blue Beetle is the only superhero comic I can think of that really nailed that vibe).
No, I think the biggest hurdle new readers will have to get over is the characters. When I called them ‘indie-tastic’, I was being polite: at least in this introductory volume, the characters seem ready made for the indie comics crowd, a collection of post-ironic, semi-cool hipsters who appear at first blush to be more quirk than character. That the particular collection of quirks assembled here remain so engaging speaks well of O’Malley, as his manic attitude gives the proceedings a free-for-all attitude that never lets up and rarely lets the reader stop and think enough about what’s going on, but, at least right now, the characters are almost painfully twee. Their interactions are spot-on, however, O’Malley’s sharp comedic touches suggest that he knows what he’s doing, but it can definitely be off-putting on the initial read through.
Scott is in a terrible band (that he knows is terrible) with a nostalgia-inducing name. He’s dating a high school girl. He’s unemployed and sleeping with his hot gay roommate. Ramona is distant and snarky in equal measure, a girl seems more defined by her boyfriends, her distinctive hair, and her uncomfortable footwear than by anything she says or does in this volume. She’s presented as an object of affection almost entirely because she looks pretty and disinterested, and the volume doesn’t do a great job of giving us much more to go off of. We’re almost predisposed to like Scott, because for all his quirks, he just seems like a simple, good guy. Ramona, on the other hand, is just the prettiest girl at the party.
An awful lot can be forgiven, however, because of the book’s climactic fight. When Matthew Patel flies inexplicably through the ceiling during the Battle of the Bands show, you might be excused for being a little confused. “Wait,” you might reasonably then ask, “how grounded in reality is this book supposed to be?”
And then he will summon a cadre of flying demon hipster chicks and throw a fireball that will be deflected by the POWER OF SCOTT’S ROCK and you won’t really care anymore. While the first 80% of the book is grounded in a surprisingly well-crafted twenty-something romance, it isn’t until Patel shows up that the book really distinguishes itself. Much like the monsters on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the cases on Veronica Mars, O’Malley has found in the Seven Evil Exes a way to make the fundamental insecurities of life (of dating, here) exciting, clever, and engaging. Deep down, you always know that you have a lot to live up (or down) to, based on who your new significant other has dated before. Will you get along as well with her friends as her last boyfriend? Are you as good looking? As rich? Is he a better conversationalist, a better kisser, a better lay? The issues may be mundane, but O’Malley’s handling of them is anything but.
Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life lays a lot of the groundwork for what could be a great series. It also sets up a lot of potential flaws, however, and I’m not entirely sure which side will win out. The action segment was wonderfully set-up and executed – Scott’s brief fight with Evil Ex. #1, Matthew Patel, was one of the most flat-out enjoyable comic book fight scenes I’ve ever seen in my life, a warped ode to popular culture that worked on a number of levels – and the supporting cast is broadly drawn, but realistic. Scott needs a little work to ground him, at least a little bit, but the one who most stands out as a complete cipher is Ramona.
Even ignoring the sheer, inescapable joy of the fight, however, I can’t deny that Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life fulfills a niche in comics that few other books do, and does it in a stylish, unique way: there really is nothing like it on the shelves today. I understand, I think, what drew people to the series, and I’m definitely eager to see what direction the next volumes take. The book has some missteps, but the sheer creativity, the love the book exhibits for, well, everything it references, make it impossible to dislike.
– Cal Cleary
The Unread Canon #7: The Punisher MAX: Mother Russia
The Unread Canon #6: The Walking Dead: The Heart’s Desire
Coming Up June 26th: The Walking Dead: The Best Defense
Coming Up July 10th: The Punisher MAX: Up is Down and Black is White
One note: my copy of Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life had a strange printing error. For most of the book, the edges of the images ran off the page, so there was some dialogue I missed. I pieced most of it together pretty easily, but some dialogue-heavy areas I’d wanted to scan got cut, while some action-heavy segments I wanted to scan also got cut due to my scanner being broken. Images will be added, hopefully by Tuesday.
IDEALLY, in the next 6 weeks, I will somehow come up with the money to be able to afford the second volume… and ideally, the next volume Amazon sends me will not have such a huge printing error. Otherwise… well, we’ll see how far I have to drive to find a library that stocks the series. In a just world, not very far: its unique blend of comedy, romance and video game culture would definitely find an audience in the teen section at just about any library across the nation.