As a believer in the medium of comic books who also happens to be sick to death of superheroes and the usual crap that clogs the best seller charts, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series has been a godsend. Smart and funny and geek friendly without being geeky, Scott Pilgrim began a few years ago as a book that was fun and had some interesting thoughts about dating and culture and being young today, but over the course of five volumes (with the latest, Scott Pilgrim vs The Universe, being released this week) it’s evolved into something more profound. It turns out that what O’Malley has been creating has been nothing less than a cultural touchstone, a work that speaks to and about an entire generation living in a post-sexual revolution, post-irony, post-industrial world. If the Scott Pilgrim saga had been released as a novel it would be hailed as a work of literature that captures a moment in history and culture while still being accessible and meaningful to everyone.
Scott Pilgrim is a directionless Canadian slacker who plays in a pretty terrible band and is still trying to figure his life out. Into that life comes Ramona Flowers, a rollerblading, subspace-traveling super cool girl from New York City. Scott falls for her, but he soon learns that to truly win her hand he must defeat her Seven Evil Ex-Boyfriends. There’s more to it than that, of course, and O’Malley weaves a whole world of rich, funny and fascinating characters around Scott; in fact the supporting cast occasionally threatens to steal the book out from under its star. But when that happens Scott usually finds himself in a video game inspired battle that intrudes in a deadpan way upon his otherwise normal and believable life. One of the joys of the book is seeing the way that a cast of completely believable and real characters react in a nonchalant way as Scott is forced to fight for his life against a succession of robots, for instance. O’Malley has a perfect touch when it comes to melding the absurd and the silly with the real and the touching.
Volume 5 shows that this touch has truly matured; the book deftly dances between ludicrous fantasy and bittersweet reality often within the space of a panel. It’s remarkable that O’Malley is able to not only juggle all of this but to do it in a way that feels natural and effortless. Many of the book’s most important scenes happen while Scott is battling robots in the background, a symbol for how the craziness and video game wackiness doesn’t upstage the story and the characters. Most other creators would focus on Scott punching a robot in the head, but O’Malley understands that what really matters is the conversation between Kim Pine and Ramona Flowers, the two most important women in Scott’s life.
This volume also ratchets up the stakes; Scott’s precious little life is falling apart around him, and he seems almost at a complete loss as to how to deal with it. There are two new evil exes in this edition (Japanese twins) but the real antagonist is, as the title says, reality itself. Getting over a punch from a robot is easy but Scott seems less able to get over a punch from the universe. And the book ends on a cliffhanger, but it isn’t the question of how Scott will deal with final evil ex Gideon that haunts me, it’s the question of will Scott ever grow up. At the very end of the book O’Malley has set up all the pieces to create an interesting finale that I think may surprise all of us.
Looking back at Volume 1 (from 2004! Jesus, time flies), it’s obvious that O’Malley’s art has also improved along with his writing. Which isn’t to say that the first book is in any way lacking, but the art now is cleaner and more expressive, and O’Malley seems to have mostly overcome his problem with drawing the women in Scott’s life (in the past it has been has been hard to tell some women apart). But it’s his storytelling that has truly become amazing; while I never had a hard time following what was happening in the previous books, O’Malley has really mastered the art of making each page its own little story with a beginning, middle and end that brings you to turn to the next little story.
In a lot of ways I think O’Malley is creating the Great Youth Novel of the first decade of the 21st century. And the genius of it is that while I’m not in Scott’s generation, I absolutely and totally get everything he’s going through and experiencing, just how while I’m not from Toronto I totally understand the vibe and the feel of the city from the book. O’Malley understands the great paradox in fiction that the more specific something is the more universal it becomes, and the specificity of Scott Pilgrim – these are characters and places he knows inside and out – makes for a book that speaks to everyone who reads it.
O’Malley isn’t just making references to video games while creating relationship comedy, he’s actually getting to the nitty gritty reality of what it means to be in a relationship, what it means to be in love, to want to be in love, to understand love at all. He’s tackling the universal crises of self and the way we relate to others. And he’s doing it with so much humor and style that you almost are dumbstruck when you realize that the book is making a very deep, very honest and sometimes very painful observation about what makes us great and what makes us fuck ups.
Now we’re one volume away from the ending. We sit impatiently with fingers crossed, hoping that O’Malley sticks the landing. But after reading the five books so far, seeing how much love and humor and humanity he puts into Scott and his friends and his world, is there any question that Bryan Lee O’Malley is going to finish it right? It seems to me that the brilliance and genius of Volume 6 is a foregone conclusion; why should it be any less amazing than what has come before?