Friday, August 27, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Bad Reviews

So! I have not seen Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the movie. As you may have read here, my wife and I had a baby a year and a bit ago, and having shaken many a fist at parents who've tried to get away with taking their children to the movies, we took a vow long ago never to take our child to the movies until he's absolutely, unquestionably old enough. The consequence if we break this vow? Synchronized seppuku. Baby Alan becomes an orphan. We'll make sure he's in good hands first, of course. He wouldn't have to watch, if that's what you were thinking.

Ha ha ha! Okay then. So, I have not seen the movie, and it will be a while before I do. Unless anyone from the studio would like to send me a screener? Yeah, I thought not. I have, however, read the books several times. One thing I've noticed as I've read the internets and their consensual response to the movie (and, often in passing, the books) is that many people seem to think that Scott Pilgrim, the book, is not a work of any real value. In particular, they believe the video game references are deployed simplistically, the whole lacks any emotional depth, and there's absolutely nothing interesting going on between Scott and Ramona.


On the contrary! As to this idea that there's no emotional depth to Scott Pilgrim, I would have to disagree. First of all, I have heard comments to the effect that none of the characters learns anything by the end of the series. Well, sweetie, if that's your criterion for quality literature with emotional depth, you're barking up the wrong tree! But as it happens, the whole sixth volume is pretty much dedicated to what the characters learn. As it turns out, Bryan Lee O'Malley (BLO from here on out, a nickname I'm sure he loves) gives up the whole video game conceit in the final volume and shows that much of it is Scott's skewed viewpoint on events. It would be weird to have to imagine that everything video gamey that happens in the books is just Scott hallucinating, so you have to be a little bit flexible and accept that to some extent, this story is happening in an impossible universe. Creative license and all that. Or you have to accept the whole series as all-the-way pomo, so that Scott's bizarre way of parsing and reconstructing events in his head is all we get. Whatever. I'm not here to explain all of that, except to say that BLO does tip his hand and reveal that the bizarre, hilarious, and recently animated River City Ransom-esque flashback from volume 1 was actually a narrative constructed by Scott to cover over an ugly reality: he humiliated a kid from another school and, apparently, stole his girlfriend.

Volume 6 gives us a series of similar, though usually less involved, deconstructions of Scott's bizarre misreadings and misprisions of his past experiences. What we learn, and it's hardly the first time we've gotten the impression, is that he drifts through life doing what he wants without the burden of emotional consequences. Well, without the burden of emotional consequences for himself. As it happens, he's hurt a number of people over the years, including Natalie "Envy" Adams, the character who seems to be given the sobriquet "bitch" almost as often as she's called by her actual name, often with some intensifier added to it. Personally, I have to admit that Envy may be my favorite character in the series, because I think BLO's done quite a good job of making her real and giving her depth. She's very difficult to like, as the one character throughout the first three volumes who seems capable of causing Scott any pain at all, but the reader also knows, whether from personal experience or from the mounting hints in volumes 2 and 3, that Envy has been wronged, too, and not just by the villainous Evil Ex-Boyfriend she is seeing—as, unbeknownst to her, is her fellow Clash at Demonhead bandmember. By the end of volume 6, it's completely clear that she's suffered, too, in her relationship with Scott, and it's revealed that, for all her apparent power, she's become a sort of pitiable tool for Gideon, the Evilest Ex-Boyfriend. I realize that the series is supposed to revolve around Scott and Ramona, but if there's one thing I wish there were more of, it's Envy Adams—just a little more of her would probably have made Scott's growth a bit more meaningful to me.

Scott and Ramona's relationship seems to be taking a lot of flack, and I get that. It's not a relationship whose basis is immediately obvious. This link wasn't working tonight as I wrote this, but A.O. Scott's review of the movie for the New York Times absolutely nails what I find to be so interesting about their relationship in the book: Ramona seems perpetually infatuated with Scott, at least a little bit, but she's also perpetually skeptical. She never quite lets go of her quite well-founded inhibitions about dating this ridiculous boy. And BLO has his fun with this situation, placing this important character before us, and never allowing us to learn anything really substantial about her—simply because, even when he gets to date his "dream girl," Scott still can't bring himself to take a significant interest in anyone else. Thus, in one of the later volumes, Ramona asks Scott if he's even aware of her age. He splutters and stammers for a moment before exclaiming, "Unknown! It's unknown!" And that's exactly the case: the little character-specific info-boxes we've seen throughout the series have always concealed most of Ramona's details, listing things like her age as simply UNKNOWN. Of course it isn't really unknown, and she isn't really mysterious, just as women and the Chinese actually are not. Scott is just lazy, and westerners are just assholes. Also, Scott is an asshole.

And some Chinese are also assholes. I mean, I try not to be racist or essentializing, even in benevolent ways. Are we clear? Sorry if there was any confusion.

I once had the pleasure of seeing BLO speak. This coincided with the release of volume 5, and during the inevitable "Will Scott end up with Kim Pine? Please let Scott end up with Kim Pine!"-Q&A-session, BLO was completely candid about the fact that he thought Scott Pilgrim was a pretty horrible person. He warned his audience that it was entirely possible that Scott might not end up with "the girl," and frankly, he didn't deserve to. It was satisfying to see that BLO's solution to the problem of the apparently unequal Scott/Ramona pairing was to present Ramona as a similarly callous character.

Um, so you mind if I say one more thing about the racism thing? When I said that westerners were just assholes, I didn't quite mean that. I wanted to preserve parallelism with the last sentence I'd typed, which said Scott was "just an asshole." Just as all Chinese are not mysterious and all Chinese are not assholes but some are, some westerners are assholes and some are not. You read this blog, for example, and if you are a westerner, You read this blog, of course, and so westerner or not, that makes you not an asshole in my book. Of course, you could easily be Chinese, or some other non-westerner. And "westerner" is kind of an obsolete term and sort of offensive in itself. I mean, this doesn't matter, and I'm sure no one is misunderstanding me here, but I'm just saying.

It may not be satisfying for all, in the end, but Scott Pilgrim may be the kind of romantic comedy we should get when we go seeking that kind of thing. As a 29-year-old, I remember making the transition from very late, perhaps somewhat arrested adolescence to adulthood at a point just a little earlier than Scott and Ramona do, and I remember it being a difficult, damaging time, and not just for me. Maybe what I've gotten out of Scott Pilgrim is just what I've projected onto it, but I think it's an emotionally satisfying series, certainly not the silly, shallow cartoon many of the internets' denizens have found it to be. BLO is a walking encyclopedia of video game references, to be sure, but also an able, clever, and playful manipulator of narrative. I'm genuinely interested to see what he comes up with next.

Be honest with me. Did I come off as racist up there? I really don't mean to sound racist...

The Scott Pilgrim logo in the style of the Double Dragon logo is from Comics Alliance, and the picture of Scott doing the "have you seen a girl with hair like this?" thing is from the blog 1979 Semifinalist.