Reviewed by Chris Bolton
Now that the hype has died down and the movie is long gone from theaters (check it out in second run; it's a guaranteed good time), we can take a nice, deep, relaxing breath and get some perspective on Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series. The sixth and final graphic novel, Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, was published to much fanfare in August, and brings the story to a very satisfying, if not senses-shattering, close.
If you're new to the series, the first volume, Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, began as a slice-of-life story about a Canadian hipster-slacker named Scott, who lives in a one-room house with his gay best friend Wallace -- with whom he (platonically) shares a bed -- plays bass in a band called Sex Bob-omb, and is dating a high schooler (also platonically) named Knives Chau. Then he meets an Amazon.ca delivery girl named Ramona Flowers and experiences love (or lust -- or maybe just puppy love) at first sight. To get close to her, Scott places an order online and immediately sits in front of the door, prompting Wallace to inquire, "Are you waiting for the package you just ordered?"
In spite of some mildly creepy plot developments (Scott does dump Knives rather unceremoniously after he falls for Ramona... and, uh, did I mention Knives is in high school?), the book is amiable and fun. Then, around the three-quarter mark, as Sex Bob-omb is playing in a Battle of the Bands, the ceiling smashes open and a dark-eyed man named Matthew Patel soars to the stage declaring, "Consider our fight... begun!" Scott fights back without hesitation, prompting the drummer to exclaim, "This guy is such toast. Doesn't he know that Scott's the best fighter in the province?" I can't be the only reader who was rubbing his eyes and shaking his head, wondering if Oni Press had printed the wrong ending to the book.
It turns out Ramona has seven evil exes. Any prospective suitor has to defeat them in battle to earn her love -- even though it's pretty clear from the outset that earning Ramona's love doesn't guarantee she'll stick around for long. The fight scenes are inspired by video games, mainly of the 8- and 16-bit generation, with an opponent vanishing when beaten, replaced by a handful of coins, a powerful weapon, or an extra life. As the series unfolds, Scott faces off against each new evil ex, all while navigating the just-as-perilous (if not more) terrain of his relationship with Ramona.
Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour picks up where Volume 5, Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, left off, with (Spoiler Alert) Scott alone and depressed after being dumped by Ramona. While Knives is still pining for him, a more serious ex, the pop star Envy Adams, has come to town -- and brought with her Ramona's final evil ex-boyfriend, the Svengali-like Gideon, who's surprised to discover that Scott and Ramona broke up: "You defeated six of her evil ex-boyfriends and she left you?" Scott's reply: "Shut up! It's complicated!"
What makes the Scott Pilgrim series work so well is its cleverness. The books abound with smart, funny, knowing bits. At any moment, O'Malley can change his drawing style to a simplified cartoony-manga to depict a character's childlike glee, or have someone break the fourth wall by referring to something that happened "two books ago." Scott levels up, video game-style, as he grows up and becomes a better person. When he stands up to Gideon, he earns the Power of Understanding ("New T-shirt Unlocked!").
This sort of thing either works for you or it doesn't. Some will see Scott Pilgrim as too clever by half; for others, it's just right. My fondness for the series grew in the later volumes, as the characters and their creator became stronger and more distinctive. Part of that has to do with the maturation of O'Malley's art style. For the first two books, the characters looked so much alike, I was constantly flipping back and forth trying to figure out who was who. Evidently somebody pointed this out to O'Malley, because he started introducing the characters with quick captions -- "Envy Adams, 24 Years Old, Rating: 100%" -- and ultimately added a "Who's Who" cheat sheet inside the front cover. Ironically, by that point his style had evolved enough -- and the characters had been developed sufficiently -- that I could finally tell them apart.
By the time I got a hold of Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, the characters had grown on me, the jokes worked flawlessly, and the final battle had a weight and significance that was lacking from the early volumes. While the last book may not actually be Scott's finest -- the fifth volume has to be my favorite, if only for the fantastic subplot about Scott and Ramona's cat -- it brings the story full circle to a climax that feels deservedly epic. By then the books, like Scott, have matured into something truly memorable and worthy of an extra life.
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Chris Bolton co-created the all-ages webcomic Smash, which will be published by Candlewick Press in 2011, and created the web-series Wage Slaves, now in its second season. His short story "The Red Room" was published in Portland Noir from Akashic Books.
Books mentioned in this post