By request of ozacrot
This week sees the release of Ernest Cline’s novel Armada, a work that seemingly aspires to speak to a generation of video game nerds but, by all accounts, settles for a sort of lowball Family Guy rhythm of, “Hey remember that thing? It exists, ha! Ha! Get it? Yeah cool I’m a nerd like you. OK, time to wheel out the next reference.” Reviews for the book have been uniformly scathing, and not in an “I have an axe to grind” sort of way… more like, “I feel ill-treated and condescended to.” So on this dark day, it seemed fitting to respond to this request.
(Reminder: I’m producing “by request of” posts as my contribution to the Talking Time community fundraiser to the keep the forum on top-grade servers for another year.)
Bryan Lee O’Malleys’ Scott Pilgrim graphic novels serve as a sort of antithesis to that shallow, fleeting, “hey, video games!” approach to pop-culture appropriation so common on the Internet these days. It’s easy to accuse the books (and the film) of wallowing in that same shallow grave of intellectual laziness, but I sincerely believe that does the work a disservice.
For starters, you have to bear in mind that the genesis of Scott Pilgrim begins more than a decade ago, long before anyone had really caught on to the fact that nerds tend to be big dopes whose favor can be easily procured by offering desultory shoutouts to things they like. Today, yes, there’s an entire boutique culture sitting astride the niche and the mass-market, pandering to geek interests with all the intellectual sluggishness of an episode The Big Bang Theory. Scott Pilgrim, in fact, helped establish the economical viability of this cynical facet of capitalism. But I do not think it was forged in the same crucible of opportunism and intellectual property violations as, say, a T-shirt depicting Doc Brown, the Fourth Doctor, and Bill and Ted queueing up outside a phone booth, available now at Teefury or at one of a dozen identical San Diego Comic-con booths. (I don’t know if that shirt actually exists yet, but if it doesn’t, it will, with the inevitability of Shakespeare’s infinite number of monkeys.)
You have to remember that its creator was a guy who helped run an anime-focused community site called Maison Otaku in the ’90s, a guy who sat at a little table at small conventions and events before that was an accepted part of the journey to creative success for online folks. His work was formed in the primal stew of nerdy webcomics, a medium that 15 years ago wallowed in dopey nerd references not because of some devious charade to convince a potential nerd audience that he was one of them, but rather because he was one of them and that’s what he knew. Sly references to deep-cuts of video game history, like naming a band The Clash at Demonhead or giving a character a backstory that basically plagiarizes River City Ransom, and plot devices that reach into video game terminology, sit somewhere between a fond pastiche of childhood memories and a cutting critique of arrested development.
Because that’s really the point of Scott Pilgrim: It’s not a celebration of its eponymous protagonist but rather a sharp commentary on what an immature putz he is. As the story begins, Scott is a creep: A jobless sluggard who plays in a band that’s going nowhere, and whose history of callously stringing along girls who deserve better manifests itself in the very first panel of the first volume, in which the first line of dialogue is a declamation of his scumminess in being a college-age slacker dating a high school girl. That exclamation isn’t wrong, and before the book is even over he’s strung along and ditched this poor teenager, who swoons hopelessly and helplessly for the older guy only to be abandoned when a newer, cooler girl comes along.
Scott is a piece of garbage in most ways that count: Lazy, irresponsible, dishonest, and reluctant to take accountability for his own actions. He’s a man-child, and the fact that he sees the world as a big video game is no mistake; he’s any number of awkward geeks I’ve known, incapable of seeing the world in any terms but those of a video game. The kind of socially stunted person who couches every conversation in terms of their favorite movie or game, even if those around them have no idea what they’re talking about. (I’m pretty sure that was me as a teenager, too; thankfully the Internet came along so I could find a constructive focus for those obsessions and let my real life be real life.)
But here’s the thing: Scott’s really the only one who talks like this. There’s an element of magical realism to the story that blurs the lines between slice-of-life fiction and fantasy; but even when something outlandish happens, like a girl traveling through Scott’s dreams as a shortcut for her delivery route, Scott’s the one who brings up Super Mario Bros. 2. He’s the one who talks about leveling up and proficiencies when he beats up someone, and it’s his point of view from which we see video game-themed flashbacks and conflicts. Scott sees everything like some video game fantasy, and everyone around him seems to find it a little weird and discomfiting… which is how people see Scott himself, too. He has friends, and girlfriends, and everyone seems drawn to his carefree style and blithesome confidence… but only to a certain point, whereupon it becomes clear that he’s best taken in small doses and frustrating to be around for extended periods.
It’s easy to give Scott Pilgrim a surface reading, to take all the pointed barbs directed at the protagonist as punchy, sardonic writing: Sitcom superficiality, where “mean” is the only setting to the humor. But that’s not the case. The barbs come from a sincere place, as Scott grates on his friends’ nerves and tries their patience, and eventually he bottoms out and frays everyone’s last nerve more or less simultaneously. As in Mad Men or Breaking Bad, it’s easy to make the mistake of seeing the “hero” treat everyone around him like crap and still think he’s such a great guy because he’s generally presented in a sympathetic manner… but if you actually stop and take stock of what’s happening, you quickly come to despise him.
The central premise of the books is a decidedly video game-like conceit: Scott sees “winning” the affections of his latest flame, Ramona Flowers, as basically a fighting game in which he must defeat all her “evil exes.” Basically, anyone who ever so much as held hands with Ramona gets beaten to a pulp; given the whimsical presentation of the comics (and the comics medium itself), it’s hard to know how much of things like Lucas Lee’s blinking out of existence and leaving behind a pile of change is meant to be taken at face value, but it doesn’t really matter since the real point of the “evil exes” thing is the eventual twist late in the series in which Scott himself realizes that he’s one of the evil exes, too. He’s a bad person, manipulative and thoughtless. The problems in Scott and Ramona’s relationship aren’t Ramona or Ramona’s exes, they’re Scott, jealously hung up on her past even as he treats Ramona and everyone else around him with little respect.
Scott never entirely grows up, and he frames his existence in video game terms until the very end, though that’s perhaps an unavoidable function of O’Malley’s shifted-media approach to storytelling. He’s telling a story through comics but using video game narrative mechanics to do so. The revelation that Ramona’s ex Gideon “controls” her with a brainwashing chip doesn’t quite work for me — sometimes relationships fail because one person simply can’t get over someone from their past, and it’s not something you can solve with a sword fight. But, hey, Scott Pilgrim draws pretty heavily from manga and anime, too, and there’s nothing more anime than ending on a somewhat unsatisfying note.
Scott Pilgrim has some shortcomings, to be sure; its author has stated that it’s something of an immature work, the kind of story you create at a certain time in your life that he himself has moved beyond. But whatever its flaws, I won’t hold the glut of cheap, exploitative geek referentialism that followed in the book’s (and movie’s) wake against it. Just like I wouldn’t blame Super Mario Bros. for the countless cheap, amateurish platformers that followed in its wake.
Whoops, there I go, describing things in video game terms… that’s not a good sign.