True story: There was this kid putting the moves on my teenage daughter—a kid a few years older than her. That in itself was enough to get my back up. But when I spotted the red-and-black “X” patch on the jacket, I braced for the worst. If she was dealing with an X-Men fan, that would be one thing; she can handle a garden-variety geek. But if the patch signified that this kid was taking Scott Pilgrim as a role model—red flag territory, baby.
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Scott Pilgrim is, of course, the hero of a series of hysterically funny and occasionally poignant graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the first volume of which, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, has just been reissued in a deluxe color edition (more about that later). Stumbling through a magical reimagining of Toronto, unburdened by employment, the 20-something Scott lives to play—both videogames and the bass (terribly) for his awful band, Sex Bob-Omb. His utter lack of prospects bothers him not one whit. As O’Malley characterizes him in the original series pitch, Scott has achieved “a sort of slacker Zen state.” He is entirely aware of his limitations and entirely at peace with them. He’s got the imperturbable cheer of a saint or an idiot—and he’s no saint.
As a protagonist, Scott is insanely likable—but as boyfriend material, he’s toxic. Dim, self-regarding and maddeningly passive, he falls in and out of romantic entanglements with no thought to the emotional damage he leaves in his wake. As the book opens, Scott—who has been getting over a bad breakup—has started dating a high school girl. Their relationship, if you can call it that, consists mostly of just hanging around together (“We almost held hands once, but she got embarrassed”), and that’s just how he likes it: “It’s just nice, you know? It’s just simple.”
Things are soon complicated by the arrival of a new and seemingly unattainable love interest for Scott, and over the course of the six books in the series relationships are redefined, breakups are examined from different angles, and Scott Pilgrim must come to terms with the price that other people have had to pay for his nice, simple life. Hilarious and bittersweet, Scott Pilgrim is that rare “young adult” work that’s truly for young adults. Scott’s belated emotional coming-of-age is the centerpiece, but all the characters grow in self-awareness as the series plays out. Friendships falter and reconfigure, love and self-respect are lost and found, and nobody leaves the series quite the same as when they entered.
It’s hard to say why Oni is revisiting Scott Pilgrim now. You’d think demand for the material would have peaked with the 2010 release of the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. But the new editions are elegantly packaged and showcase O’Malley’s pop sensibilities to fine effect. This is the first time the Scott Pilgrim books will be available in hardcover, and the reprint is slightly larger than the tankobon-style format of the original series, giving the art a little more room to breathe—although, admittedly, that is less important for Life than it will be for later volumes, as O’Malley’s linework grows ever more confident and audacious.
The most immediately apparent change, though, is that the series is in full color for the first time. Color is both the most obvious and the least-understood element of the comics artform, and many comics that work perfectly well in black and white suffer from careless application of hues, ending up murky. Veteran color artist Nathan Fairbairn strikes an ideal balance of flat primaries for the characters against a more subtle palette of browns and grays for the cityscapes. O’Malley’s Toronto is a fantasia, a video-game city grounded in the real one via extensive photo-reference, and Fairbairn enhances its even-better-than-the-real-thing quality. For the various sequences in other realities—dreams, memories, fantasies, even subspace—Fairbairn uses different saturation strategies to give each its own visual signature, perfectly complementing O’Malley’s line.
Whether this is an effort to create a definitive library edition of Scott Pilgrim or a bid to draw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’s cult audience to the original comics, perhaps for the first time, it’s a smashing success. The movie, as entertaining and faithful as it is in many ways, suffered from trying to compress the entire series into a single film, losing much of the emotional nuance and the constant sense of growth and change that defines the books. Its ending, particularly, felt rushed and unconvincing—probably because the filmmakers were adapting the series before it was complete. For new readers, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life is a great place to start learning the full story. For old hands, it’s a chance to rediscover why you loved it in the first place.
But please, don’t take Scott as a role model.
Jack Feerick: 40-something dad / writer / critic-at-large for Popdose. Status: NOT TO BE MESSED WITH.