ComicsAlliance continues its Top 10 Best Comics of 2010 with...
#3: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O'Malley
– the story of a hapless sort-of hero on a quest to defeat his girlfriend Ramona's seven evil exes – has always been a series about being in your 20s, a chronicle of the journey towards responsibility. Infused with the art equivalent of a hot chiptune beat and laced with the sensibilities of 8-bit video games, it is also a story about nostalgia, about the emotional undertow of the past and its power to frame and fetter the way we see the world.
In the final volume, Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour
, we open on the aftermath of Scott's breakup with Ramona. Now that the great rollercoaster of sex, intrigue, and problems he could solve with punching has come to a stop, we find Scott retreating from the world into a haze of oversleeping and video games, emerging into natural light at irregular intervals just long enough to embarrass himself publicly and make spectacularly inappropriate decisions.
But the rest of the world moves on without him, the way it often does as the cliques and habits of the past stop making sense, and old friends start drifting apart. As characters peel away from the primary cast to pursue their own interests off-panel and outside of Scott Pilgrim's precious little life, Scott has never seemed so alone or out of place. Or most tellingly, left behind.
The final volume represents not only an end to the series, but an end to a particular period of Scott's life. We understand his reluctance to leave it behind – after all, we've enjoyed it too. If you've ever wanted to reread a previous volume of Scott Pilgrim
, then you understand the impulse. And while on the one hand, actually living is very different from reading stories, in another sense the stories that we create about our own lives – not only as we're living it, but in retrospect – are the most important ones we will ever tell. The narrative and meaning we choose to create out of the things that happen to us and the choices we make are nothing less than defining.
When you're telling your own story, however, it's all too easy to place yourself at the center as the noble hero or heroine beset by troubles, and to dismiss or ignore the mistakes you've made and learn nothing from them, which is Scott's story entirely. Despite being the main character, Scott seems to have lost the plot in a variety of ways, notably because O'Malley flips the script and introduces the idea of Scott as an unreliable narrator. As the volume unfolds, we learn that quite a few important events and details have transpired off-panel throughout the series without any mention in the story, including significant chunks of character origins. It's information that readers never learned because Scott never learned it, busy as he was with the story he was telling about himself.
Or worse, because it didn't fit the story he was telling about himself, the way we so often remake our past as the tale of the person we wanted to be, an intensified, rose-colored highlight reel of explosions, makeouts, and epic triumphs created by cherry-picking the moments that seemed that way.
Scott Pilgrim, because he is Scott Pilgrim, deals with the cumulative effects of these choices the same way he does with everything: through slacking, avoidance, and self-pity. Except this time it's a little sadder and a little less cute as he proceeds on his High Fidelity
-esque depression quest to revisit all of his former flames, including Kim Pine, Knives Chau, and Envy Adams, partly in hopes of returning to an earlier, romanticized point in his life by rekindling a relationship, and partly to proposition them all for casual sex, starting with the newly 18-year-old Knives Chau.
As much as the villanous Gideon represents the brittle, obsessive lunatic Scott might someday be, Knives represents the person he was: just as clueless and naïve, equally prone to romantic obsession, and blinded by myopic intensity of first love. Introduced as the 24-year-old Scott's high school girlfriend in the first volume, Knives is one of the earliest and most tangible symbols of Scott's franchise-long campaign to avoiding growing up by regressing into the past.
As emotions go, nostalgia most closely resembles romance, even when it's more about wistful longing for the days when you could play Final Fantasy III for 30 hours straight in your parents basement than the tragic love affair at 16 you will carry with you forever. After all, when you miss someone that you once loved, how much are you missing them, and how much are you missing the way they made you feel? Or the person you used to be when you were with them?
Although Knives is little more of a sidenote in Scott's story, she spends at least a year scripting him as the tragic, romantic hero of her own personal narrative. Melodrama is the tragedy that you write for herself to make your story more beautiful or more significant, because it is easier to be the heroine of an epic ballad than to be a pathetic, silly teenage girl who got used by a disinterested older dude that only liked her for her schoolgirl uniform, and didn't really like her much at all. Which is a far franker assessment of the Scott/Knives relationship, but not something that anyone is enthusiastic about doodling in the margins of her Algebra 2 notebook.
Knives can be forgiven, of course, because she is in the throes of the intense, highly compressed emotional world of high school, dealing with the complexities of relationships for the very first time, and generally fighting blind in the octagon of love. Scott has no such excuse, although he is equally prone to bouts of crushing bout of romantic melodrama. Most revolve around his ollege ex-girlfriend Natalie/Envy, who looms large over the series as a spectre of trauma until she finally appears as the spectacularly beautiful, bitchy villainess of Volume 3 and leaves Scott nearly catatonic with a single phone call.
Of course, we've always only heard Scott's side of the story, and since this is the volume where Scott's self-centered egotism wanes just long enough for us to see glimmers of other people's perspectives, we find out that there's actually a whole other story, as there usually is.
Envy, for all her seemingly epic bitchery in previous volumes, emerges in Volume 6 as a largely sympathetic character who cares about Scott despite his determination to be clueless and rude. In one of the biggest script-flipping moments of the series, Envy asks Scott if he "remembers anything? Like ever?" More specifically, she wants to know if he remembers the fight that he started on New Year's Eve that caused their breakup. Scott doesn't, and this is the first we've heard of it as well. The story we heard was that she dumped him cruelly and inexplicably after he got a really bad haircut, which you start to realize is a pretty stupid story, and probably not how it happened at all. When Scott says he remembers Envy breaking his heart, she replies, "the feeling is somewhat mutual."
Suddenly, we're faced with the idea that the great tragic heartbreak that informed the plot of several books in the series may not have happened the way we thought, and the implications are kind of staggering. This has always been Scott's story, and we have always seen things the way he has seen them, for better or for worse. But maybe we didn't really know him. Maybe he was never a hero at all.
Remember Simon Lee, the evil kid from junior high school who ostensibly kidnapped Kim and chained her to a roof, forcing Scott to fight through an entire building of enemies to save her, River City Ransom
style? Turns out he was actually a meek, geeky Asian kid with glasses who kind of dated Kim until Scott punched him for hugging her. So yeah, Scott Pilgrim: kind of a bully.
The final fight with Gideon is equally strange and disjointed, mostly because their ultimate confrontation was always set up to be a battle over Ramona, except that she broke up with Scott, so now they're fighting over... I don't know? And neither do they. When Ramona finally makes her appearance, we finally see the curtain pulled back on her mysterious past and her relationship with Gideon, neither of which are as horrible or dramatic as we had imagined, but a lot simpler and more relatable.
Ramona pauses during the fight to complete the circle of willful misremembering by shattering Gideon's romanticized view of their relationship: "Why do you even want me back? You spent our whole relationship pushing me away." In another telling moment, O'Malley juxtaposes all the times Scott has had his heart broken with all the times he has broken hearts, because at one time or another, everyone takes their turn on both sides of the table.
In the end there are no villains – not Envy, not Ramona, not Scott, not even Gideon. There are only people who made some selfish, imperfect decisions, who didn't know how to let go, but if they were lucky, realized it and tried to find a way to be better. Scott isn't so different from Knives, or from Gideon, who is ultimately the Gollum to Scott's Frodo, and only as villainous as he is pathologically unable to let go of the past. "I think I understand you," Scott tells Gideon towards the end of the book, and for good reason.
It's tremendously tempting and easy to gloss over your own mistakes, the way the entire series may have glossed over Scott's, but if your aim is to move forwards, it's difficult to do that in any real way without acknowledging the true composition of the past. Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour
is about taking a fuller, more human measure of the characters and their choices, rather than simply fitting them with black or white hats and pitting them against each other, and the result is more complicated and more empathetic than anything we've seen before.
We all have our moments when we are less than our best selves, but if we allow ourselves to be generous enough, maybe that means that we're not so different from the Knives Chaus or the Gideons or the Envys or the Ramonas in our lives – that on some level we're all people in the middle of fighting our own battles with the past and the future, the people we were, and are, and want to be.
And while conventional wisdom may offer the dubious claim that your teenage years and early 20s are the "best of your life," woe be onto to them who confuse one chapter of their life for the whole of it, for they will be doomed to repeat it in a series of cycles whose returns are ever-diminishing, and thus hold themselves back from telling any other story.
In the end, adulthood isn't a single decision you make, but a long series of decisions you make every day for the rest of your life. And the best reason to grow up isn't because it is expected or required, but because it means moving forwards. Because while it may also involve incredibly tedious things like mortgages and car payments, growing up is a natural function of seeking a life that is more dynamic than static, of choosing ambition and hope over avoidance and fear, of wanting to know who you're going to be and not just who you were, even if that takes you away from the things you used to love.
My thanks and appreciation to Bryan Lee O'Malley for telling a story that became the sequential art soundtrack for me in my 20s, and for a lot of other people who were trying as hard as they could to get it together. Congratulations on finishing your story, and I can't wait to hear your new ones.
(On a personal note, I turned 30 today. And it feels better than I ever thought it would.)