You know that thing, where you find this great webcomic and spend half an hour clicking through it backwards, seeing whether it only had a few good stYou know that thing, where you find this great webcomic and spend half an hour clicking through it backwards, seeing whether it only had a few good strips, or whether its actually solid throughout, and then you figure "what the hell, I'm not doing anything tonight" and so you click the 'archive' button, and go back to the first comic, and it's from 2002, and it's just bad--flat art, dumb jokes, no sense of pacing? That's the experience of reading Scott Pilgrim.
The jokes lack subtlety and insight, the characters are consistently annoying, the art's rudimentary, everyone looks the same (except for their hair, which the author constantly changes, anyways). I've heard some people blame manga/anime inspiration for the similarity of O'Malley's characters, but there are plenty of manga artists who have mastered the art of caricature, and use it to great effect. Also like a web comic archive, it gradually gets better--but not quickly enough.
It's reminiscent of Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, a movie I tired of about halfway through. Both of them are trying to be cutesy, quirky, ironic, and referential, but it's all very familiar stuff. I never felt there was a quick, complex mind at the helm--and with modern, referential humor, it's all about the delivery and the originality.
Then again, by this point, quirky internet humor has entered the mainstream and lost much of its punch, like Jerry Seinfeld talking about airline food: now everyone’s doing it. It's like your friend who thinks saying 'remember that episode of Family Guy?' is the same as telling a good joke. Both Nick and Nora's and Scott Pilgrim were by-the-book quirky. None of it is going to strike you as interesting or witty if you’re the least bit familiar with internet subcultures and humor already.
Both also had somewhat unsettling homophobic overtones, playing off all the gay characters and same-sex romance for jokes--and cute lesbians for titillation. It's nice to have more openly gay characters in YA media, but not as thin, walking punchlines. It was worse in 'Infinite Playlist', but there was still a persistent undercurrent of homosocial discomfort.
The book was also very reminiscent of the splendid anime FLCL, from the mysterious, begoggled, badass delivery girl arriving to complicate the (sex) life of our oblivious jerk protagonist to the naive, sweet waif caught up in it all--the seemingly normal world invaded by magic, twisting our expectations of reality. Yet unlike FLCL, this was not a rollicking, take-no-prisoners, psychedelic reimagining of the genre, it was just a dull story about annoying people occasionally perked up by in-joke fight scenes. The musical obsession was another shared thread, right down to the same characteristic Rickenbacker.
It's very soap opera: who is dating who, who used to date who, which would be more intriguing if I were interested in the characters. Instead, they’re the sort of dull, naive, self-absorbed people that I spent high school and college avoiding, right down to the fratboy favorite lipstick lesbian poster on the wall and an undying reverence for whatever bands Pitchfork told you to listen to this week. They value music solely because of their emotional reactions to it, but they act as if this somehow makes them special, as if their emotional connection to a particular song were somehow more valid than the average jugglette's.
Then there's the obsession with the rarity of music: collecting unknown bands and staking claim, which is a symptom of the fact that most trendy people don't recognize the difference between a cause and its effect. It's true that a knowledgeable musicologist or musical historian will be familiar with a number of 'undiscovered' bands, but deliberately seeking out unknowns will not make you more musically sophisticated--most unknown bands are unknown for good reason.
Scott himself is a mess, and yet without being either sympathetic or complex. He's definitely got that Holden Caulfield 'woe-is-me, it's not my fault I'm an asshole' vibe. As it goes on, it resembles a harem anime more and more, where all women fight over Scott all the time, despite the fact that he's a self-absorbed loser.
Now, some authors, like Nabokov or Anna Kavan, have succeeded in presenting these awful, unpleasant characters in a way that reveals their natures, the psychology which drives them to be so self-centered and thoughtless--helping us to understand these characters, and even sympathize with them, while still disliking them. It’s difficult to do, but certainly possible.
Unfortunately, there's very little introspection in Scott Pigrim, the story touches superficially on a lot of parts of childhood, especially trends, but almost never turns a critical eye on them. Everything is taken for granted, not only by the characters, but seemingly by the author. Other characters do sometimes get angry at Scott, or criticize his behavior, but this isn't the same as a commentary on the sort of person he is--we don't see him change, or suffer more than temporary drawbacks.
There's something funny about a story centered on character interaction that eschews psychological progressions or conflict resolution in favor of videogame powerups and ninja battles. But then, how many self-absorbed videogame-loving assholes wish that sex and relationships were acquired and maintained by minigames and xp grinding?
Each issue is incrementally better than the last: the story becomes more streamlined, and O'Malley takes more artistic chances, usually to the general benefit of the comic, eventually hiring on other artists who really improve the style--though in all the reviews, no one ever mentions Kantz and Ancheta. Then again, it's not like they get billing on the cover, which is a pretty disingenuous move by O'Malley: he brings in some talented artists to improve his book and he gets all the credit.
Between the ever-growing cast of indistinguishable characters and the author's love of flashbacks, the storytelling leaves a lot to be desired, particularly in terms of clarity. We certainly didn't need over a thousand pages of to get here, there were maybe three volumes worth of story--with some stronger structure and development to drive toward the conclusion, it could have been solid. If I'd read a thousand pages of Hellboy or Blueberry, I could have tackled ten or fifteen complete story arcs spanning decades and continents.
Sure, we get a lot of foreshadowing, but that isn't the same as actually exploring how events came about or what they meant. It’s just characters constantly referencing their background, then getting interrupted before they can explain it. It’s such a patently artificial way to maintain tension.
All in all, Scott Pilgrim feels very much like a mid-level webcomic. It centers on the author's life and experiences, harping on in-jokes and hobbies, but lacks the character, narrative structure, wit, or art that sets good webcomics apart. It does improve, by the last volume, into something more enjoyable to read, but it’s not enough to make up for all the time spent getting to that point.