New To You Comics #106: ‘Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life’ Falls Flat

by Tony Thornley

With the comics industry continuing to battle the effects of the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are continuing to talk about comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals, and things that go bump in the night. This week, we look at the opening volume of an indie hit that became a cult phenomenon.

Bryan Lee O’Malley was one of comics’ biggest overnight success stories. Pre-2003, he was an up and coming artist and letterer, largely working for Oni Press. In 2003, he published his first graphic novel, a magical realism coming of age story called Lost at Sea. A year later though, he would publish the first volume of the story that would put him on the map, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life.

The Scott Pilgrim saga was the story of Toronto slacker, the titular Scott, whose mundane life was turned upside down when a pink haired delivery girl literally skated through his dreams. Once he discovers that Ramona Flowers is real, he quickly is able to track her down, and sparks fly. But what Scott doesn’t realize is that dating Ramona Flowers comes with a special type of baggage- 7 evil exes that he will have to defeat…

Tony Thornley: So last week we talked about an early 2000’s throwback heavily influenced by alt-rock. So I thought this week we’d do the same, and talk about a similarly themed, but otherwise couldn’t be more different book.

How familiar were you with Scott Pilgrim before this week?

Brendan Allen: I was sort of aware of the film? I don’t think I ever saw it.

Tony: I don’t think I read any of the series before I saw the movie, except maybe the Free Comic Book Day special. We talked at length last week about Umbrella Academy’s adaptation, and I think Scott Pilgrim Versus The World is worth looking at here too. I came into this book expecting the madcap energy of the film. Instead, it was much more deliberately paced.

It starts as a slice of life and relationship comedy. Then after a couple dozen pages you get a heavy dose of magical realism, and romantic comedy. Then another couple dozen pages, and it goes full classic comic book as you learn about the Seven Evil Exes and Scott’s new mission to defeat them. It’s very superheroic, even though the stakes are Scott’s relationship with Ramona, instead of saving the world.

Brendan: I have a really hard time with how this book starts out. First, Knives’ mom. I get it. She’s Chinese. But come on, man. That dialogue? ‘Sherman nice boy. You like him.’ and ‘You are seventeen year old. Time to get interested in boy!’ Such a negative stereotype, and completely unnecessary.

Tony: Oh I agree. O’Malley is half Korean, so I’m not sure how much of that is his own experience (subbing in Chinese for Korean), and how much is a negative stereotype of Chinese immigrants in the Toronto area.

Brendan: That’s even a stretch. I can see some parallels maybe, but Korean is not Chinese, and that’s not a pass.

Then we have a grown ass adult grooming a high school kid, and treating the relationship exactly how we see these things play out in real life. She’s a toy, not a real person to him, and he treats her like absolute garbage while he’s wooing the girl his age that he’s really after.

I saw this happen a couple times with girls I was in high school with, and then saw some of the guys I was in the Army with doing the same thing to younger girls, and it’s gross. I get it if the girl is just a couple months behind the dude, and they were dating in high school or whatever, but for an adult man to seek a romantic relationship with a literal child in high school? That’s not okay.

And then, inexplicably, Knives is just gone. Scott gets the other girl, and Knives is a footnote. I can’t really get behind this guy as a good dude. Like, at all. That’s just shitty human behavior. If it were just that he had a girlfriend already, and he was actively pining for the new girl, that’s still shitty human behavior, but it’s compounded by the ‘creepy adult grooming a child’ thing.

Tony: So that’s actually one of the big themes of the entire series. Yes, the entire Knives plot point is bad. It should have never happened. I genuinely wonder what O’Malley would say about how he handled it today.

But the big theme of the series is that Scott is a terrible little shit in a state of arrested development. The movie gets into it too, but not nearly as much as it does here. This is not a hero. He’s a man-child that’s framed as a superhero, and has to grow the hell up. In this volume though, it doesn’t get developed nearly enough.

Brendan: I get it, and this stuff does happen in real life. I just don’t see the guy in any positive light, at all. I spent most of the book wanting to kick his teeth. If it had been a college girl, while he was a stunted man-child, I could see it. She would have been the ideal he was striving toward. But to inflict trauma on a kid? Nope. Not for it.

Tony: I think it’s worth talking about. This is a highly regarded book, but it’s also nineteen years old. This volume DID NOT age well at all. Hell, it really wasn’t okay in 2004, but it was more acceptable in fiction then. It never should have been a plot point in the way it is here.

Scott Pilgrim at this point is not a character that anyone should aspire to be, or admire. He’s like Rick Sanchez in Rick and Morty. If Rick is your favorite character unironically, then you missed the point. 

Brendan: Or Deadpool, Punisher, the Comedian, Marv, and a thousand other literary/film characters people mistake for heroes.

Tony: Exactly. The biggest problem for me in this volume is that it doesn’t show that Scott is a little shit nearly enough, and frankly is kind of the villain of his own story. But again, this is O’Malley’s second ever graphic novel. I don’t know if O’Malley’s original intent was to show that he’s a miserable person, or if that developed as he went. But it’s an important thing to talk about when you look at this series.

Brendan: It would have been better to have at least some comeuppance for screwing with that little girl’s head. 

Tony: And he gets it, but it takes years in story and multiple volumes in publication. He should have had SOME sort of consequence here, 110%. This is a coming of age story with NO growth. It needed that to strengthen the book significantly. 

This is not a book that I can say I enjoyed. But I like when we can move the column into a discussion like this. These are problems with the industry as a whole, and I’m glad we can talk about them.

Brendan: Good timing. After a hundred plus columns, I’m running out of books that I absolutely love. There are second, third, and fourth arcs we can pepper in, but this will work moving forward.

Tony: Yeah definitely. And some of these older books are going to be great. Regardless I have a feeling that you and I are about to move into a much more critical phase of the column, rather than a recommendation conversation.

 As far as the art, I think O’Malley is a solid cartoonist but in this volume he’s clearly significantly younger in his career, and still growing. Some of the characters are inconsistent and in a few cases little is done besides hairstyles to distinguish them between one another.

It’s far from bad, but it’s definitely less refined. You can tell he worked on it over time though, because by the end I think it’s a lot stronger than the opening. I really dug the fight between Scott and Matthew Patel.

Brendan: It’s legible, if not exactly my preferred style. It looks heavily influenced by manga. Simple lines, exaggerated features, everyone looks like a kid…

Tony: Yeah. It’s very hyper-stylized. I didn’t dislike it but it’s not the sort of book I’d seek out.

Did you read the colorized version? Is that what’s on Unlimited? I think Nathan Fairbarn did a pretty solid job coloring the existing work. Every time I run into his work, I really enjoy how much depth he adds.

Brendan: It’s colorized on Comixology, so that’s the one I read. 

Have we talked about how terrible the new Comixology format is? There are a couple spots where I couldn’t even read the lettering at all. Those lyrics on the concert pages are completely illegible on PC, and I couldn’t get the thing to load on my iPad at all. If we weren’t using it so much for this column, I’d probably drop the service altogether. 

Tony: Oh it’s impossible to read books on a laptop without guided view. And I don’t like using guided view on a computer unless I absolutely have to. My tablet is doing better than my computer, but it still blows.

I use either Office Mobile’s PDF viewer if I’m on my phone or tablet or Google Play Books’ PDF upload feature to read DRM free books or review copies we get and I have a feeling I’m going to be doing that more and more. I also have a feeling that for books older than 2010, especially non-Marvel/DC/Image and maybe Dark Horse, we’re going to run into this problem a lot.

So I think there’s some value in this story, but I also did not like it. It aged poorly in a lot of ways, and is highly problematic in others. I think I know how you’re going to feel about it.

Brendan: I hated it. There are too many red flags for my taste, and the shitty human gets away with way too much without getting kicked in the teeth for it.

Tony: Yeah, exactly. Which means we might get fanboys saying “but read more, it gets to that!” and we shouldn’t have to read another 600 pages to get there.

So what do we have up next?

Brendan: Next week we’re headed back to Harrow County for the second arc from Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook.

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