It's midnight in Mirvish Village in Toronto. Two thousand young people are gathered on the street at the launch of Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, the sixth and final volume of Bryan Lee O'Malley's comic-book epic. O'Malley himself will spend the night politely signing hundreds of posters and books, having his picture taken with gaggles of girls dressed like his drawings, seemingly unfazed by all this hullabaloo. "My mind was blown a long time ago," he says.
O'Malley has had time to adjust; Universal bought the rights to the comics shortly after the release of the second volume in 2005.
The movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, by cult director Edgar Wright, is set to open in less than a week. The film was shot on location in Toronto, but its hype spans the continent. A few days after the Toronto book launch, Scott Pilgrim fever swept the San Diego Comic-Con. An epic poster covers the entire Hyatt hotel; an "experience" booth sprawls outside the show doors; nightly sneak previews at the Balboa Theater create lineups round the block. Pilgrim is huge, the comics Harry Potter, its praises sung by none other than geek god Joss Whedon ( Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, etc.) on the back cover.
At its heart, Scott Pilgrim is about people trying to make it through change despite, or perhaps because of, all their faults
At the start of the series, Scott Pilgrim, likeable slacker, meets Ramona Flowers, literally the girl of his dreams. But to date her, he must defeat her seven evil exes. What follows are Street Fighter-style battles with skateboarding movie stars, magic vegans and evil rockers, who all want to kick Scott's ass. Its mix of action and romantic comedy struck a chord with an entire generation of readers. While this story draws them in, what O'Malley delivers is a journey into self-awareness for young people oblivious to change.
Scott Pilgrim's characters live free from responsibility. Anyone whose adolescence has stretched into their early 20s can relate: Scott and his friends play video games, form bands and fall in love. In the hands of lesser talent, it would have remained endlessly so. But Scott Pilgrim, ultimately, is about things ending: Relationships break down, bands break up, friends move away and nothing lasts forever.
In O'Malley's world, there's no one more clueless than Scott himself. On the very first page, he's trying to reset the clock, in his own words, "dating a high-schooler," the 17-year-old Knives Chau. However, with the arrival of Ramona, change is thrust upon him. And so, the true crux of each volume becomes not the evil exes, but the increasingly complex emotional pangs of a deepening relationship. Their romance is also rocked by a number of blasts from Scott's own messy past.
In Vol. 3, we meet Envy Adams, the bitchiest villain in the series. Envy has broken big-time with her art-rock band in Montreal, and invites Scott and all his friends to her homecoming show. Everyone knows someone who made it big, and the mixed emotions this produces can be powerful - something O'Malley is well aware of from his sudden rocketing to fame. The resulting carnage backstage, a display of wanton cruelty and girl-on-girl social gaming, comes off as more ruthless than any martial-arts battle.
And yet, through flashbacks, we discover Envy's beginnings as a cute, nerdy girl coming out of her shell, starting a band and a relationship with Scott in university. Ultimately, she loses out, a victim of another of Ramona's crummy ex-boyfriends. By the end of the volume, the reader feels for her, in a moment of not-quite reconciliation, as she leaves Toronto, once again brokenhearted.
All this is told through the intimacy of comics, where your eye lingers over moments of heartache before you have to turn the page. O'Malley uses lines that are sometimes heavy, but always expressive, most often in the gigantic eyes of his characters. Emotion is key, for it's not an intricate plot that keeps readers hanging; the whole raison d'être for the evil exes is only loosely sketched out.
Though O'Malley tries to tie up all his loose ends in the final volume, it's not essential. As Ramona says, as she and Scott skip out on a battle to spend time together in the third volume: "Dude, come on. We're shirking duties randomly made up by people who hate us." At its heart, Scott Pilgrim is about people trying to make it through change despite, or perhaps because of, all their faults.
For at its finest, Scott Pilgrim is much, much more than it appears to be. It's an ambitious meditation on what growing up means to a generation for whom comic and video games are not just cultural touchstones, but the dominant iconography.
During the final volume, Scott literally fights his dark side, a classic trope of video games. While he does so, Kim Pine, bandmate and another ex-girlfriend, yells out, "If you keep forgetting your mistakes, you'll just keep making them again!" As he's being pummelled, Scott yells back, "I don't care! It's better than having to live with myself!"
When Scott faces Gideon Graves, Ramona's last ex-boyfriend, an older, über-cool jerk from New York City, it takes place as a climactic final "boss battle." Gideon is what Scott might become, a senseless badass devoid of self-reflection, who orchestrated the "league" of exes because he himself was incapable of moving on.
Scott should be ready for him: In Vol. 4, he "levelled up" by declaring his love for Ramona, earning a flaming sword (+2 Guts! +2 Heart!). However, at this point in Vol. 6, he has alienated himself from most of his friends and Ramona has disappeared from his life. And it's only by understanding his past that Scott is able to survive.
It's that mapping of the symbolic language of battles, levelling up and experience onto the genuine challenges of life that sets Scott Pilgrim apart. Through them, O'Malley takes on change itself: losses of friendship and the struggle to maintain your sense of self; coming to terms with your personal baggage. Growing old means merely accumulating more people you've hurt and let down along the way. And after all that desperation and longing, daring to find someone who will take that leap of love with you all the same. Which, in the end, might be the only thing worth fighting for.