O’Malley, Bryan Lee (2004), Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, Oni Press
I’m gonna go ahead and say it: I think that Bryan Lee O’Malley is a genius. Or brilliant, anyway. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life is the first book of his that I read and it blew me away, or rather: it riveted me to the chair I read it in. It is the first volume of an ongoing series about Scott Pilgrim, published with Oni Press. I’ve almost finished reading the second volume and I itch to get my hands on the other volumes that have been published so far. The book is an exhilarating ride, a barrelful of fun, an amazing book, in short and his writer, if this book is any indication, is one to cherish and to keep an eye on. Yes, this series of his is written in a limited register but he owns that format, that tone so completely and utterly, he has mastered the genre so completely that I have faith in his achieving great things in the world of comics. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life may seem slight but it is a great achievement, a book that bursts with a manic, joyful energy, that takes hold of you and doesn’t let go until the last page is turned. Yes, I sound a bit empty there, slinging cheap phrases around, but that’s because I don’t really have the words to truly express how I feel about O’Malley’s work.
Maybe I’ll start somewhere else. When Cornelia Funke, probably Germany’s most well known living writer of children’s and Y.A. Literature, started publishing her Inkheart books (review forthcoming), I was already a fan of her work. She used a fresh and original language, vivid and funny characters. Whenever I extemporized about how good children’s lit could be, I always mentioned her work. Inkheart was (is) a huge let-down. It’s competently written but direly dull, in too many places. It’s smugly literate and annoyingly adult, in all the wrong ways. It’s clearly written for kids but it lacks the spark that animates the best of children’s literature. Before I picked up Inkheart, I never quite knew what drew me towards good or great literature written for young adults, but when I found it sorely lacking in Inkheart, I knew: it was the spark. It can be strong and pronounced, or subtle and quiet, but I found that in all books I admired, it was there. The difference to ‘adult’ literature is, however, frequently read the wrong way. Too often writing for teens is just an excuse to produce shoddy writing. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (review forthcoming) is a particularly horrid example.
Bryan Lee O’Malley, in contrast, does everything right; the spark leaps right off the page the minute you open the book. There’s not a page, not a panel in the book that I would ever label a letdown, a disappointment. Instead of stiffening the dialog Meyer-style, shriveling it up like a raisin, O’Malley’s pen is deft and quick, his language is always fresh, frequently surprising. To my ear he appears to perfectly catch a certain youthful register, but then I’m old, basically inherently lame (saying this is somewhat lame already I’m afraid) but then I’m not here to judge an authenticity contest, I am the reader of this book and for me it all worked magically, perfectly. O’Malley knows when to slip into a teenager corniness, into cool swagger, teen sarcasm etc. This musicality, sureness of tone is further emphasized by the book’s concern with music. Not only is the name ‘Scott Pilgrim’ inspired by a single by the moderately well known Canadian rock band Plumtree, Pilgrim, the character, is also a guitarist in a band and we hear several songs and at one point, O’Malley actually includes the chords to one of those songs. Music also has strange powers; at one point, a band plays a song that regularly knocks the whole audience out.
Speaking of strange powers. The plot is also somewhat strange although it’s, to a large extent, a conventional romance, I guess. The book starts off with Scott Pilgrim on the defense as his friends find out he’s dating a high school girl. Scott is 23 and the girl, Knives Chau, is all of 17 years old, going to a Catholic school, and she’s of Chinese ancestry to boot. She falls in love with Scott, but he, meanwhile has fallen in love with a mysterious American girl, Ramona Flowers, who first appears in his dreams and whom he then meets at a party. As it turns out Scott has a “subspace highway” going through his head. Although Scott is a bit confused about this, this is more or less taken in stride and it’s no oddity in this book where strange, vaguely magical things keep turning up. Scott and his band, for example, have strange powers, but most significantly, Ramona Flowers is not an easy girl to date. We find out that in order to go out with her, a suitor has to fight her seven evil ex-boyfriends first, the first one of which shows his vengeful, jealous face in this book, another one showing up in the next. They are diligent, well-organized and committed. Good thing that Scott Pilgrim is a good fighter, and quite generally awesome.
Bryan Lee O’Malley’s art suits the writing perfectly. Generally speaking, it’s very rough, very simple. It’s fueled by a mad teenage energy, no panel is drawn indifferently, reading the book is like taking a fresh breath of air. The characters are drawn in a few broad strokes, with O’Malley’s concentrating upon a few salient details. It’s cartoonish but the difference from many contemporary animated cartoons which it resembles superficially, is in the precision that O’Malley brings to his art. O’Malley manages to get the right angle, the right stroke of the pen to express something, to really animate his drawings. The low level of detail in his panels further accentuates this, his ability to foreground characters, to imbue them with life. His art is simple but it’s also economical, he uses its simplicity in a way that makes further detail, further refinement seem unnecessary. The teenage hyperbole of its writings, the gushing energy, these things seem to ask for this treatment. And, again, unlike many superficially similar animated cartoons, O’Malley not only borrows from the cinema, he puts angels and constructions borrowed from cinema to great use. Despite its simplicity, O’Malley’s art appears, at times, downright glossy, epic.
One last aspect of the book that needs to be mentioned are video games. I think that video games may even be the most important frame of reference here. Not to deny the cinematic aspect of some frames, but the aesthetic frequently is reminiscent of different video games and even the cinematic aspect could have been channeled via video games; one game especially that is mentioned, Final Fantasy, has always had incredibly refined, movie-like cutscenes. The plot, too, is part of a video game aesthetic, the sudden fighting, the fact that defeated enemies disappear and leave money behind (in the second volume, one of the defeated enemies even leaves behind items), the weird special moves and abilities, all this is part of that. And then there are the direct quotes, such as, for example, objects from classic jump and run arcade games that appear in the second volume, or, most significantly, the name of Scott Pilgrim’s band, which, in fact, can be said to sum up an important aspect of the books. The band is called “Sex Bob-omb”, a “bob-omb” being a walking bomb from the classic Super Mario Bros video games.
The combination in the whole phrase that is the band name is probably as apt a description of the cultural locus this book situates itself in, a mixture that makes for great, great fun. The first (and second, so far) volume of this ongoing series are, to use one of this book’s most frequently used words “awesome”. Yes, it alludes to other issues, too, gender, sexuality, perception, but I didn’t have the heart to approach a review of this book from that angle. It’s certainly a rich work of literature, but it’s as certainly not for everyone. If the description appeals to you, don’t hesitate. If you like graphic novels and trust me, don’t hesitate. As for the others: it’s your loss. Seriously. Don’t miss the spark.