Welcome to the conclusion of the Scott Pilgrim Book Club. We’ve been reading each volume of the series over the course of six weeks. This week, Douglas Wolk, Graeme McMillan, Mike Williams, Evan Narcisse, Lev Grossman and Christine Lim are talking about volume 6, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour. (And read our comments on volume 1 here! And Volume 2 here! And volume 3 here! And volume 4 here! And volume 5 here! Good: now you’re all caught up.) Be warned: spoilers lurk within.
DOUGLAS: I can’t think of a more natural storyteller than O’Malley working in English-language comics right now, or one more willing to break his own rules and make up new ones as he goes along. This volume flows faster than Twista: I think the first time I read it, I raced through it in about half an hour, and I had to force myself to slow down and savor it on rereading.
Thematically, though, I don’t know what to make of Finest Hour as a conclusion. I fear I was one of those people who figured that this was ultimately going to be the story of Scott getting back together with Kim Pine–the “comedy of remarriage” thing I was going on about a few weeks ago. (I’m happy about where their relationship ends up, though; that was satisfying.) Kim still seems to be a substantively rendered personality in a way that Ramona still doesn’t, which is why I don’t quite get why Ramona and Scott get to leap through the magic portal together at the end. And the second half of the book is effectively one big fight scene, which is formally appropriate for this kind of story in some ways, but O’Malley had been doing such an interesting job of getting around the fight scenes in the last couple of volumes that I was really hoping he’d pull some kind of switchup here too. (I honestly don’t understand the whole Nega-Scott business, but then I never understood the Anti-Monitor either. I also had some problems wrapping my brain around the “literally inside my head”/glow/subspace highway routine, although I kind of enjoy the confusion of metaphor and literalism there.)
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GRAEME: I’m also one of the people who doesn’t necessarily get the head glow and how it connects to everything else, even on a re-read. The head glows when Gideon is inside? Is that it? But I love that we do get such a fight scene that takes up pretty much half of the book, purely because the last couple of books had avoided the fights. It makes this one seem bigger and more important, somehow, because we’ve been “starved” of them for that time… also, wouldn’t it have felt a bit of a letdown if there really hadn’t been a climactic final battle between Scott and Gideon after all this time? As much as I love the other swerves O’Malley throws into the book, I would’ve felt a little cheated if that hadn’t made its way in somehow.
CHRISTINE: I agree that a showdown with Gideon was necessary, but it just didn’t meet my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, I was impressed by the sword play and stabbing, but there was too much talking–explaining, really. I just didn’t want to hear (read) every last detail of Gideon’s master plan (or lack thereof). I missed the one-liners and snark from earlier volumes. I guess this volume had to grow up in order to ask Scott to.
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GRAEME: Have you seen the movie? In some ways, the actual fight with Gideon works better in the movie, for me.
CHRISTINE: I have not seen the movie yet!!
MIKE: The Head Glow is when you’re inside your own head. It’s a very visual representation of being extremely self involved. Shortly after Scott glows for the first time, Nega-Scott shows up. I took it as a heavy handed metaphor for inner demons. Self-doubt, self-pity, etc., etc.
DOUGLAS: But wait: I want to note the great stuff that’s specific to this volume–the little victories that are on practically every page. That next-to-last scene, with the wretched punk rock version of “I’m a Believer”? That is the best possible skewering of the closing credits of every comedy made in the last fifteen years.
CHRISTINE: When they started singing “I’m a Believer,” all I could think of was Shrek.
DOUGLAS: Also, the strategically placed power-of-love sword on the cover: love does give you balls! And Scott and Knives’ makeout scene (“BUT IT WAS HORRIBLE/FOR EVERYONE/AND THAT INCLUDES YOU”), and the return of Gideon the cat (whose expression as Scott clutches him is priceless), and the “memory cam,” and the humiliation of wearing Gideon’s shirt, and the huge captions that just say ANYWAY, and “no, I’m pretty sure you’re worse, dude.”
And of course all the relationship-dynamics stuff is dead-on: one of the things that makes O’Malley’s writing special isn’t just the characters but the way particular pairs of them relate to each other. I love the idea that Wallace, as supportive as he is, isn’t actually the best influence: telling Scott to go get laid is genuinely bad advice in this case.
MIKE: I think Wallace’s advice to get back out there and get over Ramona was perfect advice for anyone that isn’t Scott Pilgrim. Maybe Wallace forgot who he was talking to. Also, I will never get enough of Wallace calling Scott ‘guy’.
DOUGLAS: An even better duo-dynamic: Scott’s relationship with Envy now is a dead-on approximation of the experience of hanging out with former peers who are now famous. Kim steals the show, though, with her revelation about Simon Lee, which suggests (as O’Malley has) that the whole series has been Scott’s Walter Mitty-ization of his little life. Given that, I’m surprised that Gideon actually does turn out to be genuinely evil (“You know that dressing you up like a doll is very fulfilling for me sexually”), not just an obstacle for Scott to overcome within himself.
Also: it is too late to brag that I totally suspected that 1-up was going to come in handy, but so there.
(More on Techland: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Book Club: Volume 3)
LEV: Need to re-read this before commenting properly, but I want to put in a plug for Nega-Scott, who made a lot of stuff fall into place for me. Nega-Scott represents all that crappy crap about Scott that he can’t confront in himself, and therefore deal with and accept. (This is basically the entire content of my therapy — ed.) One of a handful of moments that I thought was handled MORE deftly in the movie.
DOUGLAS: You moviegoers.
CHRISTINE: Did anyone not grow up in this book? Stephen Stills comes out again. Neil isn’t young anymore! Knives Chau, 18 years old. WHAT? I enjoyed Scott’s moment of uncertainty and I-don’t-give-a-damn-anymore during his battle with Gideon, “Nobody said anything about defeating your ex-girlfriend’s ex-boyfriends!” But he turns around again and becomes a better man, yada yada. I miss the original and best Scott. Everyone grew up in this volume, reminding me of my ability to do so.
I don’t fully understand the subspace/glow/memory tampering technology that Gideon devised, but am I to understand that he isn’t immune to emotional warfare? His memory is evidently faulty (page 151: he didn’t remember how his relationship with Ramona ended.) Is his vendetta against Ramona all based on a misunderstanding? If so, lame!
GRAEME: Is that kind of the point, though? That Gideon’s not such a big bad, but kind of a loser? I felt like a lot of this book was about coming to terms with who you really are, versus who you want to be (embracing your Nega-Scott, if you like), so it seems like it fits to me. I mean, gathering the League of Evil Exes through a Craigslist ad? That’s hardly criminal masterminding right there.
There’s actually a lot that doesn’t pay off in this final book: The clues about Ramona and Gideon’s relationship being deeper and potentially even fictional, or Knives working her way through the Sex Bob-Omb family for… some reason? Oh, and Kim’s arc in general (Kim Pine spin-off now, please). But I’m totally willing to forgive it, because what is there is just… really good, and not what I expected at all. I was one of those who expected a Kim/Scott pairing at series’ end, as well as some kind of revelation that Ramona was evil in some way or another (I have no idea why, I just expected it), and I loved the way that O’Malley teases out so many expectations and then throws them out, so quickly – Douglas, you’re right, the Knives/Scott snogging scene was hilarious, and for the same reason that the Kim/Scott scene works… You kind of thought that was where the story was going, and then it twisted somewhere else.
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Also: Scott dying, and actually dying? And then using the 1-up from Book 3? I didn’t see that coming, and loved it (I am not as smart as Douglas). Just like I also loved Ramona’s baggage being more literal than anyone expected, and the beautiful, ambiguous end. It’s not a happily-ever-after end, but it’s something more honest, and all the better for it.
Also, somewhat more randomly: Was I the only person who really, really wanted to love this book and was very worried that there was no way it could’ve lived up to my expectations? I haven’t felt like that since the end of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, and like that, I read this for the first time with a feeling of “I am willing to let plot and logic fly out the window as long as everyone I care about makes it out okay.”
EVAN: Not just you. I mostly gush about this one, but the frozen would-be girlfriends did nothing for me. And the subspace/head-glow stuff makes thematic sense for me but, to my eye, it’s kinda wobbly as a plot mechanism.
DOUGLAS: Graeme, I think I was less interested in “how this is going to turn out for the characters I love” than in OMIGOSH IT’S A NEW BRYAN LEE O’MALLEY BOOK SQUEEEE. (With The Invisibles, I was much more invested in how it was going to come out, and if the secret of the universe was actually going to be explained, etc.) I kind of can’t imagine O’Malley doing a book I don’t like at this point.
CHRISTINE: Which is your favorite Ramona? Mine is goggles-on-top-of-head Ramona.
EVAN: Man. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t find the book for like ten days, or because I’ve had a crappy week-and-a-half, but Finest Hour made my heart swell in my chest x 3. I want to start with the ending. O’Malley doesn’t give us a happy ending. He gives us a hopeful ending. An ending where two people who aren’t one-dimensional manifestations of all good or all bad have a chance to forge a future together.
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I was honestly surprised at the way the themes of personal responsibility and self-awareness get rooted in the characters of Scott and Ramona in this volume. At some point in your life, you’ve gotta grow your own maturity, and I never thought those crazy kids would pull it off. Every character in this book feels like they wind up where there supposed to be. Even Stephen Stills, who gets the most head-spinning turnaround, reads like he’s just so much more comfortable in his own skin.
DOUGLAS: And it’s not even really a turnaround: it’s foreshadowed almost from the get-go. Look at all his scenes earlier in the series with Joseph and Julie, and at Young Neil’s nasty snap in volume 5, and at Knives cracking up in this volume when Scott suggests that she’s got a thing for Stephen… Scott’s just been being oblivious, and since we’ve gotten to see most of the series from his perspective, so have we! [This is pretty similar to my own therapy–ed.]
EVAN: I’m not quite sure what kind of endgame I was expecting for Scott and Ramona romantically. I kinda figured Scott’s grown-up-ness would come at the cost of a poignant break-up with Ramona as they both realized that who they’ve been prohibits them from being together. I’m glad we didn’t get that, though, as it would’ve made all the fighting pointless.
Stylistically, I really enjoyed how the manga influence that kind of burned off as the series went on makes a triumphant return here. The cute chibi flashbacks and the overwrought anime fight sequence in brainspace aren’t just great on their own. They rock because of how O’Malley uses them. Isn’t memory just a shrunken, good-times-only gloss on stuff that actually happened? At least sometimes?
And how about that action, huh? The impaling, the dying, the slicing-Scott-in-half-Voltron-style… it all made the stuff in the past five volumes look like exhibition matches. To put it in *ahem* video game terms, the fight in Finest Hour took things from Street Fighter II to Mortal Kombat (the new one!). But, again, it works because it’s the fight of everyone’s life, for Gideon, Scott and Ramona. And I love that the lovebirds are bickering in the final showdown. That was such a real moment for me, because you can’t always agree with your main squeeze. You can’t assume everything’s always going to be in sync, even at the most important moments. [This is what happens in my therapy sessions, btw. –ed.] But, despite all that, you can hold hands and find someone to make that subspace jump with.
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MIKE: I did appreciate the return to the giant fight set piece after the rather subdued vol. 5. (And, honestly, maybe we needed that break in vol. 5). As someone who hasn’t seen the movie yet, I’m really looking forward to how the cryogenic crystal ex-girlfriend machine will be done. I really loved the design of that contraption in the book. I loved it even more when it powered down and lowered the chambers to the floor on those thick cables. If I read the afterword correctly, one of the backup artists designed that thing?
On a related note the pattern filling on Envy, especially near the beginning of the volume, was gorgeous. The style has come such a long way from vol. 1.
DOUGLAS: No kidding. It’s pretty obvious that O’Malley had art assistants working on this volume, but that’s fine with me: “change is what we get” in the look of Scott Pilgrim too, and it’s not like the virtues I associate with O’Malley’s artwork have gone away. Comics could use a few more Gerhards. I imagine that O’Malley’s going to have a lot of pressure to revisit the Scott Pilgrim cast and style over the next few decades; as much as I would also like to see The Further Adventures of Kim Pine, I hope he doesn’t unless he feels like it. I really want to see what he does next.