The element of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels that everyone likes to talk about is the surreal world it takes place in. I personally find this to be an inconsistent and tangential element of the franchise, but one that warrants some kind of commentary nonetheless. When I purchased the color version of the first novel, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, for this essay, I noticed a Daily Globe and Mail blurb on the back cover that stated:
“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.”
I jotted this assertion in my memory as I read over the first volume again, noting all of the diegetic and non-diegetic uses of these icons, sound effects and visual cues. While pondering just how effective they really were, I also noticed how the trend applies to the supporting cast, in both negative and positive fashions.
The presentation of dominant tropes from role playing video games in the series is wildly inconsistent, but they are a mainstay of the series. Scott is capable of leveling up upon gaining work and life experience, is rewarded with coins when he defeats his enemies, Scott and other characters comment on supernatural abilities being augmented, and the series’ plot structure is presented as a series of boss battles. There are some people who will argue that the reason these things occur is because the series is presented from Scott’s own fan boyish point of view. The director of the film adaptation, Edgar Wright, flat out says in a DVD commentary that the entire story could very well be one of Scott’s daydreams from Ramona’s introduction to the conclusion.
This assertion is absurd to me, and we only have to look at how the diegetic visuals (or, the internal fictional world, free from outside interpretation) are handled to see that other characters are affected and live by the same rules as Scott does. If Scott were truly generating this world through his own imagination, surely there would be a moment where this mental construct is called into question. In the final volume, Scott is freed from the trappings of his own narrow-minded and selfish worldview, and yet, the same diegetic video game tropes persist without any alteration. There is no moment of clarity where he sees the world for what it truly is, so I can only assume that this fantasy game world is, in fact, his reality.
What the gaming metaphors do serve quite well is getting the reader to sympathize with, and see the world as Scott sees it. Scott views life as a simplistic game with few consequences, because it quite literally is to him (He also acknowledges that he lives in a graphic novel series, but that may just be a bad post-modernist joke for all I know). The tropes are his reality, but they are our anchoring point into figuring out why he is the person that he is. Other characters deal with the very same world that Scott deals with; they just choose to play a different way.
So, following through with the premise that the iconography is being used to get the reader into the swing of things about Scott’s character, let’s take a look at the non-diegetic visual elements of the first volume. Non-diegetic elements in a story would be like the score to a movie, they are there for the audience, not for the characters. To really nail the diegetic/non-diegetic terminology in if you don’t understand it, watch a clip of this gag from the Simpsons.
Since Scott is also a musician, it would make sense that Bryan Lee O’Malley would use visual representations of music, even going so far as to include an ill-fated attempt to throw guitar chord notation in for the reader’s use for one of Sex Bob-omb’s songs. Aside from that one bad idea (never revisited directly, but echoed in another poorly thought out scene in volume 2 where Steven Stills breaks the fourth wall to tell you how to make vegan casserole) music is visually depicted by stars, waves, and thick whites hands coming out of bass guitars. Music clearly has a supernatural effect in this volume, as Crash and The Boys can knock an entire audience unconscious with it.
The percussive stars and bass ghost hands aren’t meant to be taken as literally as the 1-Ups and experience points. Mostly because no one ever comments on them and they don’t play a crucial part in the story, with the one exception of Scott and Todd’s bass guitar battle in volume 3. Again, the whimsical world of Scott Pilgrim continues to be just that, non-sense and on this end, poorly thought out. Seen strictly as metaphors that don’t need to have constant continuity however, the non-diegetic visual cues serve their purpose well enough, as they help the audience parse the novel as a whole.
In addition to the visual motifs and metaphorical contrivances, the way characters are presented is colored by how we are identifying with Scott as the protagonist. Steven Stills and Neil Nordegraf both serve as NPCs who have character arcs over the course of the series, but the significant events in their lives are never depicted and we catch up with them as Scott catches up. Kind of like recurring quest-giving NPCs who always seem to have something going on, but only when you talk to them in their preset location. The occasionally recurring Comeau only serves the purpose of giving out information when asked, much like any random townie in an RPG. Wallace Wells appears to serve as a guide and tutorial giver, but his half-assed attempts to fulfill this more classical role subvert the expectations, with humorous results.
Looking at Knives Chau, specifically in this first volume, her role is that of a convenient power up (+2 to Ego Validation, +1 to Confidence, -2 to Dignity). In the first run of the Scott Pilgrim downloadable video game, her role is limited to that of a summoned assist. Scott keeps her around for the attention and admiration, but grows very scared once she starts expressing some desires and agency of her own. Both Wallace and Kim Pine express deep discontent with Scott’s exploitation of the young Knives, but I find it puzzling that no one points out that Scott doesn’t do a better job of treating Ramona with more respect in this regard until Steven spouts off about it in Volume 5.
Scott first sees Ramona in his dreams, and I originally thought that the reason he couldn’t get her out of his mind is because she existed outside of his worldview, as characterized by video game memetics and music abstractions. Ramona initially appears to have her own unique sub-space powers and iconography associated with her, independent of Scott’s. It would have been extremely interesting to see Ramona be unaffected by the diegetic video game tropes in order to establish that she truly exists outside of Scott’s understanding, and perhaps has an internal imaginary world of her own, but that hope was very quickly squandered in the first volume.
I’m not referring to the Evil Exes plot contrivance, as that is a conceit that Scott and the author projects onto her, but rather how some of the non-diegetic elements of the story were presented in scenes in which Scott and Ramona get intimate. Their first kiss is accented by an intrusive small version of Scott playing a victory riff on his bass while text informs the reader to turn the next page. Their second kiss even has a studio audience off panel apparently. The first one is clearly about Scott’s wish fulfillment only, and even the author/narrator tells him that he did a good job.
Both Knives’ treatment as a disposable power up and the first volume’s forced exclamations of approval for Scott’s romantic success (and his alone) objectify the female leads tremendously. This objectification is strictly Scott’s failing, and both the diegetic and non-diegetic visual cues and narrative theme amplify this for the audience. Scott’s failings are addressed and rectified as the series continues, but the inclusion of the supernatural elements that help us understand why Scott is the way he is never cease to wane or be addressed.
Instead, O’Malley uses these visual elements to tell the story to the audience, independent of Scott’s imaginative influence on them. As for the idea that the whole plot could be one of Scott’s daydreams, I would have to dismiss it as irrelevant. Nothing of narrative or thematic significance is added by the possibility, and consequences would be eliminated. Regardless of how any other reader chooses to interpret them, the author’s playful experimentation with these contrivances makes for an entertaining read and some eye candy, even if most of them could have been more carefully planned out for maximum effectiveness.