Thursday, July 28, 2005

Scott Pilgrim, Vols. 1 and 2

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other works of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.
-- Walter Pater, Studies in History of the Renaissance

I was introduced to this quote back in my theatre student days, and I return to it often. In this sort of thinking, there is a hierarchy of Art where Music is king because it simply .... is. Music does not represent anything else, it must be experienced. Though you can describe a film as "X happens, then Y happens" and approximate it's meaning, you can't describe Beethoven's 7th. It's not about anything, and it's artistic meaning is inseparable from the work of art itself. While other forms of art can continue the constant argument of "form vs. function" and "medium vs. message", in music that distinction is obliterated.

Certainly music and art have changed since Walter Pater wrote that in 1873, and I don't know what he'd make of Jackson Pollock or Finnegan's Wake. But the quote always gets me thinking about form, and about what makes each medium of art special, and why so many kinds of art end up telling the same stories in the same way. The majority of comics follow the same representational path as film, television, and prose. They are about. They envision a new reality, and then try to describe that reality in a somewhat naturalistic fashion.

And then there is Scott Pilgrim. It's no surprise that a comic so influenced by music is one of the few that approaches the "condition of music". It's great example of where the medium and the message become so intertwined, it's futile to separate them. It appears there's a movie in the works, and it will be interesting to see how it translates, because the most memorable sequences are to tied to the comic page. At the core of Scott Pilgrim is a simple postmodernism: the comic isn't describing a reality, it is the reality. Though metafiction is nothing new in comics, this isn't the head-trip of Morrison's Animal Man or the winking tomfoolery of Byrne's She-Hulk. Bryan Lee O'Malley doesn't make a point of the metafiction, because it's accepted as a groundrule. Characters refer to the book they are in and people are easily labeled and explained. The defining fight sequences are bravura sequences where the graphics are the fight, not a drawing of the "real" action. When you start to describe what it's about, it becomes apparent that you're only describing an unimportant metaphor.

In Shakespeare, when the emotion gets high enough, the characters burst into soliloquy. In musicals, they burst into song. In Scott Pilgrim, they burst into fight. Hamlet isn't really talking to himself, Gene Kelly isn't actually singing in the rain, and Scott Pilgrim isn't fighting. It's a stylistic conceit that speaks to a generation raised on comics and Capcom games more than monologues or musical numbers, but it's not that different. Whether it's asking a girl to go out (and be in your band) or "meeting the ex", it's a huge emotion that breaks down the easy naturalism of the "real-life" segments. Any naturalistic representation of the scene wouldn't do justice to the emotional power, so it needs to break out of that mold.

Scott Pilgrim
has been praised for it's "game logic", and as a old-school gamer, I was interested to see. But I just don'’t think it's really that fundamental. There's some structure borrowed from classic platformers (level bosses), and there's some concepts (defeated enemied dropping coins), but it's really just an importing of a different myth structure. Scott Pilgrim falls squarely in the tradition of magical realism, but unlike Gabriel García Márquez or Jorge Luis Borges, O'Malley is using 8-bit Nintendo and old Archies cartoons as the defining myth. Where others would have ghosts and curses, Scott Pilgrim has warp pipes and power-ups. Like the magical realists, O'Malley is using otherworldly elements to tell a very human story, never forgetting that the emotions are at the center. Where pure sci-fi (and most mainstream comics) makes it's idea the protagonist and it's world a character, magical realism keeps the focus squarely on the people, not the special effects. Scott Pilgrim isn't about fight combos or wire-fu battles in the Public Library. It's about a kinda screwed up twenty-something trying to make the best he can out of his life and loves, and all the rest just serves to tell that story.

So instead of describing Scott Pilgrim as "Game Logic Fight Comix", I'd like to start calling it a "Post-Modern Magic Realism Fight Musical". Of course, labels don't really matter, and a great work like what O'Malley has going here just shrugs off categories. It doesn't matter what you call it: Scott Pilgrim is Art. I think William Pater would have approved.



zilla said...

Mark this is seriously one of the best (if not THE best) comic book review i have ever read. You should be a professional man. I think i love this new "fewer reviews at higher quality" format you've got going. I'm going to pimp this over at Zilla's after i type this - then run out and get Scott Pilgrim today.

Mark Fossen said...

Thanks for the kind words, Zilla. Definitely check out Scott Pilgrim. It's really one of the few books I've read that was hyped to the skies .... then ended up blowing me away anyways.