Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Taking what precious little is left.

Though it was probably James Joyce's fault, generations of authors of all sorts have taken the conceit of a person living their life as a work of art or literature and abused it in decades since "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" saw print. Self-awareness empowers and limits at the same time. If anything, living as though life might be a great novel einforces a notion of surveillance from above and outside, Moses sneaking out of town late at night while the burning bush kept watch.

Stephen Dedalus' characterization in "Portrait" can be seen in such later works as "Franny and Zooey," "This Side of Paradise" and even such step-children as Rob Fleming from Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity," who seems to be aware that his life is an outtake reel from "A Hard Day's Night." Extensions to the concept crop up in post-modernism, with the creation of self-aware narrative, where every aside is another opportunity to challenge and complicate the reader's expectation.

Comic books also picked up the self-awareness concept somewhere in the 1980s. It's debatable which writer explored the concept of the comic book character who realizes that he is not just a comic book character (Captain America comics are sold in the Marvel Universe, after all), but that his life is nothing but a comic book. Keith Giffen's "Ambush Bug" was certainly an early exploration of the concept; John Byrne is here waving a copy of "The Sensational She-Hulk" #14 in the air, though it's still not funny or terribly insightful; Alan Moore's early superhero work, both on "Captain Britain" and "MarvelMan," essentially described the modernist, self-aware hero without reaching the revelatory moment where the implicit becomes explicit. In other words, Grant Morrison's "Animal Man" is the best example you're going to find.

Metatextuality is the logical extension of a character who realizes he lives at the whim of a sentimental Scotsman with a typewriter and an always-ceasing string of tragic, beloved cats. The final showdown between Morrison and Baker in "Animal Man" #26 remains a high-point of superhero comics, primarily because its goal is not the deconstruction of the superhero, a remarkably low ambition, but is instead the deconstruction of the writer and of fiction itself. For once, sign and signifier are united and explained fully. The curtain is parted, and the great and terrible Oz apologizes for the deception. Wonder is lost, but self- and world-knowledge is increased. It's one titan of a comic with a pay-off that actually matches its ambitions.

All of which is a very long way to say that Bryan Lee O'Malley's "Scott Pilgrim" series of digest-sized original graphic novels is one hell of a breath of fresh air. You'll note it has been about 15 years since Grant Morrison stopped writing "Animal Man." Far too much characterization in comics is "realistic" (a blanket term which typically means "chatty and boring" or "violent"), "heroic" (bland) or, worst of all at this point, "clever" (laden with already-dated pop culture references, inventive swearing and or rather simple fourth-wall shattering gimmicks). Scott Pilgrim, though ostensibly a realistic unemployed 23-year-old in a realistic Toronto with realistic thrift stores, is, in fact, Little Mac from "Punch-Out" with a bass and a 17-year-old girlfriend named Knives Chau. That's really all you need in the way of a plot summary. He's richer than that, or the book wouldn't be worth reading, let alone celebrating: He has a gay roommate Wallace, with whom he shares a bed out of poverty; he plays in a rock band called Sex Bob-Omb; his younger sister is much more mature than he, despite her worship of Scott; and he receives specific, signed challenges to battle over the Internet and from the postal service.

I can think of few characters in any medium with less self-awareness or more obvious motivations and goals than Scott Pilgrim, and I'm a big fan of the movies of Wes Anderson. Scott enjoys it when life is awesome. He's really attracted to beautiful girls, especially when they wear roller blades and deliver him CDs from Amazon. Getting a girl, any girl, is far more important than finding a job, practicing with his band or maintaining present relationships, platonic or romantic. What Scott cares about is becoming the champion, winning the belt, and then jogging to the Statue of Liberty behind Doc's bike, in order to find the cheat code for this level of glory. Because as much as those who have read "Portrait of the Artist" like to believe they view their lives as a continuous narrative, it is at the most crucial moments when people are at their least aware. Only in retrospect does any coherence appear. Scott pretty much accepts everything thrown at him in the same way: In stride and with confusion.

When introduced to Scott, we learn the following: He's dating a 17-year-old, and it's really not that gross, because they haven't even kissed yet, and he doesn't want to, anyway, so really, it's kind of out of sorts to judge him. The scene is framed as a group of friends exchanging stories before going into a flashback to when Scott met Knives, on a crosstown bus. Knives, ignoring her mother, spills her books onto the floor, and Scott intervenes. It's here that O'Malley begins to demonstrate the (hilarious) formal experimentation he has undertaken. In a small, neatly typed font, Scott is identified as "Scott Pilgrim, Age: 23 years old; Rating: Awesome." The episode concludes quickly, Scott continuing to insist on the morality of his own actions. What's intriguing about the scene is not the way in which Scott can only seem to see the up-side to dating a high school student, which includes high school gossip, the feeling of being admired and no sexual pressure, but rather that O'Malley establishes that his characters live in a literally black and white video game world, divided between power-ups and dangers. Acquiring a girlfriend is certainly a level-up for Scott. Acquiring a better girlfriend, in this case the rollerblading delivery girl Ramona, who uses his head as a warp pipe (no, really!) to reach her customers faster, would be a high score indeed.

Very early into reading the book, I dubbed O'Malley's encapsulated ratings of each character as "Nintendo Realism." The world the characters inhabit is largely normal, except that everyone has a handy stat-sheet which determines their capabilities. Perhaps most insightful in this shortcut is its reflection of life, where the "statistics" of a human being can determine their livelihood, success in relationships and ability to participate in certain activities. The device is outlandish but also in some ways painfully honest. Rather than compose an angst-fueled slacker epic, O'Malley stepped outside of existing genres to create a celebration of people just getting by, reveling in minor achievement. Scott is, in the strictest sense, a video game hero. His friends are not competitors, they're supplemental characters who might offer advice which help him to overcome the dangers of new enemies and challenges.

This innovation character is also a break-through in comics narration, which has traditionally been, at best, predictable. First-person narration by a character, strewn across the page in neat caption form, or overly descriptive third-person work simply recapitulating the visible scene. Neither approach has much new to offer (though Ed Brubaker still made some remarkable attempts during his early run on Catwoman), least of all to Scott Pilgrim, whose sole values are to try to thrive and to try to avoid injury. So O'Malley once more goes to the well of the collective video game conscience for his narrator -- the score-keeper. No video game can function without rules. This point was emphasized most clearly upon the original release of the NES Genie, which for the first time enabled players to use an invincible, flying, invisible, fire-spewing and altogether boring Mario. If success and failure become identical, no high-score can possibly make either feel satisfying.

With such a golden revelation of concept, it's little wonder O'Malley uses this narrator sparingly: Initially only through the personal ratings, then occasional editorial comment. The best use of the latter comes at the novel's true climax, when Scott kisses Ramona for the first time. It's an expected moment, coming immediately following a walk through a snowstorm and as Ramona is shedding wet clothing to warm up. As the young hipster's lips lock, the voice of the scorekeeper immortalizes the moment, saying, "Nice one, Scott! Now turn the page." Taken from its video game roots, "nice one" has multiple meanings here: As a description of Ramona, and also of the very act of achievement and an exhortation to greater success. The narrator validates and tempts his actions. Not as God, merely the one keeping track of his qualms and quarries. This is one narrator who is utterly reliable and incorruptible, a value system more than a personality.

Which made the final act of "Scott Pilgrim Volume One: Precious Little Life" (itself a pun on video game health systems and the desperation when you're down to one heart) both surprising and oddly satisfying at once. Early in the book, Scott begins to receive challenges to battle through various channels from Matthew Patel. Though initially set up as a particularly odd form of junk mail, Patel emerges in the midst of a Sex Bob-Omb concert to fight Scott. He is one of Ramona's seven evil ex-boyfriends, of which there are seven, and he demands satisfaction. Rather than play the scene strictly for laughs, O'Malley has Scott launch into a 67-hit-combo, his all-time record. With the help of his band, he vanquishes a group of demons and leaves with the princess, Ramona. It's basically a recapitulation of either Mega Man III or the original Legend of Zelda, it's difficult to say which. Regardless, it's like virtually nothing else in Western or Eastern comics.

The introduction and discovery of Ramona's mode of transportation is an early insight which is best discussed last in the video gane world Scott Pilgrim inhabits -- ours. Though it contains truly outlandish elements, such as dream-travel and magic, they are no more exciting or disturbing than Sean Hannity's eyebrows. Ramona apologizes for using Scott's head to make faster deliveries, he doesn't even consider being upset in the first place. "Like in Super Mario 2?" he asks. His response is both typical and parodical of the young and hip. There are many in this world who would react to an actual invasion by aliens with indifference, unless their presence made them more or less attractive to the opposite sex or if their spaceships had really good theme music. For Scott, the details of his life (unemployment, the collapse of a long-term relationship, poverty, strange women who enter his dreams uninvited) are far less important than the chance to foster a great relationship or meet someone new.

This hints at something profound, and which can perhaps never be said enough: Self-discovery and a strong base of support are more important in life than the things that will make up a biography. Job title, salary, pants size, eye color, warp pipe brain, car color don't add up to anything. Seeing life for what it has to offer makes Scott a character worth celebrating. This is not a tale of angst, it's a story of joy and discovery -- none of which has to do with the often fantastic framing of each vignette. Rather than dwell on the inevitable period of your 20s when the best you can muster is the occasional venture out with friends and the ability to sleep for 16 hours straight, O'Malley crystallizes the new experiences that make that time survivable and rewarding. His Pilgrim is a Moorean -- G.E. Moore, the early 20th Century Philosopher who authored "Principia Ethica." That work, Moore defines the two states of mind which bring about the most good: The enjoyment from the viewing of beautiful objects (which is not as gross as it sounds when applied to women as it might sound) and the pleasures of human intercourse, chiefly referring to conversation in this context. For many of this generation, simply making friends laugh or kissing another human being who brings out the best in you is a triumph -- squandered potential be damned.

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life is a 168-page black and white digest from Oni Press. It costs $11.95, which is less than four issues of, say, Gambit. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, the continuation of the story, is 200 pages, also costs $11.95, and will reach finer comic stores everywhere later in February. Remember -- Life is totally sweet.