Okay, let’s get the formalities out of the way first : yes, of course, it’s absolutely brilliant. Depending on what MorrisonQuitelyBatman and GillenMcKelviePhonogram come up with, it will in all likelihood retain its status as “best comic of the year” for the entirety of 2009. If you’re already reading the series then it’s such an essential purchase that you obviously already own it (and if you don’t, hard luck, because it’s probably sold out where you live); and if you’re not already reading the series, then this is clearly not the place to start, but it does nothing to change the fact that you should be reading the series.
However, I’m here to try and say something vaguely insightful about it, so here goes. And… it’s difficult, actually. Book five has managed to inspire a completely different emotional reaction at its close to that of any previous volume. To say exactly the same thing that every other review has or is going to have said… it’s dark. Not by normal, “my entire family’s been stabbed to death” standards of dark, of course – I don’t think I’m giving away much if I tell you that no-one dies jagged edge divx movie online or anything – but in comparison to the tone previously set by the book, as a character piece it’s pretty downbeat. There’s something ominous about almost every page, and it culminates in a truly, genuinely heartbreaking final act for those of us who feel fully invested in these characters and their story. Comparing Scott Pilgrim to Spaced is one of the first things that any new reader does, but if we’re talking equivalents, then … vs. the Universe really is the episode “Dissolution”.
Of course, like that episode, a downbeat penultimate chapter doesn’t necessarily mean that things suddenly aren’t going to work out well in the end. It would be a cheat of the mood established by the previous four volumes to do that, and it is of course a standard feature of the hero’s journey that all will seem lost shortly before a triumphant victory. But O’Malley’s trick is to convince you utterly and entirely that he has pulled a bait-and-switch. Even though the book ends on the mother of all cliffhangers, so much about it feels final. Even though we probably will, we’re made to believe that we may never see certain characters again. There’s a point at which we jump to “some time later” in the narrative, and the setup that we’re given as a result feels more like an epilogue to the entire series. And even if the tone does shift back to something more traditionally Pilgrimish in book six, the overriding sense is that the ending that we all expected, the predictable outcome that jumps to mind as soon as anyone describes the book’s overall scenario… well, it’s not a given. Not by any stretch.
Not least because the basic concept of what the book is about has changed so drastically. Talk of the upcoming movie pitches it as “Scott must defeat Ramona’s seven evil ex-boyfriends in order to win her”. But it’s not about that at all any more. Yes, we will surely see the much-hoped-for face-off with Gideon in the final book. But that’s not the battle that Scott’s facing in order for his and Ramona’s relationship to work any more. It’s telling that the scenes in which he battles the Twins’ robots quite deliberately take place in the background of scenes in which Ramona has conversations – first with Kim, then with Knives – about him. In the final analysis, the true threat to their relationship is far more complex than the simple and convenient external force of an evil ex-boyfriend. Throughout the series there have been aspects of Scott and Ramona’s relationship that have felt difficult to the reader, and they come to the fore here. While we’ve seen glimpses of what might have made Scott fall for her in the previous books, there’s also been a nagging doubt over just why she’s worth these battles. Here, they’re made explicit. I can’t say more without spoilering the book too much – but it becomes a lot more difficult to root for them as a couple. And yet somehow, events conspire to make me do that even more.
Ongoing plot developments (because despite our usual liberal stance to spoilers here on CD, I really don’t want to ruin things for people who are desperate to read it but haven’t been able to get their hands on a copy) and emotional reaction aside, what really jumps out of the book is the way in which O’Malley has grown as a storyteller. His visuals are far more consistent than ever before, allowing him to actually break out some more experimental stylistic tics (one panel of Ramona appears to have been deliberately drawn with a running-out pen), and page/panel construction that occasionally looks like he’s been reading his McCloud. The newest addition to the League of Evil Ex-Boyfriends (and I don’t think it’s too spoilerific to call them “the Twins”) are an absolutely brilliant piece of design, entirely different to what you’d expect but slotting in perfectly. More importantly, though, the construction of the narrative is more evident than ever before. When one individual suddenly becomes almost the third “main” character, you realise (unless you’re Julian) that it was the one you’d always hoped would get more page time, and for whom the seeds of significance to the story had already been planted. When people you thought you’d never see show up out of the blue, there’s a simple and effective reason for both their prior absence and immediate presence. And there’s one panel particularly late on in the book (it involves a mirror) that suddenly throws a new light on a particularly oblique image from the previous volume, and leaves you wondering what the hell it means and how it might be relevant to book six.
Of course, despite all the drama and emotion, none of this is to say that SPVTU loses sight of the one thing that makes the series stand out more than anything – that is, it’s still bloody funny at times. It’s just that it’s not really about the humour quite so much this time (and again, I expect this to be a deliberate stylistic shift for this book alone, rather than a marker for the whole back third of the series), so while some of the gags are among the best in the series (Wallace’s text messages, the new “Knives Chau” caption, the gig posters, “Make out!”, and so on), it’s fair to say they’re not quite so heavy in volume (probably due in part to the disappointingly low amount of page time granted to the glorious Mr. Wells). But that just emphasises the feeling that Scott Pilgrim has grown far beyond being a simple, laugh-out-loud funny, video-game-inspired romantic action comedy romp. It’s one of the most perfectly-pitched character pieces in comics history, and is rapidly becoming as accurate and compelling a reflection of the emotions, experiences and vernacular of “our” generation as you could hope to find.