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August 18, 2010

Review: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour

Posted by on Aug 18, 2010

Just to clarify: this is a review of the final Scott Pilgrim book, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, NOT the film.

The Scott Pilgrim series has always been one to embrace the hybrid nature of comics.  Bryan Lee O’Malley skillfully added video games to the list of media that have influenced and become a part of the graphic literature heritage.  Even if on the cover of the fictional Now magazine featuring Gideon in this installment, one of the headlines reads “ARE VIDEO GAMES ART? Source says no,” O’Malley has fully embraced the medium as inspiration.  The list of video game influences is endless, and the nods to Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, and countless other games are a hallmark of the series in general  and especially the conclusion.  The Final Fantasy references in particular are appropriate in this, the final installment, since the effect is one of letting the initiated reader know that everything that happens in this book is epic  – both for the reader and for the characters themselves.  This is the final boss fight, complete with extended cut scenes, full orchestral score, and 4 different epilogues.

Hit the jump to gain the power of reviewitude.

(Warning: NNAR not responsible for flaming swords that emerge from the reader’s chest as a result.)

However, the video game element is not merely referential, but also a central component of the narrative structure.  The entire series is, in effect, one long video-game.  The star door (to the next level of the game) is a recurring element in the series and both opens and closes this book.  The encounters in this book are made up of instant video game-like actions and immediate consequences. Even for a final installment in which the characters are all fairly familiar, the simplified interactions they have would normally be fairly sub-par in any other work. However, in Scott Pilgrim, they work perfectly, and it is precisely because the story has been designed from the beginning to function as a video game would. The idea that the emotional baggage of all of these characters can be worked past by “leveling up” or “gaining a power of Love or Understanding” would normally be either awful or simply comedic. But O’Malley has made his characters play the game from the beginning, and since we have witnessed genuinely touching and accurate emotional dialogue alongside game-like antics, watching the characters suffer the tragedies and triumphs of 8-bit romance is heart-felt as well as super-cool.

The focus of all the Scott Pilgrim books has consistently been on the title character. But whereas in the more recent books Ramona has, logically, loomed large and shared the spotlight, in the final book she does not appear (other than as a figment of Scott’s dreams) until page 130, more than HALF-WAY through the book.  Of course, this makes her appearance all the more relieving for anyone driven nearly mad by the excruciating cliff-hanger of the fifth volume.  I know there was a bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth on my part when I finished the previous book.  Instead, the major focus of this last volume is on Scott’s past. Rather than an awful re-cap of all the past books, though, O’Malley gives us what is essentially a second run-through, but from a different perspective.  Scott pursues each of his previous flames in a quest for the “casual sex” Wallace has recommended he have. In the process, they all force him to look at how each of these relationships actually occurred, instead of simply how Scott remembers them.  The “memory cam” moments that show how Scott remembers his relationships with Knives, Envy, and Kim in a single frame are all priceless.  We are dragged not merely through Scott’s love life as he sees it, which is always whimsical and fun if quite awkward, but instead through the reality of Scott’s past.  It is as painful for the reader as it is for Scott, and makes the reader at least certainly believe that Scott has been through a serious emotional change, and might deserve any happy ending that could come along.

Gideon as the final evil ex does not disappoint.  He manages to rip off the Zelda tri-force symbol and use it as his own logo, with three triangular Gs forming the instantly recognizable icon. This later makes sense when Scott is forced to wear one of Gideon’s “viral-marketing” t-shirts and thus becomes the Link figure in the book. We see Gideon both in real life, being truly despicable and violent in ways that have not been present in any of the previous books, and also being completely insane in the world inside Ramona’s head that Scott accidentally stumbled into in Vol. 4.

Wallace, Scott’s gay room-mate, was always the fantastic voice of casual, non-emotionally frustrated reason in the books. But he may be my favorite character now, purely because he became the vehicle for O’Malley to work the line “J’accuse!” into the book. Oh, what’s that, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison? You’re so indie and hip because you make obscure and high-brow cultural references in your books? Yeah, okay, there’s a new writer on the scene, and his name’s Bryan Lee O’-*&$%in’-Malley. Emile Zola reference FTW.

Envy Adams has gone from super-cool front-woman to (it might be coincidence but I doubt it) Lady Gaga-esque solo artist, and it works terribly well.  There are plenty of surprise moments featuring many of the other secondary characters (as Scott himself describes them in this book), so really O’Malley manages to re-visit almost every aspect of the entire series without once feeling like he is repeating himself.  Job well done on that front.  We are given closure to almost every major dilemma in the life of Scott Pilgrim, though that is not to say that all is well or that his life is now perfect.

In the end, the book (and so the series) is about how relationships don’t happen in a vacuum but rather must adapt to the conditions around them, especially the experiences and memories of any previous relationships.  This possibly weighty, depressing, and didactic theme is presented with wit, levity, and sincerity, and by using the lens of video games, we can absorb it quickly and completely without feeling like it was in any way cheap.  Clearly anyone reading this review or even thinking about reading this book has read the previous five, and so the question is not whether to read Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour or not, but rather if you will have to dread a less-than-satisfactory ending.  I can, without hesitation, say that Mr. Pilgrim and his creator do not disappoint.  The essence of the entire series is present in the final chapter, even as all of the characters are changing and growing older.  And if that sounds to you like I’m describing literature as opposed to a good comic book, that might be because this one could convince you to drop the distinction.