A Pilgrim's Progress: Jeff Gets It Together and Finally Reviews Scott Pilgrim Vol. 4.

A lot of things impressed me about Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, but what really caught my attention is how different it is from the previous volume, Scott Pilgrim & The Infinite Sadness: whereas vol. 3 is jammed with action (it's only 13 pages into vol. 3 before someone gets punched with a bionic arm) and veined with character interplay, vol. 4 grounds the humor and emotional relationships in the foreground and keeps the action sequences very short until the end: it's as assured in its pacing as volume three was messily ambitious, and there's nothing unresolved here that isn't clearly laying groundwork for a later volume. By the time I made it through the final thirty-plus page climax which neatly intermingles fight scenes and emotional confrontations, I felt vol. 4 was the best volume of Scott Pilgrim since the first. That being the case, why did it take me a month to review it?

Back when I reviewed volume three, I wrote the book made me "wish O'Malley hadn't been staring down the barrel of a blown deadline so he could've taken the time to really fine-tune the material." Vol. 4 gives me that wish in quasi-Monkey's Paw-ish spades: the darn thing feels as tightly structured as a Hollywood movie, and that amazingly satisfying finale works the same way a finale works in really good action movie--with the final action sequence and the main character's emotional arc resolving simultaneously.

Unfortunately, as with many a good action movie, that satisfaction may come as a result of some potentially dishonest manipulation. "Oh, hey," Scott says at one point to an old friend he's showing around, "maybe I should have mentioned that my friends are retarded douchebags," which is sadly more-or-less true. Although Scott's friends in the past have had varying levels of patience for his general cluelessness, occasional whininess, and stretches of passivity, in SPGIT, they act less like friends than annoyed older siblings stuck taking care of a younger sibling. While it leads to any number of great lines (After Scott gets a job for doing little more than vowing to work hard, his friend Kim says, "Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it. I would punch your life in the face.") and increases the drama of the final confrontation, it also adds a slightly unpleasant tone to the book. In the past, I've thought of Scott as a well-meaning but self-absorbed tool, and O'Malley goes to great lengths here to set me and others like me straight and show Scott for the genuinely sweet guy he is, but it comes at a bit of a cost. At one or two points during my first read-through, I found myself thinking, "Uh, am I the only one having fun here?"

I hope not, because the book is so filled with delightful tricks and jokes and charming details--eight bit captions and video game references, depleting thirst and pee meters, directional arrows, dotted paths a la Family Circus, panels of people laughing pulled straight from Charles Schulz's Peanuts, inventories of pockets and shopping carts, ellipses becoming a character's wide-eyed fear of speaking--one would like to think O'Malley had at least some fun in creating it.

[I've been casting about for a way to organically work in how much O'Malley's art has grown between volumes and I'm not having a lot of luck, but if you go to just about any page of SPGIT, you'll see how impressively rich in detail the work has become. The page that got me was the first one at Sneaky Dee's, where one panel has five main characters in a booth, five other clearly delineated bystanders, the Sneaky Dee's logo, and even clearly discernible food on some plates, a task I can't even contemplate accomplishing for a book published in digest size. And this richness in detail in no way clutters up O'Malley's clean and focused storytelling, which is doubly goddam amazing.]

But even if one does suspect O'Malley wasn't having oodles of fun working on this, this volume of Scott Pilgrim is a pretty massive win, the kind that would have Entertaiment Weekly titling their review, "Bryan O'Lee Malley Gets It Together." And if this volume's achievement comes at the cost of feeling a touch too professional--one tiny step closer to Scott Pilgrim's Well-Crafted Product--there's no way O'Malley can be faulted for that: in the course of giving us nearly 800 pages of material in a little over four years, it's only natural O'Malley's powers of craft will begin to catch up--and perhaps even exceed--his generous talents and ambitions. Whatever happens, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together is absolutely Very Good work, and definitely worth your time if you haven't yet picked it up.