In the coming weeks, it’s probable that much will be written about Bryan Lee O’Malley’s SCOTT PILGRIM Volume #5. It is EXCELLENT. This has been said with every installment, but: Volume #5 is the best written, most confidently executed installment of the series yet. Every comic, every success story attracts its share of Grinches-- you know, it’s pretty fun to be that Grinch. But Volume #5 makes me so enormously sad for SCOTT PILGRIM's Grinches. What a terrible fate that must be, to lack the capacity to enjoy this book. You've made terrible choices in life. So: I'm gushy sweaty spazzy about this book, basically-- not a state of mind where anything I can write is well-advised or likely to be helpful to you. But I noticed something in a few other reviews that had bothered me, something that I felt had been overlooked.
Most of those reviews had focused on Volume 5 in light of how it developed the stories of Scott Pilgrim, Ramona Flowers, Kim Pine, Knives Chau, and/or Wallace Wells.
Why aren’t people talking about Young Neil?
Because, holy shit, dude: Young Neil!
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Spoilers, severe spoilers ahead. I know there have been supply shortages and lines and screw-ups at Diamond. I know buying this comic book apparently resembles buying toilet paper in the old USSR in multiple ways for a great many of you out there, and I sincerely don’t want to spoil this episode for anyone. Because there is so very much to spoil. For example: the scene where Scott Pilgrim has sex with a hooker to restore his health and then murders her (just like in video-games!). Don't let anyone spoil that scene for you. Or the scene where Kim Pine takes off her pants and reveals her penis, Shiwasu No Okina style (it’s manga influenced!). Once these scenes are spoiled for you via textual summary, there is no un-spoiling them from your mind.
So, please be certain that I will 100% spoil this comic for you, if you read ahead, even though I’m focusing on Young Neil who you might (incorrectly) think is not a major character in the series.
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SCOTT PILGRIM has never been a series without flaws. For example, in two words: vegan police. And if someone were to tell me that they couldn’t enjoy the series on account of the extent to which it’s saturated in crap culture-- well, I wouldn’t be upset by that. I don't imagine the book’s use of video-game tropes, anime nods, etc. is for everyone, even though I happen to be personally amused by those elements. The most emotional moment of the Vol. 5, the departure of Ramona Flowers, vaguely recalls the worst moments of shitty anime like DNA-Squared or … I don’t even want to know what. Some people might not be able to get past that.
But I think SCOTT PILGRIM fans might agree that anyone complaining too much about those elements is underestimating how relatable the characters are, and as importantly, how there are multiple characters to relate to. In other words, I understand if you don't know what a Super Mario Brother is, but were you really never aimless and selfish in your 20's? Lucky you.
In her book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (or as most comic book critics call it, The Bible), Susan Douglas discusses how the success of the girl bands of the 1960's can be attributed to how they allowed girls of that generation to "try on" different sexual identities, whether the troubling thrills of dating the bad boy of Leader of the Pack or the hopeful uncertainty of the Shirelle's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
I've always thought SCOTT PILGRIM likely owed its success to that same quality-- that it didn’t merely randomly reflect some temporary spasm of the zeitgeist, that it’s not some fluke of particles colliding in a vacuum, but that its success can be tracked to how SCOTT PILGRIM fills a different vacuum, a vacuum for cartoon characters, modern cartoon characters, that speak to life experiences other cartoon characters can’t and/or historically haven’t.
Younger fans can see themselves in Knives Chau as much as Ramona Flowers, in Wallace Wells as much as Scott Pilgrim. But the true facts are that many of us, maybe even most of us, aren’t the heroes of any story. We face no thrilling battles; our romances are not action-adventures. Our presence or absence makes no difference to the world around us, maybe even the majority of the people around us.
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Volume 1 is the heyday for Young Neil. He's Stephen Stills's roommate, Sex Bob-Omb's only fan (besides Knives Chau). But by Volume 3, it's over. It's all over Young Neil before he even knew it. He’s expelled from his group of friends for offenses he barely knew he committed.
Well, that’s an overstatement: dating a friend’s ex without the proper hesitation or consideration isn’t a minor offense; you know: ignorance of the law is no excuse. But surely he paid for his crimes! Look at the poor guy.
He thought he might get laid, and instead he's ending the night watching a girl who’s all wrong for him randomly crying for reasons he can't guess. At least, when I look at that scene, based on my life experience? She’s crying. I know: the fact he’s drawn with his heart literally on his sleeve is pretty overt, but… the poor son of a bitch.
I re-read the series on Tuesday, in anticipation for Volume 5. What does it say of my life experience that the thing I most related to in the entire goddamn series was Young Neil and the crying girl? Oh, right: it says I need to change my fucking life. Thank you, Internet. You are a comfort as always.
It was my first time through the books since I'd first read any of them. Probably my first time noticing Young Neil as anything besides comic relief. I hadn't paid attention to Young Neil before. But that's sort of the whole point of Young Neil, I think: because neither do his friends. Young Neil is just there. Until he's not. Until finally, in Volume 5, there's Young Neil and he's in a dirty room, completely alienated from the people who he used to think (incorrectly) were his friends, just spending a day getting high and listening to music. Move over, crying girl: I now have a new “Scene I Relate to the Most” winner.
How did he end up there? It wasn’t that his friends ever sat down and decided to hate Young Neil in the prior books. They just didn’t care. I’ve done to that people. It’s, I don’t know-- it’s easy. And I’ve had it done to me. That was … well, less easy.
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It’s a tough book, the SCOTT PILGRIM Volume 5, with no shortage of bleak scenes for fans who’ve grown attached to these characters. My favorite scene in the book is the bus station scene, and the simplicity of its dialogue-- for me, it called to mind one of my all-time favorite movie scenes, the Bill Murray “She’s my Rushmore” scene that begins the winter stretch of Wes Anderson’s RUSHMORE. There's something so powerful to watching an apology, and yet they seem so precious and rare in our fiction. Why do we always want to watch people fighting? Fights are brief; regrets take longer. What the hell is wrong with us, like, as a species? Tribute must also be paid obviously to Volume 5's sex scene, a sad and wildly un-erotic scene. God, look at it. The last sex, the goodbye sex? It’s a sex scene in silhouette. It’s a sex scene that neither of the characters are actually PRESENT for. Just the shape of them in the technically correct poses. Crikey.
So, no, sir, there’s no shortage of scenes to feel horrible about relating to in SCOTT PILGRIM Vol. 5. But I would argue to you that the final Young Neil scene in the book is not in any way less than those others, is in fact one of the hardest scenes to sit through if you have any affinity for that character (which you should).
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My theory is you don’t become less of an asshole when you get older. You just learn to hide it more. But setting that little future Hallmark card aside…
There’s Young Neil at the end of book 5, angry at Ramona, lashing out at Stephen Stills. And there’s Ramona not even pretending to care. And it’s strange and I don’t understand it. You take any close group of friends, and just add time. It’s as if by some magical clock, everyone wakes up one day and decides to start hurting each other. And I wish I could say I’ve only seen it just the once, or that I knew why it happened. What is that exactly? What is the explanation for that? Why do we so persistently do that to each other?
SCOTT PILGRIM seems to subscribe to the same explanation for it that I had in my 20’s, that ancient Latin graffiti of “Penis erectus non compos mentis” (a stiff prick knows no conscience). Stephen Stills betrays Scott Pilgrim’s confidences on account of his crush on Knives; Young Neil’s rejection by Knives didn’t seem to help, etc. Oh, barely legal Asian ladies: is there nothing good you can’t destroy!
But: that's just what I thought in my 20's. I don't think that anymore, though I haven't replaced that hypothesis with anything more considered. It just seems like too pat an answer; I don’t think it explains enough. Even if you could take stiff prick out of the equation, somehow, by some evil voodoo magic, I still maintain that even then, even assuming such a frightening & unpleasant premise, that you’d see that same exact phenomena repeat itself endlessly. What the hell is wrong with us, like, as a species?
Extra-reason why the Young Neil scene is great: volume 4 closes with all of the SCOTT PILGRIM cast around a restaurant table, laughing. Can you see them all together like that after the Young Neil scene in volume 5? The Young Neil scene is great because it makes scenes in earlier books retroactively sad. Goddamn, Young Neil! Goddamn!
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Bryan Lee O'Malley from 2007: "I actually kind of like most of my characters. There’s this character named Young Neil that I kind of don’t like drawing because his hair goes in his eyes. So he has no eyebrows. So it’s really hard to give him facial expressions. So he always looks kind of dopey. Sometimes he has to not look dopey, but maybe I should try writing him so he’s always like that."
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But if Young Neil is an asshole-- and in that final scene with Ramona, he absolutely is, well you can at least see how he got that way, book by book, scene by scene. I would argue that Young Neil in Volume 5 is as sad, as heartbreaking as anything in the book. So much of Volume 5 is about Scott gradually awakening to the fact that as he's had his epic story of growing up, everyone around him has had their own (the shout-out to Jason Kim is especially welcome in that regard). With Young Neil, as much as is the case with Ramona, Kim Pine, whoever, the threat is that Scott might be waking up to that fact too late.
He’ll get a second chance in Book 6, which I look forward to, which I'm eager to read. But many of us don’t have that opportunity; will never have that opportunity. Absent friends. Friends who are no longer tethered to this, our mortal coil. All the people we’ll never see again. And I don’t know how I can end a review of SCOTT PILGRIM Vol. 5 other than saying I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m so sorry.