Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe (volume 5)
By Bryan Lee O'Malley
Something seems a little bit off about this, the penultimate volume in Bryan Lee O'Malley's immensely popular and entertaining series. But maybe that's by design. There's the usual mix of slacker humor, relationship moments, goofy fights against evil exes, and videogame references, all rendered in O'Malley's uniquely exaggerated style (and if you don't know what I'm talking about, I strongly urge you to read the first volume and get hooked like the rest of us), but some of the joy seems to be missing, and the volume as a whole is kind of a downer. That might be a bit of dramatic structure, setting things up for the climactic final volume, but it also seems like maybe the characters are growing up a bit and are unhappy with the lack of focus in their lives.
The volume kicks off with Scott's 24th birthday, and he declares that he will be "the best 24-year-old...ever!" But what does that mean? He has moved to a new stage in his relationship with Ramona now that they are living together, he is working at his new job, and his band is recording an album, but he still doesn't seem to be making any personal progress. At some point in your life, you've got to stop sitting at home playing games on a cell phone all day, and Scott might be starting to realize that. The band certainly is, since with a lack of actual performing, the fun seems to have gone out of the endeavor. And Ramona is troubled, thinking that maybe she isn't meant to be with Scott after all. The latest evil exes, a pair of Japanese twins, only reinforce that feeling, describing her relationship with Scott as a sort of vacation from her "real life". If he's going to convince her that that's not the case, he needs to really get things together, even more so than in the last volume, and show her that he's better than the evil guys in her past.
The series has been a lot of fun, but O'Malley seems to realize that early-twenties ennui only goes so far. You can't stay in that zone of semi-maturity forever, as easy as it might seem, so he's pushing them and us to move forward and grow up.
Not that you can't still have a good time along the way; there's still plenty of good stuff here, it's just lost some of its luster. In what seemed like an interesting stylistic choice at first, Scott fights several of the twins' killer robots, but mostly in the background while other characters are talking about unrelated topics:
But that's a smart move; it would get kind of boring to see fights over and over with little variation, so O'Malley not only changes things up humorously, but demonstrates how tedious the same old thing can get.
Not that this is a tedious volume in any way; instead, it's fascinating to see O'Malley continue to develop his characters and make them feel like real people even though they populate such a wacky, fantastical, somewhat metafictional world. And the storytelling is as tight as ever, using thick lines that disguise an excellent attention to detail; a favorite moment sees Kim Pine give that telltale grimace that comes after taking a swig of alcohol:
Really, the best bits aren't the wild action (although what we see of those is pretty great), but the character moments, like Ramona yelling at Scott from the bathroom while wrapped in a towel and dripping wet, or Wallace Wells mock-flirting with Scott while wearing a flowery bathrobe, or Scott freaking out when he finds out that Ramona doesn't really like his band. That kind of human detail is what makes this series worth following, and all the silly jokes in the world don't add up to much without it.
Ultimately, this volume might differ a bit from the high expectations that preceded it, but O'Malley is showing that he won't just continue trudging along the same path for the rest of his career. He's dedicated to progressing his characters and his world, to the point that he's going to be bringing it to a close with the next installment. He's definitely building to an exciting climax, from a dramatic and an emotional standpoint. One hopes that he'll be able to do so satisfactorily, but there's really no reason to doubt. Like all the other fans out there, I can't wait to see.