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Category: Comics

Bryan Lee O’Malley Live!

Update: If you haven’t read Scott Pilgrim and this interview has you intrigued, enter the Scott Pilgrim contest.

Steven and I read and adored Scott Pilgrim and Lost at Sea this summer, so we were delighted to get the chance to interview creator Bryan Lee O’Malley. The result is decidedly not concise, but my introduction will be so we can get to all the heretofore untold sordid and scintillating details. On with the show!

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Identity Crisis: The Locked-Room Mystery

Mystery stories may be classified along a spectrum of emphasis placed on puzzle-solving in the plot. In some stories—the Sherlock Holmes stories, e.g.—much of the narrative consists of an investigation in which clues to the solution of the mystery are presented to both the protagonist detective and the reader, and the reader is encouraged to try and solve the mystery before the detective does. In other stories, the puzzle-solving aspects of the investigation are downplayed. (As an extreme example, Raymond Chandler was so disinterested in puzzle-solving in his detective fiction that he was famously incapable of keeping straight the plots of his own books.) Puzzle mysteries are usually concerned with who committed the crime, and sometimes moreover with how the criminal pulled off a seemingly physically impossible crime. The latter are generally called “locked-room mysteries.” The basic puzzle is, how did a murderer get into and out of a room whose entrance was locked from the inside, without breaking in or unlocking the door? Although the puzzle doesn’t necessarily involve a locked room—the puzzle might be something like figuring out how somebody was shot to death even though nobody in hearing distance heard a gunshot.

With that brief explanation of locked-room mysteries behind us, we may now establish that Identity Crisis appears to be a locked-room mystery. Solving the mystery hasn’t been the sole focus, but the investigation—complete with clue-gathering and encouragement of the reader to solve the puzzle—has been prominent enough that I think we can say the logical procedure of solving the puzzle is an important part of the story. The heroes investigate, they gather clues, they narrow the list of suspects. Author Brad Meltzer seems to be putting some effort into making the mystery soluble. Or maybe only apparently soluble? Let’s see.

There are two major questions involved in the puzzle:

  1. Who is the killer—and why is the killer impersonating other villains?
  2. How does the killer bypass the JLA’s amazing security measures to get to his (or her, or [giving Hal Jordan the grammatical benefit of the doubt in issue #4] their) victims?

Now let’s see how the superheroes’ investigation is going so far…

From Identity Crisis #2 (unfortunately, this book’s pages are not numbered):

Dr. Mid-Nite
The bad news is that, two days ago, Sue Dibny supposedly died by carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by her third-degree burns.
Dr. Mid-Nite
And under that scenario—beyond what else the autopsy’s showing—she would’ve breathed so much soot into her lungs, he bronchi and trachea should be black.
They’re not?
Dr. Mid-Nite
I’m staring at them right now. They’re pink.
Wait—so Sue’s lungs…
Dr. Mid-Nite
…Didn’t have a black spot on them. I know it sounds insane—I ran other tests too—but by the time those flames hit her skin, Sue was already dead.
Oh, god—so you think the League…
Dr. Mid-Nite
I’m telling right now, they’re going after the wrong person. Sue Dibny wasn’t killed by Dr. Light.

Assuming Dr. Mid-Nite’s rejection of the previously assumed cause of Sue Dibny’s death based on his autopsy results is valid (but see Identity Crisis #2: A Medical Review on Polite Dissent for why it’s not), does his new information and the conclusions he draws from it discount Dr. Light as a suspect in the investigation? Only if we make the extremely arbitrary assumption that Dr. Light cannot kill people without using his powers.

From, issue #4, as Mr. Miracle, Green Arrow and Superman investigate the scene of Jean Loring’s attempted murder:

He used a bowline knot.
Green Arrow
A what?
A bowline knot—to tie the end of the noose to the door. They call it a bowline knot, though he added a Dutch marine twist.
Green Arrow
And you recognized that?
It’s a common boy scout knot.
Green Arrow (narrating)
I love him and hate him in the same breath.
Green Arrow
Boy scout. Right. Oracle, can you—?
Already on it. Bowline knot with a Dutch marine twist.

It’s not entirely clear, but Oracle apparently then finds the suspect, Sliptnot, in her Database o’ Villains by searching for former boy scouts known to use bowline knots with Dutch marine twists when he hangs people. I say “he” because the heroes are convinced the killer is male—Jean saw the killer’s boots, which were brown work boots. Women never wear brown work boots, right?

The investigation has proceeded so far as follows:

  1. Sue Dibny appears to have been murdered by Dr. Light. Dr. Light has a motive: he’s unconsciously seeking revenge because some superheroes magically lobotomized him after he raped Sue. The apparent method fits Dr. Light: Sue was burnt to a crisp. But Dr. Light cannot have been the murderer, because Sue’s longs carry no trace of carbon monoxide.
  2. Jean Loring appears to have been almost murdered by Slipknot. She was hanged, and Slipknot is known to have hanged his victims. He is also a former boy scout who invariably used a bowline with a Dutch marine twist to anchor his nooses—the very knot used to anchor Jean’s noose. but Slipknot cannot have been the murderer, because he was in prison at the time of the murder attempt.
  3. The killer was male, because he wore large brown work boots.
  4. Dr. Light and Slipknot are both associated with the Suicide Squad. Some JLA members want to investigate the Suicide Squad, but Batman knows this is a waste of time: the Suicide Squad has no motive.

With the exception of Slipknot’s innocence (his alibi is really airtight), this investigation is an absurd collection of arbitrary conclusions drawn from ridiculous data. All the characters involved, including the so-called World’s Greatest Detective, demonstrate the worst possible investigatory behavior. These superhero detectives don’t suspect anything—they know. As soon as they get a clue that contradicts what they know, they know something else.

It’s generally considered bad form for a locked-room mystery to have a supernatural solution—it’s a cheat, and it’s only fair to the reader trying to solve the puzzle that the puzzle follow clear rules. If the answer is that the killer used a magic spell to teleport into and out of the locked room, that’s a bad puzzle. Setting a mystery story in a superhero universe is like the apotheosis of bad form. Superhero universes (by which I mean the huge universes best represented by the properties of DC and Marvel) have no rules—anything can happen at any time, for whatever bullshit reason the author of a story can come up with. This causes basic rules systems like logic and causation to break down or explode messily when they come into contact with a superhero universe. Solving a mystery in the DC universe is impossible, because there is an effectively infinite number of possible explanations for anything. Green Arrow is right to dismiss the investigation as a waste of time, and Batman is right to focus on motive in his investigtation: in the absence of a riddling villain who deliberately leaves clues to lead the heroes’ investigation, motive is the only aspect of a mystery that might not have infinite possible solutions. But Batman is still guilty of the sin of expressing undeserved certainty.

Ian Brill, writing about audience expectations, reminded me of something I should say in this post. I expect that Identity Crisis is a spectacularly failed attempt to set a soluble puzzle mystery in the DC universe, but maybe something else is going on. Absurdity, arbitrariness and lack of elegance are violations of a puzzle-mystery aesthetic. But is Identity Crisis’s corruption of its apparently attempted aesthetic a failure—or is it a springboard for some tricky thing that has yet to be revealed? We’ll see.

Madrox #1

In Peter David’s new Madrox miniseries, the characters, including Jamie Madrox, talk like there’s a Jamie, and then there are a bunch of duplicate Jamies. Like at one point, Jamie says, “…last night I waffled on staying in or going out. So I sent a dupe out to have a good time for me,” as if the Jamie who stayed home last night had more claim to Madroxness than a mere “dupe.” How does this work? Are dupes mere copies who are somehow imperfect, so that it’s obvious which one is the real Jamie? Does the real Jamie have a special, intangible quality of Madroxness that the dupes lack? Or do they simply agree to arbitrarily select one of the Jamies to act as the “real” Jamie for convenience? I can see how it would get confusing if you had several separate physical bodies, with no psyhic connection between them, and every body thought of and talked about himself as “I,” and also talked about every other body as “I.” Or “we”? It’d certainly be confusing for people who had to talk to or about more than one of you at once, but it would also have to fuck with your own sense of self. Most superheroes have a dual identity, but Madrox the Multiple Man may embody the identity-based conflicts of superheroes more than any other character.

I also wonder where the X-Men get the cool t-shirts with their logos on them. Jean Grey-Summers wore a Phoenix shirt for a while in New X-Men, and now Jamie has one in Madrox. Do the X-Men have these shirts custom-made for them, or can you buy Phoenix and Multiple Man shirts at Hot Topic in the Marvel universe?

(Speaking of Hot Topic, they have a back-to-school sale on school supplies at their store right now. Hot Topic having a back-to-school sale on school supplies has got to win a Hilarity Prize.)

Identity Crisis: Exploitation

Identity Crisis is not misogynist. (I’m assuming somebody actually claimed it is. I’m sure somebody did. I said [in “Brief Reviews of Comics”] it was stupid that all the characters are obsessed with supervillains raping and murdering their girlfriends or wives (or ex-wives, although the Atom keeps referring to Jean Loring simply as his “wife” for some reason) (including Green Arrow worrying about Black Canary) but nobody is even a little worried that supervillains might rape and murder the women superheroes’ boyfriends or husbands. Well, I’m sure everybody’s very worried about the boyfriends and husbands as well, probably even about Ma and Pa Kent, but somehow nobody mentions these other people while blathering on about how supervillains are targeting their wives [or ex-wives, but nobody in the story ever remembers Jean Loring is an ex-wife].) Identity Crisis is not misogynist. It’s exploitative. It exploits every male comics reader who think it’s his duty as a man to protect women. It exploits the sort of man whose response to learning of a female friend’s assault is to want to injure or kill the attacker. It exploits the sort of man who believes women shouldn’t serve in the military because the male soldiers will be too worried about protecting the women to do their own jobs right.

Not every story that deals with these themes is exploitative—take Animal Man. Grant Morrison deals with the exploitative nature of the themes. I don’t have access to Animal Man right now so I can’t quote directly, but in issue #26, Morrison admits to Buddy Baker that he only killed off Buddy’s wife and children because he’d run out of good ideas and hoped to pump some excitement into the series. (Not that I believe Morrison had really run out of ideas, but he claimed to have for the sake of a good story.) Buddy and Ellen were an ideal couple for producing gripping narrative: their relationship was taut with tensions waiting to blow up into engaging conflict, mostly about Buddy’s idealistic and self-absorbed twin hobbies of superheroing and animal-rights activism. When Buddy finds Ellen and their children dead on the kitchen floor, all the possibilities of those conflicts are cut off, to be replaced by the narrow conflict of the revenge fantasy.

The revenge plot is easy to churn out: hero has a loved one, villain kills loved on, hero (kills villain / brings villain to justice / beats villain to a pulp before bring him [or, less often, her] to justice). There are nuances and opportunities for more interesting stories, but writers who’ve yoked themselves to the revenge plot rarely use them—it’s so much easier to stick to the basic formula. Loved ones of the hero killed off too soon to be defined beyond their relationships to the hero are an early warning sign of a creatively bankrupt story.

“Why do I look like a mutant in photographs, anyway?”

I finally read Lost at Sea a week ago, and I haven’t known yet what to say about it. It’s Bryan Lee O’Malley’s first graphic novel, and like many first novels it’s about finding yourself. Raleigh, the protagonist and narrator, has just graduated from high school and taken a trip to California, where she finds herself getting a ride home to Canada with some other kids she knew vaguely from school. And so she’s stalked by cats and searching for her soul and her other half (and her original half, really) and the link between an ambiguous past and a frighteningly open future. And it’s about me, at least when I read it. It’s one in a long series of books that have seemed to have mystical import, to get at some truth of how I see (or, in this case, saw) the world, and in some sense that’s what Lost at Sea is really all about. It’s not a harbinger of doom like Bridge to Terabithia seemed to be when I was a short-haired 9-year-old who already had built a Narnia in the woods with my fundamentalist neighbor, not something where the details match. It’s more like an antidote to The Catcher in the Rye, which I hated as a teenager because it seemed so unrealistic. Holden Caulfield wouldn’t just start out by owning up to his own phoniness. After all, what made being a teenager (and, ok, sometimes being me now) so painful was not that everyone else was phony but that they were phony and still managed to be more authentic than I was. And Raleigh understands this, and her carmates, Stephanie, Ian and Dave, seem to have some sort of understanding themselves. But I never found myself on a road trip before college and my mother certainly didn’t sell my soul when I was 11 (although that was the year that whatever I had instead of a soul fell apart) and I’m forced to admit that Lost at Sea can’t be a story about me. What it is, though, and what may have kept it from being commercially successful, is a story about “I.”

Oh, there’s a “you,” too, and there always is in these sorts of stories, right? It’s never entirely clear who “you” is, whether it’s just another version of “I”/Raleigh or “I”/Rose/reader or the “you” Raleigh wants to address and wishes she could address with the depth he deserves. Am I being oblique enough? I hope so, because Lost at Sea is a story about the unknowability of everyone and everything. It’s about connections that seem superficial but turn out to be vast and tight and about connections that seem meaningful despite their superficiality, like my insistence that Raleigh is a sort of me despite the fact that nothing that happens matches. The story is an epic of subjectivity, told unerringly in Raleigh’s voice and with her limited and self-restricted perspective. The one place it falters is on the last page, as Raleigh (or perhaps O’Malley) steps back too far and thinks that she (or he, of course) can see things as they are enough to sum up at least the uncertainty. It’s an unnecessary concretization, but not an uncharacteristic one, because Raleigh began the book with strong predetermined notions about herself and her life and she ends it with changed views, but she’s only leaving on another trip somewhere into her future, and she’s got plenty of time to grow up. (And so do I, I hope.)

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, published a mere eight months after Lost at Sea, features a brash hero who doesn’t seem as introspective as Raleigh, who isn’t constrained by imaginary boundaries and doesn’t even seem to realize real ones. I adore Scott Pilgrim, but I never thought he was secretly me. I’m sure a lot of this has to do with gendered personality differences, but I’m convinced it’s also a function of narration. Unlike Lost at Sea, Scott Pilgrim is a third-person story. Scott is the protagonist but not the “I” of the story; its “I” is the reader, who gets a little help from my good friend focalization. We don’t see what Scott sees, but we get plenty of opportunities to experience how he sees his world.

Scott Pilgrim meets Knives.

This, too, is a subjective story, but unlike the empty eyes Raleigh sees and her worried musings about her surroundings and background, Scott’s world is vibrant and dramatic. Scott doesn’t narrate his life so much as stage it, and Scott Pilgrim is a prime example of the way comics, like films, can focalize powerfully. Everything we need to know about Scott’s understanding of himself as he meets Knives is encapsulated in this image that isn’t a god-view but a non-view, a skewing of the events in a way no one saw them but instead as Scott (and, at least in his mind, Knives) experienced them. This is third-person twisted storytelling, not limited by the range of what Scott knows and tells, but blown open by the lack of limitation he finds in his experiences. We readers can be Scott without being inside him, see how captivating but also how thoughtless he can be while realizing that he’s aware only of the first of those traits. This simultaneous flexibility and distance is really a strength, I think. Raleigh’s insistently idiosyncratic voice could put off readers unlike me, readers who found her immature and self-absorbed in a way that didn’t make them think of themselves, because there’s no way out, no alternative to her view from the back seat. Scott, on the other hand, isn’t the only persona strong enough to get an angle on his story. Would he be the one to focus on the apartment ownership chart? (Well, maybe, actually, but Wallace is presumably well aware of the unequal distribution of labor and resources.) His highschool girlfriend Knives takes the initiative to kiss him and to worship his band, and if Scott ruled the world those things wouldn’t happen, but his is a contested reality, with another subjective look at the world always threatening to seep in. And really that’s what Ramona is, not a dream personified or deferred, but a person with views and a past whose very presence upsets Scott’s daily (and nightly) world. Really all the women in his life are potential strange attractors, strong characters with a lot of pull and depth, but perhaps gender is best left for another day.

For now I’m more interested in what seems like a leap in sophistication from Lost at Sea to Scott Pilgrim, although that may not be a fair characterization. They’re such different works with different perspectives and looks, although both address similar quests and worlds. Raleigh is like Knives and her friends, excited but inexperienced, ready to break out into a world of passion and danger, while Scott thinks he’s lived that all already. But each is about how difficult it is to come to terms with ourselves and all that that means. For Scott, the best fighter in the province, this may mean becoming a knight who battles for the honor of his lady, although I imagine what he learns in the process will be more interesting than the fights, cunningly staged as they may be. For Raleigh, personal change means not becoming more disciplined but opening up, being willing to trust people to be people rather than just what she expects them to be. For me, it’s something in between. Like Raleigh, “I look in the mirror and think I don’t belong there.” Like an embarrassed Scott, I sometimes think, “I’ll leave you alone forever now.” But all I’m really trying to do is create some kind of sense and meaning out of the world and myself as much as I can, and I know that’s not the kind of story that has an end, and that’s the kind of story I like best.

Street Angel #2-3

Street Angel in “INCAdinkaDOOM” and “Going Street to Hell”
Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca

Call me a curmudgeon, but I didn’t much enjoy Street Angel #2. It’s amusing, but the humor slips too far into pointless silliness. It reads like a creative-writing class assignment gone awry: pull five unrelated plot elements out of a hat and write a story about them. Some of it works—the Incan sun god Inti sending Cortez and his men to modern Wilkesborough seems like a fine premise. The Irish astronaut Cosmick is fun (and his linguistic training to prepare him for contact with extraterrestrial life is the issue’s funniest joke), but he begs (in the text itself, even) to get his own story. In “INCAdinkaDOOM,” he only gets in the way. Inti’s Incan African hip-hop/gangsta business exectuive act is unfortunate and inexplicable. That Cortez and his men are pirates, complete with peg legs, pirate hates and “Yars!” is unfortunate and inexplicable—even moreso in juxtaposition with Gangsta Inti. I think I see the creative reasoning that must have gone into the piratical conquistadors: Ninjas feature centrally in “INCAdinkaDOOM,” and I believe they featured centrally in the first issue of Street Angel. Given an apparent necessity of ninjas in Street Girl and the Incans vs. Cortez vs. Street Girl premise of this issue, it makes sense (well, not really, but let’s say it does for the sake of my point) to have the Spaniards be pirates to exploit the ancient pirate vs. ninja vendetta. Everybodys knows, right, pirates are funny, and ninjas are funny, and pirates vs. ninjas is funniest? Well, it was funny for a couple minutes the first time I saw the joke on some web site. It’s conceptually funny, you can see how somebody might do a funny joke about pirates fighting ninjas. Rugg and Maruca make the mistake, too tragically common among humorists, of referencing a funny concept and relying on the conceptual funniness instead of working it into an actual joke that’s funny in practice. Roger Ebert often says in his reviews of unsuccessful comedies that a character in a silly hat isn’t funny—but if the character doesn’t know she’s got a silly hat on, you have the potential for real humor. It’s a simplistic example, but the idea is sound: referencing a silly thing offers little entertainment until you place them in a situation that exploits it for a comic effect beyond the basic silliness. Street Angel says, “Look, pirates vs. ninjas—eh!” and the joke falls flat.

Incan African gangsta sun gods, jokes about the lack of female Incan virgins available for sacrifice, pirates, ninjas, Irish astronauts—maybe there’s some funny story to be told about all these themes together, but Street Angel simply piles one on top of the other senselessly. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

“Going Street to Hell,” on the other hand, is lots of fun. The tone is different, darker and more ominous, but the core of the second issue’s sense of humor remains: Street Angel is dumped in the middle of a ridiculous supernatural battle and finds herself deeply unimpressed with all involved. Actually, what’s different this issue isn’t that the tone is darker, but that it has a tone at all—issue #2 had too much disconnected randomness from one moment to the next ever to develop one clearly. In issue #3, Rugg and Maruca confine themselves to one coherent and sensical premise—Christians vs. Satanists—which allows them to develop jokes that complement each other rather than distract from each other. Throwaway gags (including the valiant Bald Eagle, who becomes a literal throwaway gag) grow and send roots into the meaty heart of the story. Bald Eagle’s nightmare of soccer-playing sharks is as nonsensical as anything in issue #2, but it connects to the skewed Christian themes in “Going Street to Hell” and feeds on them until Bald Eagle takes on a life of his own and becomes a genuinely engaging character. Even the art looks better this issue—the stark black-and-white style, with many of the backgrounds hidden pure black, provides a strong visual foundation for the narrative to play off of.

As an interesting side note, John Jakala’s response to Street Angel is pretty much exactly the opposite of mine, at least w/r/t tone:

…Mastery of tone. In previous issues, everything “fit” no matter how odd or insane it seemed. In this issue, however, the humor feels out of place given the horrific elements that permeate the tale.

I haven’t read issue #1, so I have no idea how it relates to #2 or #3. “INCAdinkaDOOM” appears to be the work of artists with some good ideas but not enough control or discipline—and “Going Street Hell” appears to be the work of confident artists who know exactly what they’re doing. I have no idea what to expect from issue #4, then, but what I’ve read so far has convinced me to find out.

We3’s Cages

I didn’t get to be among the first to write about We3 #1 because I was thinking about other things, about focalization and whether it’s a technique particularly well-suited to comics. I hoped I could tie that in to my talk about We3, but I’m not sure I can, so focalization will have to wait until later. However, all that thinking about focalization got me thinking about perspective, which is at the core of both art and story in We3.

Specifically almost everything is claustrophobic, a word Marc Singer used as well, with tightly packed panels on many pages and very few full shots of anyone. Humans are viewed in part from the animals’ perspectives, not caring whether the head or face is caught in any given shot, and this is highlighted by the focus on Roseanne Berry’s kind face and eyes, which show up more than others’. Panels and perspectives are always limited not just by the edges of the characters’ visions but by the rigid boundaries of their very lives. The scientists running the We3 program exist in a world as regimented and oppressive and limiting as the metal bodysuits of their animal subjects. This is the kind of secret work no one is allowed to talk about because it doesn’t officially exist, except that as David Fiore notes, the work itself is alive and sentient, able to speak (albeit hesitantly) of its history and suffering.

David also thinks there is a moment of deluded, contested freedom at the end, in the final full-page image, which he considers an homage to the Hudson River School. Maybe, but I think it’s more than that. I can’t imagine a Hudson River School painting that looks down a hill this way; they were totally concerned with light and looking up and out. Instead I wonder if perhaps the painting is what the arriving helicopters see, looking out into the pristine light and seeing (or not seeing?) the shining green hills beneath them. The animals, our heroes, are locked within the painting still, mostly out of view, hidden under this veneer of assumed tranquility.

So where is the freedom? I said almost everything is claustrophobic, but perhaps what’s more interesting about it is that no one actually seems to feel claustrophobic on the inside. They’ve all been trained to know their boundaries, to accept the little parcels of themselves. But there are breaks, cracks. In the first, violent full-page image, an image no one could ever really see, we see the one way to be free, to be unconstrained, to have nothing holding you together anymore. And then we find out that for We3 the expectation is that the only way to be decommissioned, to be out of the metal suits once and for all is to be out of everything forever. Is death the Great Escape?

Roseanne Berry seems to think so, allowing her charges freedom in an action she hopes will bring her death and thus redemption for what she has done to them and, in the process, to herself. David Allison considers her attitude “unnerving,” but it occurs at a crisis point, at the moment where freedom is being defined. As We3 charge past her and she waits for the release of death, they choose instead a moment of freedom and focalization outside this binary between death and captivity. For one moment in the whole book, the animals soar across an amazingly starry sky and they understand freedom and their relationship to it as being equivalent to this stark, heroic, fleeting pose. By the time they reach the woods, their freedom has been limited because their individual desires surface, because they are no longer a sleek unit, but for that one moment they have become everything they dreamed of being.

After that brilliant dream, they fall to reality, and they are caught in a mesh of new limitations, the restrictions enforced by the humans (and animals) who seek them and the restrictions they will find when they reach the end of their own abilities and interests and willingness to keep pushing at the boundaries, breaking through the fences. We readers sympathize with We3 because they’ve been so deeply wronged, because they’re such adorable mass murderers, because we can easily put them in our categories of what it means to be a dog, a cat, a rabbit. I assume they will defy these expectations, or at least push up against the edges, but at their cores, that’s what they are, limited both by what they are and what they’ve been forced to be but willing to push for something else. And maybe that’s what makes them sympathetic, because we’re all fallen and yet looking for something else, looking for a home even when we know there is No Home. It still seems better than death/complacency.

“Rating: Awesome”

I was going to start this post by asserting that I haven’t followed more illustrious bloggers into hiatus because I had gotten tired of writing, but only because of a total lack of time, not to mention technology meltdowns that have been resolved at least in the past week. But then I realized that there is even more too it than that. Basically since the beginning of the Peiratikos blog, my interest in comics has been waning. Occasionally there’s a Seaguy to perk me up, but I mostly stick with it because I like talking with Steven about things we’ve both read and because I enjoy some of my fellow writers in the blogosphere and because it’s good practice to be writing. But I was uninspired and missing blogging only in that I felt some guilt about not keeping up with it. Then last week I got some sort of flu and was stuck in bed and ended up reading something that changed all of that. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, reading Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan O’Malley was something of a conversion experience.

I agree with Steven about the contents of the book, though I don’t necessarily endorse quoting of Foreigner lyrics. Scott is a relentlessly self-absorbed 23-year-old Romantic musician in a nonsexual relationship with 17-year-old Chinese-Canadian Knives Chau who forsakes her (kinda) for the literal girl of his dreams, super-cool American rollerblading delivery girl Ramona Flowers. But there’s more to it than that. For one thing, the art is amazingly cute, unique manga-ish flatly layered yet static black-and-white scenes. It’s cute, very cute. I know I said that already, but I emphasize because I might have avoided it for fear of cuteness had Steven not pushed for it, because I’m afraid that cute stories can’t live up to my cuteness standards, whereas ugly stories tend to be fine at staying ugly. But what’s more impressive is that Scott is such a likable hero even while his faults are all totally evident. It’s clear why his bandmates are charmed with Scott (and also why Kim can see through him) and why his roommate Wallace tolerates his general helplessness. He’s endearingly self-assured, unquestioningly sure that he’s the hero of his own narrative.

So there I was, 24 and not in a band but soaking in the bath, trying to open my sinuses, feeling frumpy and unfriendly, and Scott Pilgrim managed to get through anyway. I don’t know what more to say than that it was charmingly written, with a feel of both real affection and real communication that is rare in comics. Scott Pilgrim made me wonder what ever became of all the bands I hung out with back in high school, when I was a high-strung non-physical Catholic school girl not unlike Knives. I assume many of them think of themselves in the same inflated terms Scott Pilgrim would use to assess his own life, but somehow this is much easier to tolerate in a fictional character than it would be in my old circle of friends if we hadn’t all drifted in our own directions. The funniest line is not, as Steven erroneously believes, Scott’s lack of knowledge about’s web address, but that when major characters get ratings (whether as to hotness or just general goodness is unclear) Scott’s 19-year-old sister is rated “‘T’ for Teen.”

And obviously I successfully coerced Steven into reading Scott Pilgrim, meaning that I got an email on my first day back to work saying “Not only is everything grammatical and spelled correctly, it’s intelligent, witty, pomo playful.” That first part is almost the most essential in my book, as I think everyone is right to refuse to take comics seriously as long as comics writers (/artists/letterers) are unwilling to write properly and get their writing edited before going to press. (Most recently, this meant fury at Peter David or whichever Captain Marvel staffer couldn’t bother to do a quick search to realize that Anne Heche is an Anne-with-an-E. Seriously, people, this is the easiest stuff ever, and it makes you look like morons and makes me despise you. Trust me on this.) At any rate, Scott Pilgrim is seriously well-written, funny and poignant and self-aware, smart without being at all pretentious, full of goofy banalities without being stupid. It was a little depressing to see how young Bryan Lee O’Malley is, but I’m ok with the idea that I’m not going to accomplish much, so it’s not a competition. At any rate, he’s clearly very talented, an excellent storyteller with a good ear for dialogue and an eye for the details that matter. I look forward to seeing the next installment of Scott Pilgrim’s life (and we have to wait ’til 2005??) and whatever else he’ll be creating after.

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life vol. 1

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life vol. 1, written and drawn by Bryan Lee O’Malley, is a lovely book. It does not, however, have page numbers. Boo! You should read it anyway, though. You should read this PDF preview.

I’m not a fighter I’m a lover
but if you run
better run for cover

Scott, are you a lover or a fighter?” asks Young Neil. “He’s totally both, but he won’t admit it,” says Stephen Stills. Scott answers both, “Hey! I’m not just both! I’m so much more!”

Lover. Fighter. Rock Star. Hero. And So Much More. This is Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life.

Alan David Doane writes in his review of Scott Pilgrim:

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life is, among other things, a story about the dumb things guys do in their 20s, and the complicated minefield that is the relationship tapestry of any group of people, but especially, again, those in their hormone-soaked early adult years.

Scott Pilgrim’s irresponsibility comes from a romanticism that seems inspired more by video games and rock ‘n’ roll than by Byron. Scott celebrates love and heroism, and he embraces his own individuality to the point of annoying his friends. He has no connection to reality. He obsesses over his romantic fantasies, but he can’t figure out that the URL for is When his brilliant plan to lure the delivery girl of his dreams to his door is thwarted by’s inability to deliver CDs within minutes of his ordering them online, he flies into a rage. Reality for Scott is a half-glimpsed mystery that continuously thwarts his attempts to escape it, but he seems to have managed for 23 years to avoid facing it, with little consequence. He’s a freeloader with no job prospects, but he’s collected a group of friends willing to support him as he pursues his own romantic individuality.

His strategy in life is to elevate banal experience into narratives of romance and heroism, as in his story about meeting Knives Chau on the bus. Knives is on the bus being badgered about boyfriends by her mother, she drops her books, Scott helps her pick them up and tells her, “Hey… don’t worry about it.” Hardly gripping stuff (Scott’s friends are unimpressed), but the art—especially the final shot of Scott, filling three quarters of the page, the point of view tilted and slightly below Scott for extra dynamism—makes the story look exciting.

Scott Pilgrim meets Knives

“Scott Pilgrim is dating a high schooler!”

Knives Chau is an ideal “girlfriend” for Scott. He doesn’t want sex or even kissing. Knives is still deep in the teenage world of ridiculous complex webs of (quasi)romantic relationships in yearbook class become epics of love and betrayal. She totally buys Scott’s rock-hero image—the first time she hears his band play, her eyes acquire a starry, almost zombielike glassiness of pure adoration. Her infatuation with Scott’s heroic self-image makes her a threat. Scott loves her because she tells him stories and because she adores him, but that adoration means their relationship is in constant crisis. They hover on the edge of a first kiss, neither falling over or stepping back, and that’s how Scott likes it—he certainly doesn’t seem interested in taking the relationship to the next level. There’s the danger that Knives will, but it must seem to Scott like a safe danger, since Knives is embarrassed even to hold hands and seems simply to enjoy the attention of an older man. But her obsession with the band looks dangerously like taking it to the next level, which is confirmed when Knives shoves the relationship into physicality.

Scott Pilgrim Kissing

The kiss is complicated by the recent entrance of Ramona Flowers into Scott’s life.

Ramona Flowers is the girl of Scott’s dreams. She rollerblades through a subspace highway which takes a route through Scott’s brain as she delivers packages for Through no fault of his own, as a side effect of subspace travel, he gets totally obsessed with Ramona as she glides through his every dream.

Ramona Flowers is another ideal girlfriend for Scott. Unlike poor Knives, Ramona appeals to Scott’s sexual appetite as well as his romance. She turns his life into a music video/video game, complete with ridiculous mythic backstory about seven evil ex-boyfriends Scott must defeat to win her. Knives has only her high-school stories and her adoration. Ramona isn’t as impressed with Scott’s idiosyncracies, but her appearance in Scott’s life skyrockets him into his own precious fantasy world.

He’s a juke box hero, got stars in his eyes
Yeah a juke box hero, stars in his eyes

The book starts out looking like slice-of-life, but Scott’s precious little life overpowers the naturalistic storytelling and replaces it with a narrative inspired by the (post)modern heroic romances of rock stars and video games. Can he get away with that? What are the limits of his romanticism? What’ll happen with Knives? Will Scott ever face the consequences of his insistence on being the hero of whatever story he finds himself in? Will he end up an evil ex-boyfriend himself?

Comics in Unexpected Places

Rose and I got some fun books from Half Price Books the other day. They’re published by Icon Books, which publishes “intelligent non-fiction.” We purchased Introducing Derrida, Introducing Foucault, and Postmodernism for Beginners (which seems to be the same book as Introducing Postmodernism listed in Icon’s catalogue).

(I hesitated to call it the “same” book, as I was reminded suddenly of the Philosophy 101 problem of identity and ships. One plank on the deck of a wooden ship is replaced with a new one. Is the ship with a replaced plank the same ship as the pre-replacement ship? How many planks must be removed before the ship becomes a different ship? One plank? All of them? A single splinter of one plank? Does the ship have a constant identity which survives replacements of planks? What about humans, in whose bodies cells constantly die and are replace with new cells? An obvious answer [to me, anyway] is that the ship is both same and different, or neither same or different.)

Not all would call these books comic books, I guess. This excerpt from Introducing Melanie Klein illustrates what the books look like:

Postmodernism for Beginners usually clearly distinguishes typeset text from comics with handwritten speech balloons, but the two often mix together. Introducing Derrida blurs the distinction by setting the speech balloons in type and mixing text and pictures more freely. Are these books comic art, or are they prose illustrated with comic art? What is “comic art?”

I know of two well-known and widely used definitions (I’d like to learn of others if any of you readers know of them): Will Eisner’s “sequential art” and Scott McCloud’s elaboration: “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (Understanding Comics, p. 9).

In Understanding Comics, McCloud takes care to create a definition of comics that doesn’t encompass written words. Comic art must include pictorial images. That means Seaguy—a sequence of pictorial and other images—is a comic, but War and Peace—a sequence of non-pictorial images (letters, punctuation, etc.) is not a comic. This blog post is a comic. An illustrated War and Peace would be a comic.

Craig Thompson’s Blankets is called an “illustrated novel” on its cover. Illustrations are used to clarify or explain. In an illustrated text, the illustrations are subordinate to the text (in my experience). In Thompson’s comic book, his pictures are stronger than his words. The pictures convey powerful meaning, and the words are often pale illustrations of the pictures. Why is Blankets called an “illustrated novel?” Probably because Thompson, or somebody, thought it sounds better (i.e., most people don’t associate it immediately with comic books) than “graphic novel.” “Pictorial novel” is too obvious—people would realize it’s still a comic book. But I’m less interested in why Thompson (or somebody) would want to superficially obfuscate Blankets’s status as a comic book than in why he chose “illustrated novel” as the obfuscatory term, whether he considered the connotation of subordination in the word “illustrated.” (See also Rose’s “But ‘comic book’ doesn’t work for what we do these days.”)

(”Novel” causes as many problems as “illustrated.” “Raina” is a combination of two of Thompson’s ex-girlfriends. Thompson neglects to mention in the book that he has a sister as well as a brother. Is Blankets autobiography? Autobiographical fiction or fictionalized autobiography? Fiction or nonfiction? Both and neither?)

Should pictorial images dominate in comics? Or should they never be subordinate? Both seem risky additions to the definition of comics. The latter at least would likely lead to the rejection of Understanding Comics as a comic.

What is comic art?