Tag Archives: Comics

Built To Spill: The Ballad Of Scott Pilgrim


The year is 1994. I’m sitting in someone’s basement with about thirty other people. Three bands you’ve probably never heard of are playing: Brainiac, Lazy and Honeyburn. Even sixteen years later, I’ll be hard pressed to think any bands now that were better than they were then. But that’s the way music works. When it’s landing, hitting you at the right time and the right place, it’s not hard for you to figure that no experience before or since will ever be as good, or feel like this.

While the eponymous protagonist of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series (which just ended this week with its sixth volume, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour) spends more time making music than sitting back wth a dixie cup of beer and listening to it, you get the sense that that kind of appreciation of those moments has always been a huge influence on the work.

Scott Pilgrim gets a lot of attention for its use and adoration of video game tropes and visuals, but just as potent (if not more so) is the influence of music on the work, specifically the music that Bryan Lee O’Malley undoubtedly listened to for most of his young adult life. (Also backed up by his helpful list of the stuff he was listening to while working on printed in the back of several of the volumes.) One of Pilgrim’s trademark shirts is built out of the Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins logo (and several chapters and even one of the volumes derive their names from Pumpkins songs), Ramona Flowers got her name from a Flying Burrito Brothers song, and I’d be willing to bet that the pivotal and strange physio-psychic phenomenon “The Glow” is based on that fantastic song by The Microphones.


But hey. Scott plays bass, so none of this should really come as a surprise. What is surprising and interesting is how the entire Scott Pilgrim saga works in the same way as that kind of small and intimate show you fold yourself into in the bottom of some record store owner’s house. O’Malley’s voice has always been one so authentic and funny that you find yourself looking over your shoulder wondering if anyone else just got that reference to a mythril skateboard. And emotionally it hits the same beats that any good show would. You have the fast parts that make you want to punch your friend in the shoulder, and the slow parts that make you think about your old girlfriends. But most of all, you feel the connection of someone working their ass off to entertain you and doing it in a way that feels so relevant to your experience that it couldn’t have been directed at anyone else but you.

Scott Pilgrim has always felt like one of those works. As scattered, touchstone-wise, as the past twenty years of pop culture that inspired it, there’s a reason why throngs of people across two countries flooded dozens of Midnight Release parties to pick up the final volume Monday night. It simply resonates.

One of the key aspects of Pilgrim’s story is how the most mundane things; a trip to the mall, meeting an ex’s father; can explode into the most epic action set-piece. It’s no surprise that this is the perfect fit for a culture that’s so intent on grand-scaling every aspect of their lives. It’s not just a night at the movies it’s a “DUDE, YOU SO WOULD NOT BELIEVE THE NIGHT I HAD.” And like four guys from Idaho building 10 minute rock songs out of a couple of guitars and a drum kit, or a kid from Chicago who can only express himself through arena rock fantasy, or any band you’ve never heard of playing their hearts out next to a keg of beer; Bryan Lee O’Malley just built his own six volume epic out of whatever he could find.

The End

Comics Review: Johnny Ryan’s PRISON PIT: BOOK ONE

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I don’t know much about Johnny Ryan other than a handful of his short strips passed onto me by friends with an “oh, man, look at this,” so when I got the chance to read his newest full-length story, Prison Pit: Book One, I leapt at it.

I’m glad I did, because it gave me the chance to read a story about a brutal alien protagonist dropped onto a prison planet inhabited by strange plants, hideous creatures, and a gang of inmates even more brutal and ridiculous than the lead.

We’re never shown why the protagonist ends up on the planet. He’s unceremoniously dropped, along with one of his captors, through a hole in a spaceship, and that’s all we know. The plot, much like a video game, is “fight this guy, fight another guy, fight three guys and, finally, fight a huge guy who is tougher than the others combined.”

Amazingly, I was sucked in by the whole enterprise, laughing and groaning and shaking my head. The escalation of violence includes the protagonist chopping someone’s head off with the ax-adorned hand of a third character. As far as gross goes, a drooling, drug-addled slug is enough on its own, but Ryan carries the nasty creature to a surprisingly logical conclusion.

Even more amazingly, particularly to me, it left me thinking about why I enjoyed it so much and why I enjoy the other books, movies, and shows I enjoy. Most would dismiss the book as juvenile and amateurish, either due to Ryan’s reputation or a cursory flip through the book itself, but I was grabbed, and quite unexpectedly.

Mostly it boils down to taking a story’s own internal logic and running with it, which I admire. Ryan makes sure his super bad-ass protagonist doesn’t make it out unscathed and, much like Inglourious Basterds, you’re not sure just how happy the ending is going to be. (The “Book One” appended to the title offers some small clue in this instance.)

I’ve never had much use for indie comics, finding most of them live up to the stereotype of ugly art and self-indulgence. I prefer my fantasies a little more fantastical and a little less “I’m going to tell you about all the chicks I whack it to” accompanied by amateurish art.

But this book isn’t as amateurish as I may have thought. It’s scarcely what I would call “elegant in its simplicity” but with subject matter like this photo-realistic art and emotional weight aren’t called for. These are ugly characters in a gross situation, and Prison Pit treats them with all the indulgence and nastiness needed.