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Comics Column #5 Pluto, Scott Pilgrim, & Watchmen

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Comics Column #5: Pluto, Scott Pilgrim, & Watchmen

Well, here’s hoping three months makes the heart grow fonder, eh?

With regards to my absence from this website, I can only offer my heartfelt apologies and a list of excuses, only some of which would be of interest to the readership which had been so supportive of this column in the past: impending nuptials and subsequent change of residence, a possible comic project of my own since put on brief hiatus (artists wanted—apply below!), the effects of the economic climate on my day job, and repeated consultations on my upcoming oral surgery (really, don’t ask). It’s been something of a “restructuring period” around the homestead of late and I can’t yet imagine how the next few months will affect my planned return to regular column-writing. My lovely wife-to-be is a teacher with a particular eye to comics in the classroom, and our discussions have meant this site has rarely been far from my mind. I believe it was the great Albert Swearengen who said that announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh. That said, with an event of some notice occurring this week amongst the “comics to film” crowd, I’d be remiss in not peeking out from my self-imposed gopher hole and taking a glance at the landscape.

Quick notes of thanks that I’d planned to make before I vanished from God’s green Internet last: To Journalista’s Dirk Deppey and to Savage Critic Abhay Khosala, who both had kind words for this column, as well as to Top Shelf’s Leigh Walton (also very kind), and to each of the readers who made the comments threads such an enjoyable follow-up to these over-labored writings. Though to those who were troubled by my tendency to meander, this might not be the best entry to rejoin my scattered thought processes…

And of course thank you to Keith Uhlich for his never-ending fount of patience and goodwill. One of these days I promise to get around to earning it, I swear.

XVIII. “...Somewhat self indulgent.”

The world’s greatest heroes are being picked off one by one, and a troubled detective meets with each in kind to warn them of the danger. It’s the beginning of a classic work by a beloved author, one that deconstructs the long-running comic characters on which it is based, most notably in relating these children’s characters and their narrative to contemporary, real world politics. While it is a striking work in its own right, much of its inspiration lies within the science-fiction stories which preceded it, particularly those of film and television. With an upcoming film renewing interest, the Internet is ablaze with discussion of this classic work of sequential art.

Clearly, I’m talking about Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto.

I’m being overly cheeky, of course. The narrative similarity between Watchmen and what some are calling its Manga counterpart are superficial, and limited solely to its opening pages. That said, as America reacts to what media buzz would have be the movie event of the season, it’s worth noting that the first volume of Pluto (as well as one of Urasawa’s other great works, 20th Century Boys) has finally been released in an English translation.

Pluto is Urasawa’s take on Osamu “God of Manga” Tezuka’s most beloved Astro Boy story, “The Greatest Robot on Earth.” Written to coincide with Astro Boy’s “birth date,” it takes Tezuka’s book-length fable and constructs a whole (projected eight-volume) series about the nature of war and humanity.

“The Greatest Robot on Earth” tells the story of a robot named (wait for it) Pluto, which was built under orders of a deposed sultan for the express purpose of destroying the seven greatest and most powerful robots in the world, an international group which counts Astro Boy himself as Japan’s contribution. The robots, many of which embody broad-stroke national characteristics (Greece’s “Hercules” is proud, Germany’s “Gesicht”—Gerhardt in the English translation—is an agent of order), are destroyed by the unstoppable Pluto, who takes no enjoyment in the actions for which he was programmed. He strikes up a friendship with Astro Boy’s sister, Uran, and views Astro Boy himself as an honorable match. With his guardian captive, the return of the father who spurned him, and another agent with a grudge against the sultan pulling everyone’s strings, Astro Boy must navigate the chaos and try to find a way to defeat Pluto without destroying him—a mission which he fails.

The story, which Tezuka penned in 1965, is a condemnation of the arms race: Astro Boy is convinced the key to stopping Pluto is to be supercharged from his “100,000 horsepower” to one million horsepower and the climax features two robots unable to save their creators from a volcano because they weren’t designed to do anything but battle. It was released during the height of the original Astro Boy television program in Japan, and quickly became the most remembered tale of the character—from its simple message to its exciting battle sequences to the sympathetic portrayal of the “villain” Pluto, it contained everything that readers could ask for. Tezuka received more letters about “The Greatest Robot on Earth” than perhaps anything he’s ever written, an impressive feat for the creator of Buddha, Phoenix, Adolf, and Kimba the White Lion—among a thousand-odd other works.

Into this stepped Urasawa, whose early classic Monster currently has screenwriter Josh Olsen (A History of Violence) attached. In talks with Tezuka’s son, the filmmaker Macoto Tezka, it was agreed that if someone was going to “take on” manga’s godfather, it had to be an all-or-nothing effort. Tezka, for his part, has been nothing but supportive. As he says in a post-volume interview:

“Well, directors are often evaluated by how unreasonable they are ... so what you need to do is express your needs in as humble a way as possible, without using the command voice so often associated with directors… When the crew is naturally motivated to do their best possible work, the quality of the film improves… So I’m happy to give Naoki Urasawa a free hand, even if it means he’s going to be somewhat self indulgent.”

Of course, the act of adaptation is by nature self-indulgent, isn’t it? The idea that one has a “better” way of telling the story than the original creator? Infamous producer Don Murphy recently gifted the Internet with a tirade on Watchmen writer Alan Moore, who is notorious for dismissing film adaptations of his work—a number of which were produced by Murphy to ... varying degrees of success. In the wake of the attention-bait, which is largely beside the point of this article, Internet discussions re-ensued over Moore’s various eccentricities, and one particular comment tended to re-appear again and again: How is what Moore does different than the act of adapting his work to film? Doesn’t he base many or most of his well-known works (Swamp Thing, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, to say nothing of pastiches like Supreme) on other people’s work?

XIX. “Did we ever talk like normal people?”

It’s interesting that, in a year in which Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are collaborating on a Tintin trilogy and a CGI film of the aforementioned Astro Boy is due to release soon—that is to say, upcoming film projects will star two of the most well-known comic book characters worldwide, characters representing the style and grace of their respect national comic cultures—that the most anticipated post-Watchmen project in the realm of “comic book movies” may instead be a comedy based on an independent cult hit comic book called Scott Pilgrim.

Scott Pilgrim is a love-it or loathe-it sort of book, and one of the more frustrating aspects of its audience reception has been the dismissal of the book’s thematic core based on the atmosphere of its early acts. And in adapting it to the screen, Edgar Wright (who is as sharp an eye as the not-really-indie crowd has turned out in the last few years) runs the same risks that Zack Snyder does in his self-proclaimed “visionary” retelling of Watchmen. It’s a surface/substance problem, which of course is the core problem of any adaptation whatsoever—bringing the substance to light in a new way is what separates one’s work from the “self indulgent.”

The book, then, in short: Scott Pilgrim is a 23-year-old arrested adolescent from Toronto who splits his time hanging out and playing with his amateur band. On the rebound from a bad break-up, Scott dates a sixteen year-old (in the most chaste way he can manage) until he meets the woman from his literal dreams in American courier girl Ramona Flowers. But to get with Ramona, he has to battle her seven evil exes in video game-style combat, and maybe become an adult in the process. The battles, of course, may be framed in the pop culture language of the kids who grew up in the 80s on a steady diet of the games and comics and music that Scott Pilgrim references, but they’re also an obvious symbol for the need to deal with the history and baggage that any new companion brings to a relationship—as well as one’s own.

I have already defended Scott Pilgrim as a narrative at The House Next Door: Notably, I took a half-formed swing at the esteemed John Lichman in the comments thread of Vadim Rizov’s incisive review of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. It is only in the most recent, penultimate volume of the book that creator Bryan Lee O’Malley’s point become fully explicit. For some reviewers, this marked a departure, if not an unwelcome one, but the seeds have always been there, quietly sprouting. From the first volume, there have been little comments and asides from the book’s supporting characters that maybe Scott needs to grow up and wake up, that maybe he’s not a role model or an emblem for a generation (or a demographic) but just a jerk. And in this past volume, it all comes together.

As reviewer Sean T. Collins notes:

“The greatest trick Scott Pilgrim ever pulled was convincing you its conscience didn’t exist. For a long time, the series’s skeptics criticized the shortcomings of the characters as though their existence was a shortcoming of their creator—as though writer/artist O’Malley was unaware that Scott was kind of shiftless and feckless, or that Ramona Flowers was a little bit cruel and aloof, or that their group of friends was cliquey and catty. I definitely see where such critics are coming from, for a couple of reasons: first, that was pretty much my line of attack when I first read Jaime Hernandez’s Locas material (newsflash: Hopey’s a jerk and Maggie’s a mess!); second, I am now a 30-year-old married homeowner in Levittown, and the further I get from Scott’s situation, the harder it gets to relate to, or even in some ways really care about, his plight.

“But over the past three volumes, O’Malley has slowly pulled back the operating curtain to reveal the beating heart of the series; if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors, what this means is that the chickens have been coming home to roost. It turns out that all those evil ex-boyfriends aren’t just plot devices, but people who’ve had a lasting effect on how Ramona lives. It turns out that Scott’s glibness both hurts his relationship(s) and enables him to see their potential when others can no longer do so. It turns out that Knives’s lasting crush on Scott isn’t just a funny recurring gag, but something that’s screwing up her life and causing her to screw up the lives of those around her. It turns out that all the “we suck"isms the band indulges in actually have power in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way. It turns out that supporting players have lives of their own and that they can really grow to dislike how oblivious the main characters are to that fact. And so on and so forth.”

What makes Scott Pilgrim work—what enabled me to hand it to a co-worker who did not match its apparent “target demographic” of white hipster without comment (and I’ve found that telling one of the book’s detractors that a middle-aged African-American single mother of two found the book delightful tends to cause a bit of cognitive dissonance)—is the moments that would work in any story, moments that are if anything more pronounced for being bookended by pop culture references and silly action sequences. The moment that I used when responding to John is a personal favorite: Scott, confronted by his own “evil ex” Envy Adams, drops his “awesome” veneer and plaintively asks her “Did we ever talk like normal people?” It’s a moment that I’ve lived, in a more substantial way than Scott’s deadbeat mooching lifestyle of the early volumes, which also echoed a period in my own life. The latest volume presented another favorite, as Scott finally understands himself enough to treat the “girl who once was” Kim Pine with a measure of forgiveness.

[Aside: For more on Scott Pilgrim’s latest volume and its relation to the real world, I recommend Abhay Khosla’s own column on the subject.]

When it comes to comparing O’Malley’s opus with another work of fiction, many people turn to the BBC comedy Spaced—which is directly relevant, with creator Edgar Wright at the helm of Scott Pilgrim the film. But to me, the closest in spirit is a bit farther afield, in the absurdist GAINAX anime FLCL.

 

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