Salvatore Pane

Tag: Scott Pilgrim

An Excuse to Talk About Fantasy Football or It’s Prime Submission Season!

For a few days, I’ve been trying to think of a good excuse for talking about fantasy football on a blog that’s supposedly about writing and books and shit. I’ve done this before, coming up with justifications to discuss Scott Pilgrim and Earthbound and and all kinds of esoteric subjects. I thought maybe I could pass the draft day experience as an unfolding narrative, how once choice affects another (for example, if you use your first pick on Chris Johnson, you don’t then use your second on another running back with the same bye week).

But, in the end, I couldn’t think of a single, solitary reason for why I’d talk about fantasy football on this blog which (normally) has absolutely nothing to do with fantasy football. But you know what? Fuck it. This is salvatore-pane.com, so if I want to talk about fantasy football I should be able to talk about fantasy football, right? Here’s the outcome of my draft:

Excuse me? Is you saying something? Nu-uh. Can't tell me nothin'.

How’d I do? I feel good about it with the exception of Winslow (I wanted Visanthe Shiancoe, but I’m in a league with Minnesota fans). Do you guys play fantasy? Or do you think, like Marvel Editor Nathan Crosby, that it “combines the excitement of the NFL with the sadness of role-playing games”? Can you come up with any parallels between the world of fantasy football and writing? Ok. Wait a sec. How about this shit? Assembling a fantasy football team is a lot like assembling the contents of a literary journal. You’ve got to balance things while playing towards your aesthetic. I’m a running back guy. I took one in the first round (then a WR then QB) and then a bunch of RBs in a row. Is this like editing a journal that primarily runs metafiction while still trying to balance things in terms of gender and race and sexuality? Are you also worried about Maurice Jones-Drew (language thugs like me call him The Hyphen) blowing out his knee and ruining your season? Are you too obsessed with the Talented Mr. Roto?

One last thing. And this has nothing to do with fantasy football but everything to do with lit journals. IT’S SUBMISSION SEASON AGAIN! I remember very vividly when I started my MFA program going for drinks with two recently graduated poets. They clinked glasses and made a toast to the new submission season. One thing I miss in an era when so much of what we do is digital is the idea that September 1st is the universal starting day for new submissions. So many online outlets read year round (which is obviously so much better for everyone–writer and reader both) that the anticipation of 9/1 just isn’t what it used to be.

However, I am preparing to send out a shit ton of new work. How do you guys go about this? Recently I told a current MFA student that I like to have no fewer than 30 submissions out at any given time, and she looked terrified. Is 30 high? Do you send to more places than that? Are you like me and get panicky whenever your submissions queue on Duotrope drops below 20? Do you not use Duotrope? How many times will you try a journal before you give up (DON’T GIVE UP; I’ve gotten into a bunch of journals that initially rejected my work)? How do you find new journals? Through the work of your peers? Through lit blogs like HTMLGIANT? If you don’t know Chris Johnson from LaDainian Tomlinson, but know the difference between Ploughshares and Diagram, hit me up in the comments.

What? Deal with it.

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Why Did Scott Pilgrim Fail at the Box Office and What Does That Mean for Stories About Aught-Era Twenty-Somethings?

In 1998, I went to see The Truman Show in theaters. For those unaware, the turn of the century dramedy starred Jim Carrey as an unwitting participant in a reality show that encompassed his entire life. His hometown is merely a Synecdoche New York-esque sound stage and his wife and best friend are actors paid for by the corporation who adopted baby Carrey. I walked out of the theater adjacent to the Viewmont Mall utterly stupefied. Never before had I experienced a story that so perfectly encapsulated the modern day loss of privacy in the digital age. Never before had I seen a movie that so obviously shoved in our faces the idea that in America, stardom no longer had to do with talent, but had become attainable by even our most average of citizens, a harbinger of the rise of social media and reality television. I assumed that The Truman Show would be remembered along with other popular films of that era, The Matrix, American Beauty, Fight Club. And although Jim Carrey’s first real dramatic turn did surprisingly well at the box office, I rarely hear the film mentioned these days, and instead, see the DVD in the five dollar bins at department stores, occasionally connected via plastic to Ace Ventura 2 or Black Sheep. In most ways that matter, The Truman Show has been forgotten.

I know that pain once again.

Longtime readers of this blog know my fanatical devotion to all things Bryan Lee O’ Malley and Scott Pilgrim. A generational anthem in the vein of Bright Lights, Big City, the Scott Pilgrim series is for my money the defining text of what it means to be in your mid-twenties during the aughts. Like most comic nerds, I became protective when the movie was announced, positive that Hollywood would screw up what is arguably the best comic series of the past decade. There were pluses and minuses along the way. I was shocked and delighted when Edgar Wright was hired to direct and utterly confused when producers cast deadpan Michael Cera as the hyperactive titular character. The first trailer looked pretty awful but the global one seemed to paint a more representative picture of what the film would actually be like.

I went to see Scott Pilgrim on opening night here in Pittsburgh. The movie opened way in the back of the megaplex, in one of those tiny theaters where the speakers fuzz whenever the soundtrack gets too loud. There were maybe twenty people there tops–and this was a Friday 7:20 showing–and a couple in their fifties walked out after twenty minutes. They mumbled. They grumbled. They reminded me of my reaction to Juno, in which I sat angry and confused, blinking wildly whenever the audience broke into laughter.

Ok. But how about the actual movie. Like many reviewers online, I sat nervously through the first awkward five minutes, but the moment Sex Bob-Omb bursts into their opening song I was completely relieved. Here was the comic I’d spent so much time reading and thinking about brought perfectly to life. This wasn’t the Dark Knight, a distillation of the very best of an 80 year old franchise into a 2.5 hour movie. This was a straight up adaptation–with the emotional development sadly cut for time. This was Bryan Lee O’ Malley’s frenetic vision brought gleefully to life by a totally self-aware cast and director. I loved just about every minute of the damn flick–I saw it a second time two days later–and thought for sure, FOR SURE, that Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World would signal a sea change in not only the way movies are made but also who movies are made for–SP targets the holy 18-34 demographic but never panders to its audience; it feels genuine and completely formed by the twenty-something hive mind. Here was the first time where I felt my generation was honestly represented onscreen.

I woke up on Saturday morning, happy with life, happy with the world, only to discover that Scott Pilgrim had flopped. We’re not even talking Kick-Ass flop. We’re talking full on Heaven’s Gate fucking implosion. The movie didn’t come in second behind Expendables. It didn’t come in third behind the greatest travesty in human existence, Eat Pray Love. It didn’t even come in fourth behind The Other Guys. Scott Pilgrim came in fifth in box office totals behind Inception, a movie released an entire month ago!

How could this have happened!? Was it the marketing campaign? Most of my friends who didn’t previously know about Scott Pilgrim were confused by the trailers and marketing, thinking the film was a dopey romance in the vein of Nick and Norah or the scum of aught-teen pandering, Juno. iFanboy lamented the fact that SP ads ran during Baseball Tonight on ESPN, a far cry from their target fanbase. And none of the ads for the film played up the indie rock, 8-bit gamer, hipster comic vibe.

But maybe that’s too narrow a reason. Maybe the film’s box office failure had to do with competing against Eat Pray Love and The Expendables, movies that had the potential to divide popcorn audiences by gender lines. Maybe the failure was because SP had no bankable stars and few recognizable faces other than the still fringe Michael Cera. Or maybe, like many reviewers have said, the video game/comic book/indie rock language of a movie like Scott Pilgrim is a generational dog whistle, a totally incomprehensible mess–there’s literally a cut every five seconds–to anyone beyond the age of 35. Or maybe, as has been suggested, nobody cares about the relationship drama of slacker hipster douchebags (say it isn’t so!).

I imagine that SP will make back its 60 million budget via overseas ticket gross and the home market, but its initial box office failure means Hollywood won’t be attempting a bombastic experiment ala Scott Pilgrim anytime in the near future. And that’s probably the most depressing thought about the entire debacle. I hoped that the Scott Pilgrim film would open doors for other thematically similar properties in comics and television, film and literature. But the Edgar Wright picture is doomed to cult status like my beloved Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey or the great Norm MacDonald picture Dirty Work. And until the powers that be figure out a way to make the graphic-laden, gamer-inspired visuals of Scott Pilgrim for less than 60 million, I wouldn’t expect to see another film like this for a long while.

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The Case For Unlikable Characters in Literary Fiction: Thoughts on Scott Pilgrim 6

The final volume of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comic series dropped last week. Entitled Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, the last chapter of the six-year long saga concludes appropriately enough with Scott Pilgrim’s finest hour. For those unaware of the series, it’s about a Canadian slacker who falls for a mysterious American woman who has a legion of evil ex-boyfriends that have to be defeated in order to win her heart. Luckily, Scott’s “the best fighter in the territories” which leads to a bunch of insane Dragonball Z-esque battles. The books are composed of entirely realistic scenes of twenty-somethings (drawn in lovable anime style) getting drunk, having sex, and being generally aimless. Often these scenes are punctuated with a bizarre, otherworldly battle lifted directly from old Nintendo games. But don’t let this concept fool you. The Scott Pilgrim books are deep. The league of evil ex-boyfriends is an obvious metaphor for the baggage we carry with us after each new relationship, and Scott’s quest to rid himself of these former suitors is as much about him learning to become a better person as it is about the crazy fighting (Side note: I once loaned the SP books out to a girl I was dating and she claimed to love the first volume but not the second. When asked why, she said the second didn’t have as many engaging battles. To reiterate, anyone reading SP for the fights is totally missing the point. It’s like going into Inglorious Bastards only for over-the-top action set pieces).

But this post is not a forum for me to air out my grievances about readers who don’t “get” Scott Pilgrim. Instead, I want to talk about Scott’s journey and what it’s actually managed to teach me about literary fiction. The first thing you need to know is that Scott Pilgrim, until maybe the final 30 pages of the last volume, is an utter douchebag. Forget how Michael Cera plays him in the trailer. The Scott Pilgrim of the books is arrogant, narcissistic, selfish and utterly terrified of responsibility. When the series opens, he’s an unemployed 23-year-old dating a high school student. He sucks.

I watched a video review of the first volume of SP recently where the reviewer hated on the book precisely because Scott is so unlikable. Surely, we’ve all heard this before. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a workshop where somebody doesn’t bring up the fact that the characters aren’t likable. I don’t know about you, but this has never been a problem for me. When I think of my favorite characters in literature, I think of Frank and April Wheeler from Richard Yates’ masterful Revolutionary Road. They’re utterly flawed human beings who do terrible things, and they’re not particularly sympathetic. They’re the types of characters I relate to most. And maybe that says more about my own self-image than anything but when presented with a character who’s inherently decent or wonderful, I recoil. I can’t relate and often don’t care about their problems. Show me a character at their worst. That I understand.

There are inherent pleasures in reading about unlikable characters. Their stories usually go in two directions. They either A) redeem themselves in the style of Scott Pilgrim and become fuller, more complete humans or B) completely fail every one around them ala the Wheelers in Revolutionary Road. Option A is the type of story we as humans need to experience continually over our lives. Who doesn’t want to believe in self-improvement, that despite all of our very human failings, we can become new and better versions of ourselves? That’s what Bryan Lee O’Malley delivers in the Scott Pilgrim books. Scott’s slow and steady growth is a reminder that we too are capable of becoming better than what we presently are. Option B is the darker world view (I can’t imagine anyone who would argue that Yates has a brighter vision of humanity than O’Malley). Option B tells us that self-improvement is an illusion, that no one can ever change for the better, that we as a species are in a constant state of decay. This is also reassuring in a bizarre way, because if it’s true, then we have no real agency, and therefore, no true responsibility to become better people.

And what do we get with likable characters? Usually victim stories. Charles Baxter wrote an essay a few years back (I can’t find it, or I’d link to it) talking about how much he hates novels and stories where things just keep happening to the protagonist, where the protagonist continually reacts. These are the types of stories I hate, the ones where main characters refuse to get their hands dirty. I want books where people fail. I want stories where characters make bad decisions. For me, those are the works of fiction with the most complex emotional centers, the fullest landscapes of meaning. As strange as it might sound to some, Bryan Lee O’Malley accomplishes this over six volumes of graphic fiction. His work stands as a reminder of why we desperately need stories about flawed human beings, because in the end, they are the closest we have to mirror images of ourselves.

 

Top Ten Graphic Novels for the Literary Inclined

A few weeks ago I workshopped a story involving superheroes. It wasn’t genre, and the piece took place after every hero and villain on earth lost their powers. So really, there wasn’t even much discussion of superheroics. Instead, the piece leaned closer towards doemstic realism except every once in awhile someone would say something like, “Is this about the Eternity Gems? Have you found the Eternity Gems?” with little to no explanation. Mostly, I used the bygone era of super-powered adventuring as a metaphor for feeling like your best years are behind you.

The workshop went really well, but what was particularly interesting to me was my classmates’ assumptions about comic books. It seems that most people still think comics are aimed at children and riddled with the genre trappings of not the Silver Age, but even earlier, before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and Will Eisner altered the face of sequential storytelling forever. It was with this mindset that I recently read Dan Phillips’ how-to on IGN about getting comic virgins into the medium. It’s a great article but purposely doesn’t have a list of books to recommend because Phillips believes (and rightfully so) that you should tailor your recommendations to that particular person. For example, if somebody liked the X-Men movies and asks what to pick up, don’t hand over The Saga of Swamp Thing by Alan Moore where Swap Thing goes back in time and fights the nothingness before creation.

What I’ve decided to do is come up with a list of required reading for the literary inclined, people who love prose but would never dream of stepping foot in a comic shop. Everything I’ve listed is in graphic novel format, meaning you can skip the comic store altogether and head to the more familiar Borders or Barnes and Noble. There’s a lot I’ve missed here (it was particularly difficult cutting Kingdom Come, Y: The Last Man, Civil War, All-Star Superman, The Sinestro Corps War, The Dark Knight Returns and We3 from the list, and everybody must know about Maus by now) and I’m not going to mention Jonathan Lethem’s graphic novel since I wrote about it a few entries ago.  But if you consider yourself someone who reads almost exclusively literary fiction, this is the list for you. Try and at least give one of these a shot, and let me know what you think. If you think comic books are all about four-colors and BAM/POW signs, then you’re in for a big surprise.

10. Superman: Red Son

Written by Mark Millar with Art by Dave Johnson

Pretty much everybody knows the origin of the original superhero, Superman. Krypton explodes and a scientist sends his only son in a rocket to Earth. He’s raised by farmers in Kansas and becomes the hero we all know who stands up for “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. Red Son is a re-imagining where Kal-El lands in Russia at the beginning of the Cold War. He becomes a Communist and helps usher in an era where the entire Earth (minus America led by President Lex Luthor) falls to Russian control. Millar’s take on Czar Superman is smart and bombastic, and this book has a concrete beginning, middle and end (all you need is this one 12 dollar graphic novel). This one comes highly recommended as an interesting political book with enough cameos to keep fanboys happy (did I mention Anti-Communist Batman?).

9. Astonishing X-Men vol. 1 Gifted

Written by Joss Whedon with Art by John Cassady

Joss Whedon is most famous for the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but he’s also a well-lauded comic scribe. Astonishing X-Men is his greatest work to date and perfect for anyone who enjoyed the films. The book is set in continuity but isn’t enslaved by it. Pretty much anyone with even a tangential understanding of the Children of the Atom can enjoy this book. With amazing art provided by superstar artist, John Cassady, Astonishing is the perfect example of a traditional superhero book that transcends comic stigmas and feels much more like a sci-fi drama ala Lost or Battlerstar Galactica.

8. Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 1

Written by Brian Michael Bendis with Art by Mark Bagley

When Marvel wanted to relaunch Spider-Man to coincide with the 2002 film, they called up Brian Michael Bendis, a noted indie creator, to the big leagues. Ultimate Spider-Man is the definitive Spidey book of the last two decades, and this is the ground floor. The book starts with the origin: nerdy high school student Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider. The difference here is that even after 130 issues, Peter is still fifteen and the book is still amazing. He deals with contemporary problems, and Bendis has populated the book with a wonderful and expansive cast. When the Spider-Man film reboot hits in two years, you can be sure that it springs out of this book.

7. Ultimates vol. 1 Super-Human

Written by Mark Millar with Art by Bryan Hitch

Some people will criticize me for going with two Mark Millar picks and no Grant Morrison books, but I don’t care. Ultimates is easily the best superhero team book of the aughts. Much like Ultimate-Spider-Man, Ultimates takes place in a new reader-friendly universe with no previous continuity. This is the first story of the Avengers: Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. And Millar imbues it with his typical wit and penchant for the political. This book is smart and plays with the War on Terror in interesting ways. If you’re curious to see how Captain America is deployed during the Iraq War then this is the book for you.

6. Scott Pilgrim vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim’s Happy Little Life

Written and Drawn by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Imagine a world with poor Canadians who start shitty bands. Imagine a world where Canadian hipsters engage in Dragonball Z-esque battles while dissecting two decade old Nintendo games. This is Scott Pilgrim. One part indie rock, one part Nintendo, one part fighting, Scott Pilgrim is the most awesome manga remix of the last fifteen years. O’Malley delivers believable characters that we truly care about even as he inserts them into hilarious and ridiculous situations. If superheroes aren’t your thing, and you’re willing to give faux-manga a try, definitely pick up Scott Pilgrim before the Michael Cera movie hits this summer.

5. Ghost World

Written and Drawn by Daniel Clowes

If you love Catcher in the Rye, then you’ll enjoy Ghost World. This lean graphic novel tells the story of two hipster girls during the summer after high school. It’s a very typical coming of age piece that could easily stand side-by-side with the best offerings of the genre from literary fiction. This is definitely a gateway drug for readers completely unaware that indie/literary comics actually exist. Its aims are not tied up with plot like many of the other selections on this list but with character.

4. The Walking Dead vol. 1 Days Gone By

Written by Robert Kirman with Art by Tony Moore

Drawn in black and white, The Walking Dead is truly one of the most terrifying books you will ever read. Writer Robert Kirkman doesn’t employ a lot of cheap jumpy shocks, but instead chooses to horrify readers with the actions of his living characters. The premise of the book is as simple as it genius: it’s the zombie movie that doesn’t end. What happens to these characters three weeks after the first zombies show up? How about two years? The best part is the theme Kirkman hits again and again: it’s not the zombies who are the walking dead, but the living, humans pushed to frightening extremes they never dreamed possible.

3. The Complete Persepolis

Written and Drawn by Marjane Satrapi

Do you like memoirs? Ok. Then go get The Complete Persepolis today. It follows Marjane Satrapi, a liberal girl who comes of age in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It’s poignant and terribly contemporary. And for my money, this is the best book on the subject I’ve read, light years ahead of Reading Lolita in Tehran. If you like coming or age tales or are even remotely interested in the history of Iran, this is an absolute must buy.

2. Watchmen

Written by Alan Moore with Art by Dave Gibbons

This one appears on every list of this kind and for good reason: Watchmen is the deconstruction of the superhero and comic book format. This is Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman seen through a postmodern lens. This is Cold War allegory of the highest order. This is everything superhero comics should aspire to. Incredibly intelligent and deceptively well-drawn, Watchmen is the rare book that is universally considered the best of its kind. If you’ve seen the mediocre movie and weren’t convinced, you owe it to yourself to give the ultimate graphic novel a try.

1. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

Written and Drawn by Chris Ware

Most people know Chris Ware. He’s a big McSweeney‘s dude and the closest thing the comic industry has to a Dave Eggers. This masterpiece of a graphic novel came out shortly after Heartbreaking Work, and the two writers are often compared. Jimmy Corrigan is about so much it’s hard to describe. It’s utterly postmodern and involves a fair at the turn of the century and a man who encounters his dying father after a lifelong absence. The book is painful. The book is dark. And at times, the book is uplifting. I put this graphic novel at the number one spot because even though I don’t consider it as strong as Watchmen, Jimmy Corrigan is the closest in terms of structure, tone and character to a literary novel. If you like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran-Foer, Keith Gessen or Ricky Moody then you will be shocked at how dense, how intelligent, how damn literary Jimmy Corrigan actually is.

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