Dreams and Flashbacks in Scott Pilgrim (a Formal Analysis) – by Tyler Crissman
[Warning: Some major spoilers lie ahead for the Scott Pilgrim comic book series.]
[Also: Sorry that the images aren’t pristine; since I wanted the original monochrome version, I had to scan the physical books instead of snagging images from online.]
Bryan Lee O’Malley has done some cool stuff, but the next installment of cool stuff he’s writing won’t be out til July 5, 2017! For those curious, I’m referring to Snotgirl #6. Snotgirl is the current series O’Malley is doing with the excellent artist and co-plotter Leslie Hung, and soon a new colorist who will hopefully live up to the high bar set by Mickey Quinn. I mention this because I highly recommend that you, the reader, go check out that series. But for now, I’m looking once again at O’Malley’s biggest hit, Scott Pilgrim.
The series might be best known for its flavorful distilment of video game-esque magical realism, manga inspiration, some indie comics sensibilities, romance, and an excellent sense of humor into a cohesive story that scratches a tonal itch that not everything can. But I would argue that another major feature of Scott Pilgrim, and much of O’Malley’s comics, is a knack for playing with perception. One of the most salient examples of this perception-play is the role of memories and dreams in the series. Both appear a lot, and both play important roles in the plot. Specifically (if you’re ready to ride the train through spoiler town), that’s because Scott meets Ramona in his dreams, since subspace travel goes through people’s heads, and a lot of the backstory is told in flashbacks that we later learn have been changed not only through Scott’s own mental filter but also through Gideon’s subspace interference—and maybe even other subspace activity, including but not limited to Ramona’s repeated route through Scott’s brain? (Plus, Scott isn’t always too good at remembering things or keeping in touch with reality, just in general.) So, dreams and flashbacks are more than just narrative window dressing here—and their tampered-with state (of which the reader is not immediately aware) makes them one of the primary ways O’Malley messes with the reader’s sense of the reality of the narrative. As such, especially given O’Malley’s tendency to play with formalism (including but not limited to self-reflexivity, a term more colloquialized and even oversimplified as “breaking the fourth wall”), the form of these parts of the story is worth study. Plus, O’Malley plays with perceptions, and messing with form is an excellent way to do that.
Formally, the dreams and flashbacks in Scott Pilgrim are almost uniformly united in having black gutters. (Gutters, for reference, are the spaces between and around panels. If that needs clearing up, a quick Internet search of “comic gutter” should do the trick.) There are some exceptions, like the first flashback in Volume 1, in which Scott meets Knives, but you can’t always expect the particular formal conventions of a series to be established outright. Come Volume 2, however, black gutters become standard for both dreams and flashbacks.
There are a few other uses of less-complete black guttering: there are thick black border between participants in phone calls that could be seen as a gutter and/or simply a panel border, but in any case, the panels are still separated by white gutters on their tops and bottoms; and there are black gutters that, again, could be seen as panel borders, on the tops and bottoms of two-page spreads. However, these uses are borderline cases of black gutters and are formally distinct from the dreams and flashbacks. So, for the most part, black gutters apply only to dreamed or remembered sequences—but since there’s no formal distinction between the two.
In the Scott Pilgrim series, dreams and flashbacks are usually made distinct by context, but even that line is a tenuous one. Dreams generally end with a character (usually Scott) waking up from said dream. On a side note, in several cases O’Malley adds a cool formal touch to the ends of dreams. Instead of simply depicting waking in the next panel, the next panel is obscured by the character waking up in the foreground. Anyway, aside from characters waking up, and/or explicitly being realizing that they are in a dream (which happens a lot), there is little to differentiate the dreams from the flashbacks.
The flashbacks are at times introduced with a character’s preface or a moment of reflection, but at other times are transitioned to more suddenly. It’s always clear when a moment is designated as a flashback, as opposed to the present time. However, the line between flashback and dream is more blurry. Either can begin more or less without explicit introduction, so at first a flashback could be taken for a dream or vice versa. On top of that, there aren’t a whole lot of rules that differentiate the dream world from the real one in Scott Pilgrim. Sure, the more surreal moments tend to be dreams, but outlandish fight scenes or fantastical feats happen in the reality of the comic. You can take the dream/flashback/reality distinctions at face value, but given the comic’s suggestion of untrustworthy perceptions, it makes sense to question them. The lack of formal distinction keeps this matter uncertain, and the beginning of Volume 2 is perhaps the most prominent example of this.
Volume 2 goes so far as to start with (what is presumably) a flashback. Text boxes indicate that the events portrayed are from the past, and black gutters assume their role. Since this is the very beginning of the book, formal rules haven’t been established yet. Even if a reader has read Volume 1, there’s no knowing for certain that everything will be the same—so starting like this throws the reader in and sets their expectations. In this whole flashback, the panels bleed to the side edges of the pages. No black gutters lie on the far left or right. Then, after some time of nothing but flashback, those far sides of the pages get black gutters. This is the only formal indication of a transition out of a flashback (if that’s even really what’s happening).
At this point, Scott talks with Ramona in a dream sequence, clearly demarcated as a dream by Scott’s waking (after Ramona points out that it’s a dream). Then, the typical white gutters are introduced, and they continue in all of the standard reality portions of the book.
So, on the one hand, it seems like we have a flashback, followed immediately by a dream. But on the other hand, since this is a continuous sequence of black-guttered pages, in spite of the small addition of page-edge gutters at the end, these sequences could be read as continuous themselves. It’s totally reasonable that Scott would have dreamed that flashback. Sure, maybe it doesn’t matter; either way, it’s a memory. But (as you certainly remember) memories aren’t to be taken for granted as true in this comic. And this particular memory is called out directly later on in the series. As presented in Volume 2, Scott fights Simon and it’s pretty over-the-top.
In recounting it to Ramona in Volume 3, Scott embellishes on the fantastical nature of it even more, describing Simon as seven feet tall, flying, and shooting lightning bolts from his eyes. In Volume 6, Kim Pine corrects Scott’s memory regarding several important details, including the fact that Simon was just some kid and not a video-game-boss-style menace. The later reveal in Volume 6 that Gideon was tampering with Scott’s memories only corroborates Kim’s claim that Scott’s memory was way off the mark—and it is likely to bring the reader’s mind back to that. It’s either a clever move or a mighty fine coincidence that this most called-out false memory is the one that is possibly a dream.
In any case, the mere possibility of memory-dream conflation calls into question all memories and dreams in the series. And it doesn’t just imply a lack of trustworthiness in Scott’s (and/or other characters’) perceptions. It calls into question the reader’s perceptions. You took these things for granted. You assumed certain sequences were memories and others were dreams even when the medium through which you took in the information wasn’t making a clear distinction. And maybe you are as misperception-prone as Scott himself. All that, because of the way O’Malley uses the supposedly empty space of the gutters. Pretty cool, huh?