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Graphic nature

Well before Michael Cera put on a Plumtree t-shirt, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series became cultishly popular with comic fans. We dissect the elements of a successful graphic novel.


What makes a successful comic or graphic novel? There are plenty of reading options out there these days, but what draws readers towards one book over another? "Something that's appealing to people, that makes them smile, laugh, feel something---whether it's good or bad---something that has an effect on people," says Calum Johnston, owner of comic shop Strange Adventures.

 "I think Scott Pilgrim was successful because you empathize with the guy," Johnston says. "He's a lackadaisical 20something---you're like him, or you know someone like him. He's trying to better himself but he wasn't always successful." He adds that the romantic-comedy parts and videogame jokes don't hurt.

A good narrative will hold readers' attention, keep them guessing, and most importantly for starving comic writers, keep them buying the next book. Some readers are drawn to complicated plotlines that grow more and more Byzantine with each issue, like Alan Moore's (Promethea, Swamp Thing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and Neil Gaiman's (The Sandman) various series. On the other hand, Johnston cites American artist Jeffrey Brown's Cat Getting Out of a Bag as one of Strange Adventure's most successful titles---with the plotline self-explanatory, esoteric literature this is not.

A passing glance at any graphic novel shelf will reveal a huge range of styles, from the consciously crude and roughly drawn, to comics using layers of colours, lines and textures requiring a seemingly endless amount of time and assistants to put together. Popular titles like last year's Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli, or the Fables series use elaborate visuals, whereas the drawing style of the Scott Pilgrim series is a more simplified, manga-like style. Different styles work for different books: Jeffrey Brown's rough drawings have their followers, while some readers prefer more complicated illustrations.

As in a novel, believable dialogue is crucial; this tends to be what separates serious aspiring comic artists from that weird webcomic your cousin made for three weeks once. Former Haligonian Bryan Lee O'Malley makes Scott Pilgrim and his friends sound like believable 20somethings; even when you're talking berobed mystics in fantasy stories, natural-sounding dialogue is needed. Even comics without words need to create a dialogue through the images.

Many of the same elements that make a novel great make a graphic novel great, but it's the critical fusion of text and image that make or break a graphic novel. If one is weaker, the other can offset it, but both need to be relatively strong to take in the reader and construct a story.

"Some stories aren't going to have such great artwork but have really compelling stories," Johnston says. "Sometimes you get a combination of artwork and story that really makes them soar."

The Villain
Jason Schwartzman as Gideon Gordon Graves
Gideon Gordon Graves is the leader of the League of Ramona’s Evil Ex-Boyfriends. An entrepreneur, he’s also skilled at emotional warfare and sword-fighting. He’s a man of mystery and so is the nature of Jason Schwartzman’s ever-smarmy attitude. If you superimposed Bryan Lee O’Malley’s drawing of Graves---sideburns, floppy hair, thick-rimmed glasses---over Schwartzman’s shit-eating mug, it’s genius casting. Like Jesus on a piece of toast. Schwartzman’s the guy you want to see go down hard.

The Hero
Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim
With a face like a sad baby squirrel and an aw-shucks slouch, Michael Cera was born to wear Scott Pilgrim’s sneakers. While skeptics believe he just regurgitates his low-key, sensitive self in every role (Juno, Superbad, Youth in Revolt), Cera occasionally unleashes that dark kernel of rage buried deep under his ironic t-shirt, and that’s what makes him a perfect anti-hero.

Related Film

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Official Site:

Director: Edgar Wright

Writer: Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright

Producer: Marc Platt, Eric Gitter, Edgar Wright and Nira Park

Cast: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Brandon Routh, Alison Pill, Jason Schwartzman, Ellen Wong and Satya Bhabha

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