Scott Pilgrim, Mental Health Week and the Power of Entertainment

Originally published 13/10/14 via Alternate Dimensions

The concept behind 1Up Culture is to talk about all facets of pop culture. The good, the bad and the weird sides of it. And while we can all play critic or fanboy, there is a deeper side to entertainment that we often don’t credit it with enough. Media is a powerful tool, capable of shaping the way we think and affecting us in ways we wouldn’t expect. Normally I try to approach the weekly topic on 1Up Culture objectively, but this week is very different. In honour of last week’s Mental Health Week, I wanted to talk about the effect media can have on our lives by talking about my own experiences with it. As a result it’ll be less on unusual facts and information, and more a personal account that you may take any number of ways.

This is far and away the most personal thing I’ve publicly shared, and some of what’s below I’ve kept from all but those I can confide in most. I get this won’t be for everyone, but when a column such as this jumps across all facets of pop culture it’s inevitable you’ll find something you don’t care about. I just hope this can be enjoyable, interesting and maybe even a little helpful for some people.

This is my story on the importance the Scott Pilgrim series has had in my life.

I’m not in the situation where I deal with a lot of hardships and suffering really. Not when you look to the world at large. I have a supportive mother and a great group of people I’m lucky to call my friends. I have a job I like and blessed to lead a youth group of fantastic kids. Despite this comfortable hand God and life has dealt me though, I’m not immune from some very difficult battles that go on inside of my head.

I try not to label myself, and I’ve never sought clinical diagnosis, but I’ve definitely battled with some form of depression throughout my life. It comes and goes in varying degrees, but chances are if I’ve cancelled plans with someone out of the blue, more often than not it’s because I’m in a psychological spiral. I’ll spend days at a time holed up at home fumbling through the hours with what little energy I can muster from myself. During these times anything positive tends to fall by the wayside, and I can’t help but go in the opposite direction.

So while there might be better avenues for support in those times than a set of six graphic novels penned by a Canadian I’ve never met, sometimes they become the easiest pill to swallow.

My initial introduction to Scott Pilgrim came in the form of the 2010 movie by Edgar Wright. Truthfully I found it fun but didn’t quite get the hype behind it first time around. The characters seemed awfully shallow and despite being rather attractive, I didn’t see why Scott would fight so hard for Ramona, especially given how little they knew of each other. I walked away enjoying the zany action and had a few laughs, but figuring that was it.

Why I suddenly became compelled to read the comics to this day I don’t know. There must have been something that told me there was more to this beyond a one time fling. So I went ahead and bought the comic box set (ignoring the fact I could have played it safe and loaned them from the Library and not spent $70+ on a whim…yeah I don’t get me sometimes either).

Some decisions you can’t explain, but that punt ended up being one of the best entertainment based decisions I’ve ever made. I fell in love with the series in an instant. The shallow, kinda frustrating characters I met in the movie became utterly loveable. Scott was still an idiot, but you could see the heart behind his stupidity. Ramona was still kind of a jerk, but the comics didn’t just tell you she had battle scars, they showed them to you, and you felt for her and wanted her to overcome her past, and do so with Scott by her side. (Truthfully only Stacey Pilgrim benefits as a character from the movie. Even William Wallace, whilst stealing the majority of his scenes lacks the development the comics offer up). More importantly you had time to see the characters interact. Unlike the movie, you could see that there were important moments between the two of them that would then explain why Scott would go to the lengths he did for her, and why she put up with his childishness. They really did love each other in the way fictional characters can do.

This was the key. While the comics have much more space to delve into subplots and build a grander story, the characters Bryan Lee O’Malley created became truly special to me. I read about Scott, about his battles and relationships with the other characters, and I found myself connecting with him to an absurd degree. While we both share some similarities, I’m not Scott. We approach things differently, have different talents and aims in life, and I’m certainly incapable of headbutting a vegan so hard they burst into a flurry of silver coins (or playing bass). It doesn’t matter though, something about him, and indeed the entire cast, clicks with me on a level beyond that of other characters out there in the entertainment world.

I kind of got fandoms before, I got that people became obsessed with fictional characters and felt like on some level they were real to them. But I never got it until Scott Pilgrim. Now I do, I understand why an unreal character can take on a real avatar in a person’s life.

I don’t remember which of the tens of read throughs it was that I realised the characters and their interactions were comforting me. I remember it was during a heavy onslaught of internal doubt and abuse. My self-confidence and self-worth could at that point be located somewhere at the bottom of the sea past Atlantis. In an attempt to ease my mind I sought something I could half-consume: something that was interesting enough to keep my attention, but also that I knew well enough that my brain could just switch off, so as to avoid my overactive imagination finding new ways of emotionally torturing me.

Friends are important (see this column is all about startling revelations). All of my favourite memories include people who I now consider friends, whether it be sitting together absorbing a barrage of injokes and games of NBA2K14, or immersing myself in another culture for the first time in Japan. But no matter how supportive they can be (and again, I stress I’m lucky that there are people I can and have gone to who have shown that support) sometimes you physically can’t bring yourself to go to them or anyone. It might be they’re unavailable, it might be your self-perception is so critically low you feel you’re unfairly burdening their life simply by saying hello let alone dumping your issues on them.

This describes me, and so avoiding anything that resembled conventional help and support, I found some small comfort instead in these fully fleshed out, flawed but loveable people between the pages of O’Malleys sophomore effort.This is perhaps what did it for me. I could look at Scott, Ramona, Kim, Knives and the gang, and see hope. Scott was clueless, Ramona was distant, Kim was antisocial, Knives was obsessive. I can see varying degrees of myself in all of these characters. They all had traits that hurt them, but didn’t break them. And despite their issues, they still managed to live their lives. They had their share of battles (literal and figuratively) but they made it out on the other end, growing as people and standing tall with friends by their sides.

This spoke (and still speaks) to me as though it was written in big red letters on my wall.

YOU WILL GET THROUGH THIS AND BE FINE

I remember tearing up throughout the read through as I intermittently tore through each of the six books over the course of 48 hours. Not that it’s an oddity for me to be shed tears at entertainment before (Toy Story 3 ending got me), but I know the tears stretched beyond the emotional peaks of the story and had partly transcended to my own situational being. The end of book five/start of six hit me hardest, when Scott is at his lowest. But I knew it would work out alright for him, because I had already read his story. I knew he would end up with his head held high and a smile on his face (woah me that’s a spoiler!) I might feel like I’m in Scott’s position; utterly broken emotionally, lacking the energy and care to do anything but mindlessly play through video games and waiting for something, anything to break the numbness. I might feel like I’m in his shoes, but I know it all ends up ok for him. And so maybe, just maybe, the same could be said for me.

We can sometimes miss the most obvious things if we see them through the wrong light. Othertimes we just won’t listen. For me, I needed it spelt out in this way. I couldn’t read about real people overcoming life, because then I’d just feel crappy about myself because they did it and I couldn’t. Nor could it just be any fictional story, because I might not connect with the protagonist or just not recognise the themes in the same way.

This is why for all of my ranting and bashing of the Twilight series I’m trying to pull back on it…trying. Sure, objectively I might find flaw in the series (spoiler alert: I do). But I also found fault in the Scott Pilgrim movie. Yet that hasn’t stopped me from finding the franchise impactful to my current life. I don’t relate to Bella, but clearly some people do. I can point out the odd love triangle between a werewolf and an old sparkly dude, but I might be missing the subtext that speaks directly to someone else. We consume media differently, and frankly Twilight wasn’t written to target me. Scott Pilgrim kinda was.

Entertainment is a subjective thing. We can point out why something misfired technically, but emotion and enjoyment don’t like to follow strict guidelines. Charm can beat technical prowess, and we might marvel at the complex narrative of an award winning movie but it doesn’t mean it’s going to stick with us for years to come. That’s why fandoms are so numerous, different people connect to different aspects and find themselves drawn to unique things.

I’m by no means advocating that finding your equivalent to Scott Pilgrim is the answer to depression or the like. It’s no match for proper help and support networks, and if you’re in that situation, please seek out the necessary assistance. Don’t be afraid, you’re no less of a person for seeking help. We don’t look down on someone going to the doctor because they have the flu, how is this any different?

So while it’s not the reccommended primary treatment for mental illness, don’t underestimate the effect entertainment and media can have in easing a small slice of the pain. And sometimes when you can’t face people and reality, losing yourself in the fictional can be the crutch necessary to make it through the night. Something as debilitating as depression or anxiety isn’t a quick fix because it’s a serious roadblock in people’s lives. But it doesn’t define us. You can’t force the kind of connection I’ve found with Scott Pilgrim, it’ll occur organically whether you want it to or not. But life is a funny beast, sometimes you can’t easily explain the small things that seem to end up being there to help you.

I went back to the movie and rewatched it, and to this day it’s one I can recite line for line. It’s still flawed, but I can appreciate the approach Edgar Wright took with the adaptation and the way it’s crafted pays a lot of respect to the comics. O’Malley’s other books ‘Lost at Sea’ and ‘Seconds’ both sit on a shelf in my room alongside the black and white paperback and colour hardcover editions of Scott Pilgrim and the movie. His writing and characters in general speak to me, and even as I grow as a person I suspect I’ll still find his witty and ever so slightly crazy characters endearing. I can’t thank him in a way that would measure up with the impact his books have had on me, but chances are someone has helped him in way he can’t repay with mere thanks. And maybe if I’m lucky I’ll have that same effect on someone someday, and so on and so forth in a chain of influence and support.

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