Is Scott Pilgrim formulaic? Yep. But it's a very good formula.
"Something" meets "something." It's always dangerous to describe a work of art using that clichéd formula. It can sorely misrepresent the nature as well as the quality of the new material. Sometimes you hear about someone using that, watch the show (or read the book or see the movie or whatever) and then you see what he was talking about and yet . . . you can't see what he's talking about. You see why he made the comparisons but feel he missed the point. But I feel confident in saying that Scott Pilgrim is best summed up like this: it's youth-centric character-driven indie comics meets shonen manga. No, more than that, it's a near perfect blend of those genres. There's no real distinction made between the two in this book and as a composite text it becomes something familiar yet unique.
Scott Pilgrim is the story of a 23-year old slacker who just drifts through life until he falls hard for a girl named Ramona Flowers, a ninja/amazon.ca delivery girl. Unfortunately, their love is complicated by the usual tribulations of a relationship . . . plus 7 of Ramona's 7 Evil Exes who have vowed to off anyone who would dare date her.
Scott Pilgrim has the kind of character studies and conversation driven stories that are practically a stereotype of indie comics. A lot of it involves characters just talking about life, themselves and the little things. But it also has the fast-paced fighting and absurdist humour that one would expect from a shonen manga. Slice-of-life indies are often quiet, introspective and melancholic, while shonen manga is often loud, dynamic and aggressively optimistic. These genres seem as far away from each other in aesthetic as possible. But in Scott Pilgrim it works.
This particular volume is about growing up. When we begin, Scott is still charming old Scott, but he seems to be in a rut. We see that he needs to get stronger, not just physically (though, that happens too), but by taking responsibility for his life rather than just trying to keep the status quo. Scott is an interesting character in that he's sort of an archetype of shonen manga. Like Son Goku (Dragonball) or Luffy (One Piece), he's simple-minded, has a short attention span, has no common sense and still manages to charismatic and likeable. Some of the gags in this book (namely the joke about Scott's birthday) use the same kind of comedy beats that can be found all over the genre. Oh, and he's a powerful martial artist for some reason. But he's in a world were fights against powerful foes who want to kill him are exactly as important keeping a job.
The crazy video stuff could be seen as intrusive into this down to earth world, but that would be misreading the setting. It's not the world that's down to earth, it's the feelings and (some of) the sensibilities. Just because characters can be dream-traveling ninjas doesn't mean that we can't relate or be sympathetic towards them any more or less than someone rendered in a "realistic" manner. I put that in quotation marks because what constitutes as realistic varies from person to person. I definitely wouldn't consider Scott realistic. He's ridiculously loud, oblivious and eccentric. He has a personality that I can't imagine a real person having, but his worries and feelings are true enough (to me anyway; as I said, these things are subjective). If you can't accept the weirdness of this world like the characters who inhabit it do, then you just won't get it. Your loss.
The art and storytelling-style is in the shonen manga mold. There are a lot of North American artists who are clearly trying to imitate popular manga styles but it often comes off as very hollow and generic. Creator Bryan Lee O'Malley clearly has his own style. It's a style that's clean yet conveys emotion very well. It really shows that he knows what to take from manga and apply without simply just aping another artist's style. Yes, I can see the influence of Eiichiro Oda (One Piece) in O'Malley's work but it's sort of in the same way that one can see the influence of Goseki Kojima (Lone Wolf and Cub) in the works of Frank Miller. O'Malley knows how to tell a story that manages to allow the character-drama, humour and action to flow together naturally rather than clashing. Is Scott Pilgrim formulaic? Yep. But it's a very good formula that entertains and allows the overarching plot of the series to move forward. It's just a shame that we'll have to wait at least a year for the next volume.