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Scott Pilgrim and the hipster-geek divide

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If you had to save a pop-culture artifact to show people 25 years from now in order to help them make sense of what this decade's youth culture was like, you could do a lot worse than the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels. This week's release of the official six-volume collection, Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Boxset, is more of a collectible afterthought to longtime fans and an entry point for the uninitiated, the latter group hopefully growing due to Edgar Wright's future-cult-classic movie adaptation. But we need to pay more attention to a title like Scott Pilgrim, because if there's one thing that threatens to overwhelm the spirit of the times, it's the one divide that Bryan Lee O'Malley's comic manages to tenuously bridge: the split between geeks and hipsters.

[jump] About 15 years ago, the edgy, esoteric countercultural type was an identity people actually strived for. Rolling your eyes at mainstream rock in favor of the Matador catalog, going into a Tarantino-fueled video store binge of old-school blaxploitation and French New Wave, and bypassing the Liefeld/MacFarlane-infested superhero racks to pick up Hate or Eightball or Tank Girl was considered the height of with-it-ness. Meanwhile, old-school geeks still had to deal with Schumacher-directed Batman movies, a mainstream press that absolutely refused to take video games even slightly seriously, and only one high-profile mainstream cultural representative of their kind: the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.

Yet whether it's internet culture at work or a symptom of a wider nationwide vendetta against obscurantism, being a hipster has now become so undesirable that hardly a month goes by without some huge memetic phenomenon centering around how vapid they are. (Want some recent examples? Take your pick from aging punk figurehead Henry Rollins, highbrow culture-publication n+1, or a webcomic that uses hipster culture to make Hitler even more obnoxious.) "Hipster" has transformed from a general signifier of bohemian status to a synonym for "poseur," an entitled and superficial snob who dislikes popular things in an attempt to appear cool, and appropriates cultural signifiers he's not entitled to. And since people who actually do gravitate towards artsy, indie, or fashion-conscious interests are acutely aware of how that term's become an insult, nobody actually admits to being a hipster.

But all the things that hipsters get accused of are endemic to just about anyone who commits to an identity based around a narrow segment of youth-centered pop culture. And the now-ascendant geeks, who hold the same generational clout today as the "alternative nation" did in the '90s, are no exception to criticism. Elitism? Tell a hardcore first-person shooter enthusiast you bought the new Call of Duty for Xbox, and prepare to get an earful about how playing on anything besides an Alienware PC with keyboard-and-mouse control is for n00bs. Anti-mainstream snobbery? Nerds tend to wear their disdain for popular professional sports like a badge of honor. Cultural appropriation? Trendies who wear kaffiyehs are small change compared to otaku who think they know all about Japan because they own a bunch of torrented Naruto fansubs. Cheap irony? Without it, all your favorite internet memes wouldn't exist. Like-minded enclaves? Why settle for taking over neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Silverlake when you can flood the entire media with endless superhero and zombie properties?

The thing is, these are all easy stereotypes, reducing genuine and essentially harmless entertainment-based enthusiasms to a series of cheap shot targets based on worst-case scenarios. And no matter how many times you've experienced the most obnoxious types of geeks or hipsters online or (god forbid) in person, it's more of a personality problem than an endemic cultural problem -- which means that these two subcultures are by no means mutually exclusive. In Scott Pilgrim, we see the emotional progress of a bunch of characters who straddle both worlds: jokes about manga and 8-bit video games mesh with nods to indie rock and hipster fashion, dialogue blurs geeky tics and slacker affectations, and Scott's fights against his girlfriend Ramona's evil exes -- including a "sellout" skater with a mithril board and a bassist whose vegan diet gives him powers straight out of Dragon Ball -- involve the kinds of jokes, references and personality clashes that only someone steeped in both geek and hipster cultures could really get right.

Most importantly of all, Scott Pilgrim is, at its core, all about learning how not to be so insecure and immature about your emotions. And if there's one thing geeks and hipsters really share, it's passionate, self-aware enthusiasm centered around an outside-the-norm mentality -- in relationships, friendships, day-to-day interactions, and their general way of being in the world. There's a lot more crossover potential than you'd think between fans of Alan Moore and Thurston Moore, between coke-bottle frames and shutter shades. (Exhibit B: The Venture Bros., the only cartoon to reference both Lydia Lunch and Nien Nunb.) And when the current faux-populist definition of "elitism" refers not to the exploitatively rich or the powerful, but to people who are "over-educated" and live in major urban centers, the commonalities should be clear. It's us vs. the world -- let's make the most of it.