Toronto layabout Scott Pilgrim has been 23 for 19 years, but somehow, he still feels fresh.
The chronically unemployed bass player is back — this time in the Netflix anime "Scott Pilgrim Takes Off," which debuted Friday to a larger built-in audience than any of the character's previous iterations.
The fandom has grown over the years as new generations discover the charms of the Canadian graphic novel series-turned-indie film, which follows the titular slacker — portrayed in the movie by Brampton, Ont.'s own Michael Cera — as he decides to date Ramona Flowers, an American delivery girl whose seven evil exes are determined to thwart him.
"Kids all over the world seem to kind of get it in a weird way," said Bryan Lee O'Malley, who created the 2004 book series and co-wrote the show.
"I think it's the specificity. I always go back to Bruce Springsteen, or the Canadian version, Joel Plaskett. It's the very specific references grounded in something that is somehow universal."
That specificity includes nods to retro video games and music. Battles are reminiscent of one-on-one fighting games, and when someone dies they turn into coins. Characters include Stephen Stills and Young Neil, named for members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
"I see people now saying it has a retro vibe, but they're too young to know how retro it was the first time around. It was definitely me looking back at my childhood, looking back at the '80s and '90s and that culture that I grew up with," O'Malley said. "There's something about the vibe and style of it — there's a weird timelessness."
The timelessness might also have something to do with the stage the characters are at in their lives, he said. They're just entering adulthood, figuring out who they want to be.
"When you're young and you're reading about a 23-year-old, it's always going to be kind of aspirational, in a way," he said. "It just kind of stands as a generational touchstone. It's still aspirational for 18-year-olds and cringe for a 26-year-old."
But, O'Malley said, it also bears revisiting. Readers and viewers get something different out of the series at different points in their lives.
That's certainly true for 29-year-old Sam Cheung of Kitchener, Ont., who first read the comic books in high school and would wait impatiently for each new volume to be released.
"I always identified with the characters, even though I was younger," she said. "It felt like we could be doing those things right now. We could start a band and we could we could get a part-time job — because Scott's always looking for a job."
She always wanted to be Ramona Flowers, she said. She'd wear tights and dye her hair bright colours like the character.
Now, it's not the haplessness of the characters she relates to, but their relationships with their pasts. Ramona's exes reappearing in her life, for example.
Cheung's friends still send her everything they see related to the franchise. For example, the house where Scott and his roommate Wallace Wells lived in the film went up for sale this summer, and she received a flood of texts about it.
While she loved the movie and a video game that was released in 2010 and is thrilled about the anime, Cheung said the graphic novels played a bigger role in her life as word of them spread through her high school like wildfire.
Word of mouth has been key to "Scott Pilgrim"'s success, said Peter Birkemoe, owner of The Beguiling comic book shop in Toronto, where O'Malley worked part time when he was younger.
"It was pretty small," Birkemoe said of the first book's release in 2004.
"It maybe sold 20 books or something like that at the first event. And then we got to see that evolve to the point where by the sixth volume coming out, we had closed down the street and had 2,000 people coming out for what is to this day probably the largest event we've ever held."
The books didn't have much of a marketing budget, he said, but they were just so good, so broadly appealing, that readers talked about them and news got out.
These days, Birkemoe said, young people are still discovering the series, but the fandom is growing faster because of platforms such as TikTok, where teens' and twenty-somethings' videos about the franchise regularly get millions of views.
"There's not a lot of social currency in being a 30-year-old 'Scott Pilgrim' fan," said Jonathan Ramoutar, who is one.
"It's definitely a remnant of a time where we praised a lot of slackers in media and a lot of man-children."
That said, he's still a devotee of the film, which came out in 2010 to little box office success.
But Ramoutar, who loved director Edgar Wright, saw it in theatres and was hooked.
"It's exciting. It's indie rock. The cutting and pacing of it...the engaging visuals," he said.
It also portrays Toronto's DIY music scene, which he desperately wanted to be part of. Now an adult, he's involved in a number of musical projects in the city, but the scene has changed.
Some of the venues depicted in the series have shut down, and the internet has changed how people discover new music. But having those things on film, the hallmarks of his youth in Toronto, is still meaningful to Ramoutar.
"I keep coming back to being so thankful this exists," he said. "There's a whole segment in the film where they go to Casa Loma, and nobody even explains what Casa Loma is. The video game has whole levels taking place on Toronto's streetcar, and we don't even physically have those streetcars anymore, but it's there and it's nice that it is."
The film also has what's become, since its release, something of a superstar cast. In addition to an early-career Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Ramona and other actors include Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Schwartzman and Kieran Culkin.
That same cast is back to voice the anime, revisiting the project after finding success.
"It was this weird youthful summer camp kind of experience for all of us and we all feel a lot of nostalgia for it," O'Malley said of the filming process.
"It feels like we all went through something at a very formative age. It was my first step outside Toronto into the wider world, and it somehow just feels like it's a part of everyone. I'm so grateful they feel the same way I do."
But viewers of the anime shouldn't expect a simple rehash of the books or movie.
At the outset, "Scott Pilgrim Takes Off" will feel familiar to fans of the book and film franchise, with some scenes recreated shot-for-shot. But it takes a sharp turn at the end of the first episode that sends the plot careening in a different direction.
O'Malley said he's a little worried about how the fanbase will receive it, because change is not always taken well.
In some ways, the changes were practical, he said. Some things that needed explanation a decade ago are taken for granted now — the queerness of some characters, for example — while other things might need more of an introduction.
But like the fandom, O'Malley has grown in the last two decades and his perspective has shifted.
"I can only approach things from who I am now and what you know, when it is now. I couldn't just go back to my 2004 mindset or 2010 mindset," he said.
"The past is gone for me, and I didn't want to be just a cover band doing the same exact notes I played back then."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2023.
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press