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May 24, 2006

An Interview with Bryan Lee O’Malley
by Gordon McAlpin

Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley first garnered some attention with Oni Press’s Lost at Sea in 2003, a melancholy coming-of-age/road trip story. But it wasn’t until Scott Pilgrim, vol. 1, hit the stands in 2004 that he became indie comics darling we all know and love today. With its irresistible blend of character-based comedy and video game “logic,” the Scott Pilgrim series has reeled in an enormously broad and devoted fanbase, who have been anxiously awaiting the long-delayed third volume. Also, the series has been optioned by Universal Studios, with plans for Shaun of the Dead helmer Edgar Wright to direct.

This interview is comprised of two conversations between myself and the Eisner-nominated O’Malley. The two first spoke over the phone in December, 2005, about some the things that have influenced Scott Pilgrim—movies, video games, and comics—as well as, of course, the third volume itself, Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, which is fresh out today.

*    *    *    *    *

You busy?

No, we’re just sort of watching a movie, but I can take a break from it.

What are you watching?

This Godard movie, Tout va Bien (All’s Well), from like 1972 or something. It’s really weird. And I’m slightly tipsy from drinking wine all evening.

I know from your bio that you majored in Film Studies while you were at school…

Right.

You didn’t finish your degree, though. Why not?

I was just a really notoriously bad student. I just couldn’t really deal with it, so I eventually just gave up.

Did you... glean any sort of indirect knowledge that not necessarily applied to your studies, but—

Well, I went into the field because I wanted to try to apply it to comics. I think that was my goal all along. It’s not like I was stupid; I was just a really bad worker. I wouldn’t really pay attention. I’d just be doodling during class and stuff. I couldn’t deal with tests and essays and all that kind of stuff, so it didn’t really work out.

But I think I got something out of it, probably. I got an interest in film and, you know, stuff that wasn’t from my era or whatever, necessarily. (laughs) I mean, I guess I’m watching Godard right now, so something came out of it.

What are some of your film influences?

I don’t know. I have trouble pinpointing individual things, especially from other mediums. It’s harder to tell where I picked something up.

Well, maybe not “influences,” but who do you like, for instance?

I don’t know. I really like a lot of recent stuff. I feel like there are certain people right now who’ve been really taking advantage of the medium and the history of it, which is kind of… I feel like I’m doing similar things in comics, although not as well. But, you know, Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry and that sort of school, I guess. Those are my current favorites.

What are your opinions of Edgar Wright? Do you think your baby is in good hands?

Yeah, I think he’s... I don’t think I can think of anyone else more appropriate. I mean, he hasn’t done that much feature work, but he has like five things on his plate right now. Supposedly, he might be doing Ant Man for Marvel, and stuff. A couple of other things. I guess you’ve probably never seen his TV series Spaced from the late ’90s?

Nuh uh.

It’s kind of a lot like Scott Pilgrim. It’s about these roommates and their lives kind of turn into pop culture references. The reality kind of warps. It’s a lot like Scott Pilgrim that way. I hadn’t seen it until after the movie deal started happening. But a lot of people said—I mean, a lot of British people, because it never aired here—but they said it reminded them of Spaced, so I think he’s a good fit, and I like his style, visually. I’ve spoken to him a bit, and we get along.

He’s really into being slightly irreverent about it, but making it his own thing. I have some input. It’s been good so far. Apparently they’re almost done with the first draft, so I’m looking forward to seeing it.

What is your involvement with the movie?

I’m gonna get a paycheck as a consultant or something, so hopefully by the end of the year, I’ll hear about that. I’m the guy who made it up, and if they have some questions they want to ask, they’re free to ask me. I mean, they flew me out to Toronto a couple of months ago, and I just sort of chatted with them for a weekend, and we boozed it up a lot.

Yeah, it sounds like I’m a huge boozer now, but I’m not. I never drink alcohol. I almost never drink wine, but tonight Kean Soo is here, and another friend of ours, and we’re kind of just having wine and cheese and watching this French movie, and I just kind of got a little bit tipsy.

You’re half Korean and half French-Canadian. I thought that was interesting; I don’t know why. I’m half Filipino and half cracker.

We’re like a shared race: half Asian. I think that’s like a real thing, in a way.

Do you think that growing up half Korean, which is to say not really white by most people’s estimation, has had any significant effect on your work?

It has a little bit, but I was also a nerd and stuff, so it just kind of augmented the whole outsider thing. I mean, it didn’t really come up until later in high school and college, when I started having other Asian friends. My university had a lot of Asian people, for whatever reason. I guess universities just do.

A lot of my friends were, like, white guys who were rice chasers, or whatever?

(laughs)

So I’d end up at these Asian parties, and I always felt like the Asian people didn’t like me. I felt kind of out of place everywhere. You know, it’s just another thing to whine about. I’m sure that influenced my art in some way, but it kind of sublimated, I think.

When I was growing up, I didn’t really have any real direct knowledge of Filipino culture, [and I] don’t speak a word of Tagalog.

Yeah, I don’t speak Korean or anything. I eat the food, though.

Parlez-vous Français?

Yeah, I don’t speak it very well. I understand it, and I can read it. I don’t know if I could follow that movie we were just watching without subtitles, but I can understand a little bit, and I can read French comic books, because they’re generally aimed at children or something. Idiots.

I get rusty, but once I open a book, I can generally start reading it after a few minutes or so.

Do you have any French cartoonists that you follow?

Not really. I mean, when I lived in Toronto, the Beguiling [imports] lots of French stuff. I mean, I like some of them, but just kind of at a glance. The only thing I really got into, I was really collecting the Dungeon books [by Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar], which are now coming out in English. I really like Christophe Blaine, Trondheim and Sfar. But Blaine is the one I like the most in terms of illustration; he’s just got this really geometric style. And I really the inking of Dupuy and Berbarian, but I can’t say I’ve ever read any of their books—just looked at them.

Drawn & Quarterly [is] supposed to come out with them in English at some point.… How did you get into comics?

I lived in the north, in the boonies, and I was a kid in 1980-whatever, and I was really obsessed with Transformers, but I couldn’t watch the show, because we didn’t have cable. So I found the comic one day at the drug store, or whatever. Transformers #19, and that was my gateway drug, pretty much. Within two or three years, I was reading X-Men. I was really a Marvel person all throughout childhood. I’ve still never read very many DC comics at all.

I grew up with DC.

Well, you’re my mortal enemy.

What was your gateway drug for real comic books, then?

Alternative stuff?

Oh, I’m sorry, “alternative” comics. (laughs)

(laughs) The first one was Bone. It was #19 again, weirdly. It was in my comics shop, which was in the mall when I was 14, and I’d kind of look at Bone #19 every time I went to the comics store to buy Gen 13 or whatever, and I would put it down and then leave. And it was still there, like three weeks later. And eventually I just bought it. It was already kind of beaten up from just me handling it all the time.…

It really haunted me at that age. It was just this one piece of this huge puzzle. It was this part where Phoney has just said that there’s a dragon, and everyone’s threatening him. He’s just in the bar, and he’s really scared, and he goes into this rant about how he’s the dragonslayer. And that’s all, and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. It just really grabbed my imagination, so eventually I started finding random issues of Bone, and I got really into it.

And then the other thing was Seth’s It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken. This was two years later or so, maybe more, because I don’t think that was out at that same time. It just had a map on the back, and I recognized the towns, because he’s basically local to me. And in the book, he goes to London, which is where I lived at the time. So I was like, “Oh wow! Local comics! I’ll buy this! Support local talent!”…  not knowing he was this internationally reknowned guy or whatever.

And I think I bought an issue of The Comics Journal around the same time, which was just like: “WHOOOOAAAA!!!” It had a review of Hicksville, and that just kind of blew my mind. I didn’t even find Hicksville for like two years, but that was my Holy Grail at the time.

What was your first manga?

Well, I started watching anime first, I think, because it was at the video store that (me and my friends) used to go to all the time.

What was your first anime, then?

I think we watched Sailor Moon on TV. That was probably the first thing. But when we started renting it, I think we were into Akira and a random Ranma 1/2 OAV, and some fanasy shit that we didn’t like that much. But Akira and Ranma were like the two things that really got me going when I was probably 16 or 17.

So, then, into the manga…?

It was Ranma. I was like, “Oh, this is the same as the cartoon!” So I started reading those. Nothing major, though. Ranma was really the big one at the time.

Anything since then that you would consider major?

Oh, yeah, for sure. Tons of stuff… but… I don’t know what!

(laughs)

The stuff that I’ve kept —that I would consider the canon at this point, is the first ten volumes of Nana by Ai Yazawa, which just started coming out in English. Planetes is really great. I really like Tokyo Tribes. That’s a newer one.

I don’t know. There’s a lot of stuff—Japanese stuff—that I just looked at the pictures. Certain artists that I really like. There’s this one called My Dear Marie that no one’s picked up yet, for whatever reason. Probably because it’s really dated, but the art in there really blew my mind at the time.

What else? Yuji Iwahara. (He) did that one that just recently came out from the DC manga line called… uh, I’m not sure what the hell they called it, actually. It’s the one with the little sea monster and the two girls or something. It’s called Chikyu Misaki in Japanese, but I don’t know what the English title is. [The CMX edition retains the Japanese title.] I really liked that guy for a long time. He’s a great artist. He’s kind of got a more American style.

I think the first thing that I read of yours was “Baby Food,” which was a side story to Lost at Sea. How did that come about?

Well, Hope [Larson, O’Malley’s wife, as well as the creator of Salamander Dream and Gray Horses] was sort of doing a mini-comic, and she wanted to do this certain weird format, where it was 20 pages on the left and 20 pages the right, sort of like a flip book, but each facing page would be the other person’s story. So, I had this space to fill, so I just kind of wrote a story… and the reason is because we were starting to plan our move out here, this was last summer in Toronto, so I kind of started expressing the idea of moving away and stuff, using those characters, but not using the main characters from Lost at Sea.

So was that after Lost at Sea was completed?

Yeah, it was almost a year after, so it was sort of like revisiting it. I did that story right after I finished Scott Pilgrim, vol 1.

Intense shit happens in “Monica Beetle”

And then during Scott Pilgrim, vol. 2, you did the “Monica Beetle” short for Project Superior.

Yeah. It was about a year ago. (Chris Pitzer) edited the SPX anthology the year before, which I was in, and he really liked my work even though I didn’t really have much out. I think it was before Scott Pilgrim, vol. 1, came out, when he was planning Project Superior, and he asked me to be in it.

Which piece was that, in the SPX…?

It was this other Lost at Sea thing called “Smiling is Something That Other People Do,” and it’s just like another… it’s about sort of a Raleigh-like character when she was a little kid, when they were 10 years old or something like that, and they’re on the highway with their parents.

It’s just kind of a stupid story that I stole from Hope. She’ll never forgive me for it. It’s just Hope and her friend found this giant cat out in the wilds of Chicago, and I stole the idea—the cat thing. I had originally done it as a mini-comic, with a CD, back in 2003, then I revised it and put it in the SPX anthology, because it was about travel that year, so it worked.

Lost at Sea was kind of a quieter and more introspective story than Scott Pilgrim, and you had described [it in a Newsarama interview] as “fairly mopey and adolescent, whereas Scott Pilgrim has a bit more range.” Could you describe the limitations of doing something like Lost at Sea, which was fairly grounded in reality…?

I didn’t find it any more confining; it’s just a different thing. It’s just a different beast entirely. I’m planning another book that’s… actually, it’s going to be completely different, I’m sure, but I’m thinking of it as a book for people who like Lost at Sea, instead of people who like Scott Pilgrim. I’m thinking of it as the book that will disappoint all the Scott Pilgrim fans, once I’m done with the Scott Pilgrim series. I’ve already been planning that for a while.

I guess I’m just trying to approach every project as its own complete thing. So I don’t really feel limited. If I feel limited, it’s by my own design—like I’m imposing these limits on myself. But I’m also young and I’m just getting started, so I’m just doing what I can do in different areas.

One of the things that I love about Scott Pilgrim is that it’s kind of a funny slice-of-life story, and then somewhere along in volume 1, there’s these video game-like fights in it, and a couple of other surreal elements, like Ramona rollerblading through his mind—which… I wasn’t really sure if that was supposed to be literal or not. And, obviously, your answer would be the authoritative one, but I came to the conclusion that it was sort of open for interpretation.

Yeah, I kind of like to leave it, you know, up to you.

I don’t think I’m a really big literalist as a writer. I just kind of go with the flow, and if it seems like an interesting concept, then I’ll just run with it.

What I really loved about [the surreal elements] was how just… perfectly normal it all seems to the characters. I read a preview for the new volume, and the girl with the bionic arm—they’re very impressed by it, they’re shocked, but it doesn’t seem like…

Yeah, they’re not like shocked, like, “Oh my God!”

I think it comes from a couple of places. I mean, it’s really like a manga-ish thing, where they’re just like “WHOOOAA!” about anything. But then another influence in that aspect was Calvin & Hobbes. I mean, the way that he just goes along with everything. All the crazy stuff that happens—it’s just pretty blasé. I mean, up to a point. They’re like, “Wow! Cool!” But it’s not like, “Oh my God! The world has changed!” It’s just sort of… everyday. Not to the point where it’s retarded and you don’t care. I find that kind of annoying.

It definitely contributes to the atmosphere of the book. A lot of the video game elements, like the coins, and the way that’s done almost… I think the first one drops, like, $2.10—Canadian, even.

It’s an automatic exchange rate or something. I didn’t really think about that.

So, you’ve played a lot of video games…

Yeah, as a kid, yeah. Not so many nowadays, but that’s because I’m drawing comics all the time. I’m not “allowed” to play video games. But, yeah, Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega… I had all the systems up until the generation that just passed. I never had Xbox or GameCube. I never had N64.

Obviously Mario Brothers was an influence, but were there any others that affected you profoundly as a child?

Mega Man 3 was this sort of ultimate religious experience when I was, like, 11 or 12. Ninja Gaiden. A couple other games like that. All the Final Fantasy games—the old ones for Super Nintendo and Nintendo were part of the sort of religious experience for me, as a child.

Street Fighter was the whole reason I bought Super Nintendo and a Sega. I got both versions for both systems. I was just… that was the whole thing. Street Fighter was the most important thing when I was 14 or 15. Which is, obviously, kind of reflected in Scott Pilgrim.

Are you planning, at this point, on just going straight from 3 to 4, 5, and 6?

Um… yeah, tentatively. I was planning another book originally [for between volumes 3 and 4], but I kind of scrapped that idea.

I figured… I started looking at the future, and if I dawdle on [Scott Pilgrim], I’ll be doing it ’til I’m 35. If I don’t crank on it, I’ll be 35. I’d kind of like to finish it before I’m out of my twenties, because it feels like that kind of book. It feels like it’ll die when I turn 30.

Volume 3 is late. What do you have to say for yourself?

Well, I moved to the country. It’s like the second time that I’ve moved while in the middle of a book, which is kind of annoying. We also spent most of September on the road, and then October was in the middle, and it didn’t really hold its own. September and November kind of dragged it down, so I just… I wanted to push it back, but it didn’t happen. It was kind of on the schedule, and they’d rather have it on. They’d rather not have to reschedule.… I don’t pretend to understand any of it.

But yeah, it’s my fault. If it’s good, then no one’s going to complain about how late it was after it comes out. They’re just going to complain until the day it comes out. And it happened both times before, so… whatever.

I remember you talking on the Engine a little bit about how your storytelling in the new book has changed. How you’ve got maybe twice as much dialogue per page and a lot higher of a panel count in the regular scenes as opposed to the fight scenes.

It’s just a natural progression. I’ve been working on more… it’s not all super-dense, but there will be certain segments. And there were some like that in volume 2, but maybe not quite to the same degree.

But some of the flashbacks will have lots of small panels. It’s not even a density thing, but an alternate storytelling thing. More quick beats, and small, short lines of dialogue. But there were a couple of scenes like that in volume 2. There’s this one scene where they’re watching a movie or something, and they’re having an argument at the same time, and that had a lot of smaller panels—a faster rhythm like that.

A lot of times when people talk about comics, they talk about pacing and rhythm, all these timing oriented words. I guess a lot of them are more musical. Do you consciously lay your pages out without sort of… almost musical patterns to them?

I noticed if you hold up Lost at Sea, which is not strictly off of a grid, but the panels are all at 90 angles, whereas [in] Scott Pilgrim, when something “exciting” happens—the fights—it’s kind of all over the place. It’s more free-form.

Right. It has its own set of rules, again. I get really annoyed at certain peoples’ layouts. A lot of American comics, where they try to superficially get at the manga aesthetic, they’ll do these jaggy panels, but they’re just haphazard, and it’s ugly and horrible. I’ve seriously studied manga layouts and stuff, and I get really into that sort of thing.

I don’t know. The actions scenes go into the manga look, page layout-wise. They’re very manga-ish. The normal scenes are a combo of that and sort of… I was really into Paul Pope’s layouts for a while. His layouts are really manga oriented, too, but they kind of use different shapes than the Japanese would. Kind of flatter, wider panels—more of a widescreen aspect ratio kind of thing.

But I’m still kind of finding my place in terms of layout, and Scott Pilgrim sort of has its own rhythm, but I don’t really think of it musically, as I’m doing the layout. I think of it more aesthetically: design-wise and facing pages. I like the pages to look nice, even if there’s no art on them. I like it to be balanced, and… sort of, like, pretty.

You know, now that you mentioned Paul Pope, there are a few similarities in your brushstroke… Is he a conscious influence?

What it is, is he’s sort of a past, huge influence, and then I sort of absorbed it after a while. But I used to try to draw exactly like Paul Pope for a while, like five years ago.

Lately my brush work is more influenced by… I’ve been looking at a lot of old ’70s manga and stuff. They used thicker lines and brushstrokes. More of an active line, which I like.

Any particular creators?

No. It’s hard to find that stuff out here. But I’ve seen it here and there, and I’m like, “Wow! I’m going to do that.” It’s one of those things where I’m influenced by something before I’ve even read it. I’m influenced by my own idea of it, or something like that? But Rumiko Takahashi sort of has that look, and the other one that I actually did look at was this thing called Knights of the Zodiac [by Masami Kurumada]. It’s in the Viz Shonen Jump line.

Do you consider Scott Pilgrim to be manga?

Um… No, I think I was just thinking about that today. I guess I was just thinking about the whole OEL thing. I think it’s influenced… I like the term “manga-influenced comics,” but I only like it because no one else likes it.

Scott gets ready to whoop some ass in Scott Pilgrim, vol. 3

I don’t know that I want the term “manga,” really, anymore. I mean, my own thing is derivative in a way, but it’s not completely derivative like I consider OEL manga to be completely derivative. I don’t think it has that much room for originality, like, at all. I mean, I used to do it, so I feel like I have a little bit of authority on the subject. I just think they should grow up, get out, and get over it. But maybe I’m just being a jerk. I don’t know.

It just seems, to me, like they’re kind of co-opting a style without consciously…

…without really bringing anything of their own. I mean, I like the fact that Rivkah’s comic—which I have read—is about a Texan girl and a senator, and it’s kind of got an American basis in reality, which is good. Because most of this stuff that I was looking at when I was doing that stuff was just, like, people with Japanese names, like, you know, schoolgirls running late for school with toast in their mouth. And that was, like, the whole thing. That was the whole online manga-by-Americans movement—that kind of shit—for a long time.

Do you have any other side projects coming up?

No, I’m… I’ve been asked that recently a couple times, but it’s like, no, I don’t have time for that shit!

But you did do two single page stories for You Ain’t No Dancer.

Yeah, but that was a while ago. I think that was during volume 2. It was before we moved here… It just came out in September, but there was a huge lead time on that. I did it back in February [of 2005] or something. So during volume 2, I did those two things—I did Project Superior and I did You Ain’t No Dancer.

But I don’t really have anything else lined up like that. It’s just this book, and then I’m kind of like scrambling ideas for the next book, which might be years off at this point.…

And, you know, hopefully the movie thing will move ahead, so I’m kind of leaving a little bit of space in my schedule for that.


[The following was conducted over e-mail in early May, 2006, shortly after the release of Free Scott Pilgrim for Free Comic Book Day 2006:]

Has the Scott Pilgrim movie moved forward at all, since we last spoke?

They finished a draft of the screenplay in... February? March? And they’re working on another draft…. Edgar is shooting Hot Fuzz [a crime comedy of some sort, according to IMDB] into the first week of June, I believe, and then I think he’ll have some more breathing space, and we’ll see where things stand.

I know you were skipping around the book while you were drawing volume 3—do you just draw pages or scenes in whatever order you choose and kind of fit them together as you go along, or do you have things mapped out pretty tightly before you start to draw anything at all?

I had things mapped out pretty closely. I had an outline listing all the scenes and roughly how many pages they’d take in comics form, and I had most of a full dialogue script, although I tend to change dialogue a lot on the fly.

The main thing that makes me jump around is if I’m having trouble with a scene, or if I just dread drawing it. I tend to save some of the most complex scenes for last, and certain scenes ended up being drawn very slowly over the course of the entire process. I also save stupid stuff for last which I know I can fake my way through in a hurry. I feel bad about that stuff right now, but I’m hoping it just flows with the book. I spent a lot more time on this book and did a lot more editing and reworking as I went, so anything that didn’t get reviewed at the end is terrifying to me right now (I haven’t seen the printed version yet).

Where did the idea for Free Scott Pilgrim come from? When we spoke the first time, you’d said, “I don’t have time for that shit!”—meaning side projects.

I don’t consider Free Scott Pilgrim a side project. It’s more of a promotional thing for the main project. A lot more copies get printed, and it’s a good way to get people who were on the fence to pick up the comic, read it, and decide whether they want to check out the series. I still don’t have time for other shit.

Where does (the Free Scott Pilgrim book) fit into the larger narrative?

The Free book comes between volume 3 and 4. Obviously my lateness made it such that volume 3 wasn’t out before FCBD, but I tried to make the FCBD thing completely spoiler-free. I would have done that anyway, since it’s aimed at a much wider audience than the books have been to date.

Do you plan on including it in the next volume?

I probably will. Volume 4 will probably have a lot of pages.

Have you settled on what you’re work on next, now that Volume 3 is about to hit the shelves, or are you still kind of weighing things out?

I’m going right into volume 4.


Scott Pilgrim is ™ and © 2006 Bryan Lee O’Malley. Images are used with permission.