A Conversation With Bryan Lee O’Malley – SPX 2008


by

Sunday, June 27, 2010


From "Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour" (vol. 6); color by Dylan McCrae

On October 4, 2008, I had the pleasure of conducting a live q&a session with Bryan Lee O’Malley as part of the programming slate for the 2008 Small Press Expo. O’Malley is the creator of the popular Scott Pilgrim series of bookshelf-format comics, soon to see its sixth and final volume released on July 20, 2010, along with a motion picture adaptation directed by Edgar Wright, set to premiere in North America on August 13, 2010.

Moreover, O’Malley is perhaps the most visible face of a young comics-making generation liable to draw considerable influence from international comics art, and pursue means of distribution outside of the classical comic book format – his background is in webcomics, and his print-format career, est. 2001, traces the meteoric growth of manga as a presence in English-language North American comics reading. Even if we set visual qualities aside, it is striking that so many of O’Malley’s cited influences are comics and animation material targeted at women and girls; just one reading generation prior, this would have been almost unthinkable, as American comics had by and large abandoned that demographic as insignificant.

Yet O’Malley also keenly distinguishes between manga traditions — boys’ comics, girls’ comics, ’70s Golden Age traits, anime-adapted tropes — and applies them to a grander, evolutionary metaphor in Scott Pilgrim, a romance comic (and so much more!) about leveling yourself up by understanding your lover’s (possibly storied) romantic history, and confronting the negative traits “evil” ex-boyfriends might represent. Gaming action hangs over everything as a looser, atmospheric metaphor for personal myth-making; video games don’t function as ‘literature,’ not like books, but they are eminently applicable in their social role-playing capacity.

What follows is a record of our live q&a, transcribed by me, and edited to remove ums and ahs and hanging sentences. Keep in mind, this was 2008, so the currently most-recent book of the series, Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, had not yet been released. Many thanks to Chris Mautner, aka “Audience #8,” for recording the panel (his own thoughts on Scott Pilgrim are hereby commended to your attention), and Bill Kartalopoulos, for shepherding the event into reality.

***

[JOE MCCULLOCH] Hello, how are you?

[BRYAN LEE O’MALLEY] I’m not bad. It’s been a busy morning.

Yeah, I’d imagine. So let’s start out by – if you could just tell us about your first experiences with comics? Just earliest—

Just sort of in general?

Yeah.

I feel like I always kind of read comics, in some way, y’know, words and pictures. But the first real time I thought of comics as comics was when I started reading Transformers comics, when I was six or seven years old. Because it was the height of the popularity of the cartoon, and I didn’t have access to the cartoon show? Because I lived in the far north, and we didn’t have that on our tv, I guess? It’s like when we went down to Toronto we could watch it on a tv there because they could catch it from Buffalo or something like over across the lake. But no, up north, no Transformers, they didn’t broadcast it in Canada. So I found the comics at the drugstore or something, in Timmins, Ontario, where I was young. And that was my first comic book.

His first issue; art by Herb Trimpe

Now, you and I, we’re of essentially the same generation, I think?

Yeah. You were born in ’79, ’80?

I was born in ’81. So we’re pretty close to each other, and I think we might have similar experience, that I know you got heavily into manga and such when you were a teenager. Did you get there from watching anime, or…?

Ok, let me think. From Transformers I went to X-Men, and I was into Marvel, and all of those sort of mind-reader youth we bought as a teenager. And then in my teen years, I guess I was about 16 or so, YTV in Canada, which is kind of like their equivalent of Nickelodeon, started playing the Sailor Moon cartoon? Which, I mean, I guess later I found out was the place that played it the most. And so the Sailor Moon thing just kind of blew it wide open for me, like I’d seen a little bit of Robotech here and there, but like I said, when I was a kid I didn’t really have access to it, the cool cartoons. So that was the first time I really saw Japanese animation, so I was just really obsessed for the last few years of high school.

Yeah.

And from that I got into the manga, obviously, which was kind of in its nascence at that time, anime in America, like I started reading the Viz Ranma ½ translations, which used to still come in floppy issues. And then from there, the manga stuff kind of somehow led me to more independent American comics again. Maybe because it was black & white? Like it opened the door to black and white stuff?

You didn’t get into any of the Image Comics revolution?

Oh no, I did. I was the exact right age to be suckered by— [laughter]

So was I, man.

I was, y’know, eleven or twelve, and Youngblood #1 came out, and everyone was just like, oh my gaawd!

Shadowhawk’s cracking people’s backs, man. [laughter]

Yeah, so my favorite one was Marc Silvestri’s—what was it called?

[VARIOUS AUDIENCE] Cyberforce!

And, yeah, it had like, dudes with four arms, and hot girls. And so I was really into that, that was like what I drew when I was 14, 15, just starting high school. I drew this really teeth-gritting, hard-boiled, like—and I drew girls, but I had no knowledge of real anatomy and stuff. [laughter] So it was just, y’know, boobs on a dude. [laughter]

Now, around this time, when you were a teenager, I believe you started doing web comics, or at least posting comics online?

Yeah, well I think how it started was, I – I was thinking about this actually while we were driving up yesterday. Like a lot of people will do caricatures of their ugly teacher or whatever in class, but I was never really interested in that. What I would do was draw comics just about my friends, I’d turn them kind of into cute, sort of deformed versions of themselves, in manga style, and I did this comic strip every day for a couple months. And that, I think – I completely blanked, what was the question again?

Like, for example, when posting comics online –

Oh yeah, getting it online.

How did you go about it at that time?

From "Glorious You."; webcomic, 2000

Right. Ok, so I first got the internet in 1996, I think? And it was still a weird, wild thing back then, so I started a website, one of those super-lame – I didn’t have any sparkly text or any of that stuff. [laughter] And I started drawing this one comic before I got on the internet, and then, I had this thing at that time where I could never get past, like, thirteen pages of a comic, before getting bored of it? So I did thirteen pages of one version and thirteen pages of another version, and I posted a third version, and – I’ve completely lost a lot of stuff. Anyway, it was pretty bad, but once you get on the internet, especially back then, I just started talking to some people, and some of them, we’re still friends, but I figure they could be in this room and stuff. I got involved in this sort of drawing group commune thing in my area, in Ontario. And I would start taking trips to Toronto to hang out with them every couple months or whatever, when I was about 19 or 20.

Now when you were making these comics, was your interest in manga and anime strongly informing you at that point?

Yeah, more the anime then, but I’d not really cracked the idea that manga was constructed a certain way. I was just interested in the looks, which I think most people are, especially at that age. So I drew characters with really spiky hair and big eyes, and doing goofy stuff. And stupid situations that you would never think of unless you’d watched a lot of anime. Like, always comics about boarding school. A girl running late for school with toast in her mouth. [laughter]

Now I think in the early ’00s, basically, how did you come by Oni Press? I think you were initially drawing the second Hopeless Savages miniseries? [Hopeless Savages: Ground Zero]

Yeah, I can kind of work my way up to that. In the late ’90s, there was a thing on the internet called the Warren Ellis Forum?

Oh yeah!

It was created by Warren Ellis. And it was a forum. [laughter] A lot of people of my generation of comics creators, writers and artists both, kind of gestated there.

That was a really huge community at that time.

His first print-format page, from "Last Shot" #1; lettering by O'Malley, pencils/inks by Long Vo, colors by Charles Park & Saka

Yeah, like so, Brian Wood, Matt Fraction – those are two big names to come out of that. Um, and me, but I was not really very active in that community, I would just sort of lurk and occasionally post. After that I had some friends through the kind of anime fan rec.-type stuff who were doing a comic with – what was it called? Pat Lee’s company? Dreamwave. Which dissolved, like, a year later. [NOTE: Specifically, Dreamwave broke away from Image in 2002 and functioned as an independent publishing company until 2005.] But at that time they were pumping out a lot of stuff, making a lot of money. So they were doing a book with them [Last Shot, created by Studio XD], so I went down to California in 2001 and helped them work on this book, which ended up just being with Image central, because Dreamwave had already kind of domineered. And then, while I was there, we went to the Chicago – Wizard World, I guess? And that’s where I was introduced to James Lucas Jones, who is now the editor in chief. And I have him under my thumb. [laughter] I’m kidding. But yeah, I was introduced to him and then I went back home to London, Ontario, at the end of 2001, and I inked an issue of Queen & Country [#5, Nov. 2001] for them, which was not good inking. And then they offered me to do Hopeless Savages, which was – it took most of 2002, I guess, to do four issues.

Now was this the first time you’d worked from someone else’s script?

Yeah.

How did that experience mesh with you?

It totally drove me crazy. But, it was good, y’know, because I didn’t – it’s not like I was a really good writer when I was 22. It made me see things that writer [Jen Van Meter] could do right and do wrong. It’s always a good learning experience. If you look at that book, from each issue I was trying really different things. And I learned. Something. I think.

From "Hopeless Savages: Ground Zero"; script by Jen Van Meter

After that you went into Lost at Sea [published Nov. 2003], and I’m not totally clear on the chronology there. I think there was some material from that that appeared on the internet, or was that an online project?

Oh, what it was – I think in 2001, the same time I was doing Queen & Country, before Hopeless Savages, Oni had been doing these Sunday comics on their website?

Yeah.

Which was – it never kept up with it. Basically they would just forget, or stuff like that, and it would always drop off, and then they’d start up again. But I did six strips, and that was the first stuff I did for them. I think they paid me money for those. Like $75 a strip, which was cool. So that was just kind of a rough draft version of the story. And I didn’t start it in earnest until after Hopeless Savages.

Did you pitch to them from those comics?

No, actually I pitched a few things to Oni in 2001, and Lost at Sea was the one that they liked the most. Because it had cats in it. Yeah, that was back when Jamie S. Rich used to be the editor in chief, and he was more sort of into – my girly inclinations, I guess? So they liked that, but they made me do Hopeless Savages – they didn’t make me, but I did it, and it took me way longer than it should have. So I didn’t start Lost at Sea until January of 2003.

From "Lost at Sea"

Going from one book to another, from Lost at Sea to the first Scott Pilgrim [Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, 2004], did any reactions to that book play in as to what to do with the next project?

Only from, kind of my friends who I gave a copy of Lost at Sea, and they were just like, “what’s this?” Or, y’know, they thought it was just too whatever. Too – not too anything, really. They didn’t see in it what they saw in me when they’re hanging out with me and drinking and whatever we’re doing. So, what I wanted to do was do something that was kind of more – something that would entertain them, I guess?

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about the first Scott Pilgrim is that is seems very deliberately paced, so to speak, in that it begins as a comedic relationship story, and then you gradually introduce the subspace from Super Mario [Brothers] 2, and there’s people skating through each other’s minds, until finally it’s just complete fight scenes, and the fantasy kind of explodes. Did you – how did you plan out that, where…?

I think a lot of it came in little bits here and there. I had been thinking of Scott Pilgrim since early 2002, but I didn’t start writing it properly until early 2004. So, little things came here and there, so it’s really hard for me to have a timeline of when ideas showed up, because – originally it was supposed to be one book, and it just grew and grew. The seven evil ex-boyfriends thing came a little later, like – but what was the story going to be before that? I have no idea. As to the whole “it grows into something else,” I feel like there was an element of me just kind of wanting to trick people. I always have had that. And I would deny it. I probably still would deny it if somebody asked me in an interview – but I don’t want to say that, it’s not true.

Approaching this book, did you write it out beforehand? Did you do a full script?

I do, yeah. Ever since Lost at Sea I write a full script. I kind of feel like it goes back to the Hopeless Savages thing, where I didn’t write the script.

Your early exposure to that.

Yeah, so I just thought that was kind of the way it was done, and so I started doing it that way myself.

From "Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life" (vol. 1)

All through this time you’re continuing to read a lot of comics yourself, a lot of manga.

Right.

What kind of – and I know you’re a very broad reader of certain manga. What sort of things do you think had an effect on your drawing style? Because your style, I would say, makes a pretty significant leap between Lost at Sea and Scott Pilgrim.

I don’t know. I used to know. There was a lot of weird stuff that went into it. I feel like I didn’t start to see stuff that looked more like Scott Pilgrim until after I’d already drawn it. Which is weird. The eyes came from – this friend of mine on the internet drew a series of pictures of the female reindeer from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the stop-motion cartoon?

Yeah.

They have eyes like that!

Yeah!

So the eyes are from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. [laughter]

The eyes came from Disney first.

Yeah, was it Disney? I don’t know.

Yeah, Disney and Fleischer [Studios]. Actually, on that, you read a lot of Osamu Tezuka work, and actually we were talking before and you’d expressed this affinity for, like, “bad” Tezuka –

Oh yeah, I forgot to bring that one. Yeah, because we were talking about this anime called Kaiba, I dunno if any of you’ve seen it, it hasn’t been officially released in America, I think, but it looks like a cartoon from the 1930s in this really weird way. And the early Tezuka stuff that I’ve found has been – it’s like he was 20-whatever. He was a kid. Maybe not even 20.

He was, like, 17 when he started out.

Yeah, so I have one of his books, called something about the people underground [The Mysterious Underground Men, 1948], and it’s just – it’s not that good, there’s only about three panels per page and they’re full of all these people, and his drawings are kind of limp and noodly. They’re not really very technically proficient.

And he’s a tricky one to pin down, because he had a habit of revising things a lot as he went along. So it’s kind of strange to find that kind of work in his early stuff –

Yeah.

What attracts you to it?

I don’t know! It’s just kind of the badness and naïveté of it, that – it’s just appealing. I mean, my work has its own share of badness and naïveté I didn’t intentionally put in there. I didn’t really get solidly into Tezuka until midway through Scott Pilgrim. Just the last few years I’ve really been into it. And you know, we’ve seen a flood of translated works, which is great.

I’m interested that you read a lot of works, shonen works and shojo works, intended for boys and girls, and I think over time those have developed their own specific idiom, their own iconography that each of them use, and I’d be interested in what you take from both of those. Like what are the elements that attract you, that you combine?

From "Nana"; art & script by Ai Yazawa (reads right-to-left)

Well, when I first started Scott Pilgrim one of my main influences was Nana, which Viz has started putting out. Ai Yazawa, yeah. I’d read Paradise Kiss, which Tokyopop put out in the late ’90s – no, more like 2002. And Nana was just in French at the time [published by Delcourt], Viz didn’t start putting it out until 2005. So I read the whole thing in French, which – my French is really bad, so it was hard to read. It felt, almost, that reading it in French was a completely different experience. And it felt more foreign than a manga generally does? ‘Cause they were all speaking French and using French slang and stuff. So it felt like a French-Japanese comic, which is really weird, but it colored my impression of the book. But the thing about Nana that I liked was that it’s for slightly older girls. And it’s sort of about twenty-somethings, and it kind of just reflected what I was going through in my life at the time. Not really, because it’s all crazy, but – it shares some plot elements I guess with Scott Pilgrim. Like, there’s old friends who’ve gone on to become famous, and stuff like that. And in my life, as I’ve gone through Scott Pilgrim, I’ve encountered more famous people, and I’ve become famous to some degree, so that has also kind of stayed there.

You’ve also mentioned you enjoy a lot of ’70s – older manga. I know you like Knights of the Zodiac [aka: Saint Seiya, created by Masami Kurumada, serialized 1986-91].

Oh yeah, I brought those. I’m sure you’ve seen it, but – I just brought a bunch of crap. In my robot bag. [laughter]

Actually, because I don’t know if you’ve seen this – I was looking around on the internet, and on ComiPress they had this translation of this book by a guy named Takeo Udagawa. It was called Manga Zombie, and I don’t know if you’ve seen that, but he had this thesis in it, and this was written in the mid-‘90s [1997], and it was that as manga went on into the ‘80s and the financial bubble kind of took over, it became less about stories and more about characters in situations, and the art became slicker, less idiosyncratic. I know you have great admiration for ‘70s manga – do you ever get that impression?

Definitely into the ‘90s. I still feel like ‘80s stuff, a lot of it is really weird and, y’know, idiosyncratic. I have this one, I think it’s from the ‘80s. It’s called MAPS [created by Yuichi Hasegawa, serialized 1985-94]. I used to go to this used manga store in Toronto, and MAPS is just this insane space opera from the late ‘80s. I remember it’s the late ‘80s because it’s around the same time the Nintendo games were coming out, and so it has the same sensibility, but in manga form. So it’s about these hot space chicks, and there’s like – the spaceships look like girls, they’re giant girls going like this. [laughter] It’s so weird. And there’s these ugly aliens and this hot hero guy whose hair is just like whoosh. It’s really fun.

Do you read a lot of manga in Japanese?

Well, yeah, “read” is not the right word. I definitely have way too many of them.

How does that wash over you, without reading the language?

It’s great, actually. My favorite one for that is this book called Living Game. It’s from the early ‘90s [serialized 1990-93], by Mochiru Hoshisato. It’s what you’d call seinen manga [aimed at teenage males or older]. It’s about a guy in his mid-20s, and it’s kind of like an office comedy but with a romance. He’s in love with a 17-year-old girl. It’s creepy, but it’s kind of like a more grown-up Rumiko Takahashi [Ranma ½, InuYasha] in terms of art style. And I really love his paneling. Looking at untranslated manga, you can’t get sucked into the words and start reading it, because if you’re reading a comic in English you look at it and just sit there. This way I can flip through it and look at his construction – the shapes of the panels, the size of the figures, the placement of the balloons and stuff. It’s looking at comics without being distracted, I guess.

From "Living Game" (scanlated version); art & script by Mochiru Hoshisato (reads right-to-left)

That’s a good way of putting it. There’s another side of manga – going on through the Scott Pilgrim books, you do a continuous chapter numbering, as a manga collection would if it was being serialized. That strikes me as interesting because I think what we have as “manga” now in the United States, North America, is kind of an illusion, really –

In terms of the delivery system, yeah.

Because we get these collections and they appear on the bookstore comics shelves, and we don’t have any of the economic basis for serialization, and for paying people, giving them –

A living wage.

Yeah. Or even for fronting them the money to put together the studios that are used to do a lot of weekly stuff. And a lot of these, especially in the last 20 years, a lot of manga has been editorially driven work, I think. A lot of response card-driven work. And I think inevitably there’s some improvisation that works its way in.

Right.

What was your thinking in using this almost “serialization” style in Scott Pilgrim, although it’s not a serial? Is that a means of pacing, or…?

It is, it’s because I don’t really break down the chapters the same way. You would if it was serialized. I like to tell the story as the story, rough and tumble. And I think I started reading it as more of an aesthetic choice, even with the size of the books and things like that – I just wanted it to resemble manga as a presentation. Not even because I wanted it to “be” manga, just sort of that effect.

When you’re doing different chapters of Scott Pilgrim, as the volumes have gone on, have you gotten a lot of feedback from editorial or from readers?

Not from editorial. No, Oni doesn’t really edit me so much. I used to be really resistant to the idea of editing, so I think they kind of decided just not to talk to me about it anymore. [O‘Malley laughs] But somehow I ended up liking it. I guess chapter by chapter, not really so much. I think they just want to see the book as a whole, which is how I want it to be, I guess.

Do you continue now to use full scripts? Do you work it out by chapter?

I do. I tried to, in the new book I’m working on [Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, 2009], to use the chapters more to my advantage. And to the reader’s advantage too, just to tell a sort of complete story in each chapter, like to have the beats and have it be satisfying by itself. Because I feel like sometimes I really drop the ball on that. The other thing I’m trying to do is, just for myself, to do each chapter and then move on to the next one. Which I’ve never done before, it’s marvelous and new. Because working on a 200-page book is insane, it boggles the mind everyday. The chapters are about 30 pages, so if you can conceivably do that in a month or so – it’s really cool, instead of having it to be, like, “oh my god, I am eight months from finishing what I’m working on right now,” and then just wanting to go lie down. Because that’s how I feel everyday. [laughter]

So do you feel, concentrating on chapters, there’s more improvisation in the storytelling, or are you as deliberate as you were before?

No, I’m if anything more deliberate now. I did write out this book, it took me a really long time. It took me, like, eight months to script the whole thing. I rewrote it three times, I think. And I just want it to be really solid and complete as a work and to call back to the right things in the previous books and to set up the plots in the last book [Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, 2010]. It’s a balancing act.

From "Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness" (vol. 3)

I’ve noticed particularly in vol. 4 [Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, 2007] there’s a pretty big artistic leap from the previous ones. It was airier, essentially. There’s more space in it. When you’re finished with one volume, do you consider the next volume as “this is what I want to try and break myself into next”?

I think so, to some degree. But I think a lot of it is just sort of a natural time thing. Just the fact that it takes me a certain amount of time to write the book? And during that time I’m not really drawing as much, I’m not drawing steadily, so by the time I pick up the pen again some things grow in unexpected ways. So it always changes a bit. I feel the new book has just as much of an artistic leap as the last one. The airiness you were talking about – in vol. 4 I stopped putting shading on characters, because I noticed they don’t do that in manga. And then I realized that it made a lot of sense. So I’m trying to keep the characters more open. Tezuka does that; the characters are just fat, round shapes, and they don’t get – it’s really hard to describe. But I thought that would be better, so they’ve got more white space, black space, and that’s it.

Scott Pilgrim has always come off to me as kind of an index of things you enjoy. It seems a very comprehensive mix of your interests. Like, in vol. 4, there’s romantic stuff, and then right after that would be pulling the blade of love out of him, and then there’s a Ninja Gaiden kind of showdown. I’m wondering, a lot of the – do you do much video gaming these days, by the way?

Not nearly as much as I used to, because – it’s time. If you want to get graphic novels finished you can’t play Grand Theft Auto. They’re mutually exclusive.

A lot of the video game stuff in Scott Pilgrim seems based in the 8-bit Nintendo period.

Yeah, it’s a lot of looking back, and it’s not even just the Nintendo. A lot of it’s looking back to when I was 12, which is the whole feeling of living your life that way. The one thing I do play is my – I have a [Nintendo] DS now. Actually my publisher bought it for me for my birthday. Which is a bad idea. [laughter] It’s really good because you don’t have to play it for hours and hours, days, nights. They have a lot of older games being revived for that system, and it feels more like I like video games to be.

The presentation in Scott Pilgrim of these elements, would you say some of it is an expression of your past?

Yeah, definitely. A lot of it is about memory and nostalgia. It’s not really to be taken completely literally.

I admired how, starting with the second volume, there starts being flashbacks, and it becomes this decade-spanning story. Were you especially looking back on your life at that point?

I think so. There’s a lot of – I definitely am. Like I said, it’s about memory, and it’s about this guy’s – one year of his life.

From "Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together" (vol. 4)

Do you keep up on any American comics these days, or any manga-influenced comics these days? Because I think some of the really heavy manga-influenced comics are from maybe a later generation than you or I, who got into this kind of by anime?

Yeah.

Do you get anything from looking at those works?

Do you have any specifics? I haven’t read a lot of them. I was doing, like, webcomics.

I was going to think of, like, Brandon Graham, who does King City

He’s older than me.

Yeah.

A lot older. Way older than me. [laughter] Yeah, I met him – I think in 2001. He used to do these porn comics. He really likes porn. [laughter] I think his influences are completely different from mine. He recently listed off his top 12 comics, and I think I’ve read maybe one of them.

He’s pretty heavy into European influences.

Yeah, he’s into Moebius and that school, and I’ve never read any of that stuff.

Are there any younger artists these days that you follow around, or is the constraints on your time too much?

Well, I also moved to a town where we don’t have a comics store, so I’m not really with it. I really like Kaz Strzepek, or however he pronounces his stupid name. [laughter] He has a comic called The Mourning Star, that’s here somewhere. He’s at the Bodega booth. His book is square. You should buy it, it’s really, really good – I don’t know how to describe it. It’s almost like an Akira Toriyama [Dr. Slump, Dragon Ball] kind of comic -

Yeah, there’s a little of that in there.

And it’s also kind of like Dungeon, the French comics [created by Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim], and it’s about these little dudes in this fantasy kingdom and there’s this rebellion, but it’s really weird and really individual.

As comics expands, and I think the industry is continuing to expand these days, there’s a lot of different venues for creators to get stuff out. Do you have any particular advice on getting works seen, like to a young artist?

I strongly believe in webcomics. I think I’ll probably wind up doing more webcomics in the future. It’s a no-brainer to me, you should do that. That’s how I started; when I met James at Oni, he had already seen my webcomics, I’d already sent him stuff before I met him in real life, which kind of sealed the deal. Just having yourself on the internet is really cheap and manageable, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort, and it’s really easy to show to people. And then if the right person sees it, or if it catches on, it’ll be seen by way more people than you can even conceive of. We did this comic called Bear Creek Apartments a couple months ago, and it caught on like nothing else like I’d ever done quite like that. It got seen by millions of people a day.

On that particular comic you were working with [spouse] Hope Larson. Did she do a full script for you, or was that a different collaboration?

She did. There was an opportunity to write it for something else, and then that fell though; she had already written it, and I think she was planning to draw it for herself originally. But the timing was weird, she was already starting her next book, so I offered to draw it. It took me eight months to draw 16 pages, which is really bad, and she was really mad at me for the entire eight months. [laughter] But, y’know, it finally got done; it’s all erased.

From "Bear Creek Apartments"; script by Hope Larson

You used some interesting color effects there. Were you experimenting with color in that?

Yeah. I’ve always wanted to do a watercolor comic, that was one of the reasons I wanted to do this comic in the first place, I thought it’d be really cool as an experimental sort of thing. And I want to do more – I started doing watercolors a few years ago just to make money when I was poor. And to learn. So, I really like watercolors, it was a lot of fun, I don’t think I used them in the “right” way, if there is one? But I think what I produced looks ok. That comic was watercolor, a little bit of crayon – because I have a box of crayons. And a little bit of computer graphics.

Let’s see – I think we’ll turn it over to the audience, actually.

What time is it?

It’s almost a quarter of four.

Oh, ok.

Yeah, I think we’ll turn this over to the audience for some questions. You can pick. Just anyone.

Right. I’m trying to remember everyone’s name. I can’t, I’m sorry. You there!

[AUDIENCE #1] Hi, I noticed as the series goes on there’s some kind of increasing prevalence of themes of same-sex attraction and love. And I noticed this in the way that Knives and Kim Pine share a moment, and Ramona’s past with Roxanne Richter, and I’m especially curious about the true nature of the relationship between Scott and Wallace, like why is it that Wallace puts up with so much of Scott’s crap? [laughter] Like, what are his motivations? Is it just kind of protective or is there something more he feels for him?

Uh – [laughter] I feel that you should write an essay on that or something. Because you could probably get way more insight into it than I really have. Because – a lot of stuff like that is, it just kind of trickled out, you know, I just keep stuff for fun. I support the gay rights movement. Or whatever? I don’t really have that much insight into it. I drew the girls kissing because I thought it would blow certain people’s minds. [laughter] I didn’t really have a deeper motivation for that. As for Wallace and Scott, it’s just – I used to have a gay roommate, and I – I don’t want to, like, delve too deep into it, I suppose. Like right now. But – I think you’re correct. I don’t know if you actually made a statement? [laughter] Sorry, that’s all I’ve got.

[AUDIENCE #2] Could you give us anything about the movie buzz? Like, a lot of buzz about the movie, like Mike Cera, and Simon Pegg as director?

Yeah. Simon Pegg is not the director, ah, Edgar Wright is the director – [audience member laughs] Sorry. It’s true, it’s not a rumor, the option was signed in 2005, so it’s been around for a while. Edgar Wright is the director, Michael Cera is in it, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is in it. Um, and that’s all I can tell you.

How do you feel about feel about it moving to the next medium, from – or, do you feel it’s constraining your story, or do you feel, like -

No, I feel like it has no relation to my story, and I’m not interested in moving to film. I don’t think they have as much in common as people think they have. I’m only interested in comics.

[AUDIENCE #3] Do you think that it would be better if they used the animation medium instead of film?

No. [laughter] I’m not really into animation anymore. Nothing against it, but in this particular case I don’t see any way how it could have gotten made if I wanted it to be animated. Which I never really did. I don’t think – especially when this deal had started I had only finished the first book, and I don’t think my art was that strong. And I didn’t particularly want to see it animated, and no one asked anyway. I feel like, it’s about – it’s not supposed to be about cartoon people, it’s supposed to be real people. And, y’know, the comic figures just sort stand in for real people. So I’d like to see it with real people.

[AUDIENCE #4] What are you doing after Scott Pilgrim?

Uh, I can’t tell you. [laughter] It’s very deeply in the works. If I told you it’d totally change by the time it came out. So, sorry.

[AUDIENCE #5] In the first Scott Pilgrim, you set up that Scott has to fight the evil exes, and he does and he beats him in the end, but in the second, third and fourth ones he kind of eludes that final fight, and what was the thinking behind that?

I really like being anti-climactic, almost all the time. It’s not really a good tendency, but – [laughter] I don’t know, I feel like as it goes on I’m less and less interested in the concept of evil ex-boyfriends. But, y’know, I’m sticking with it. It’s going ok. The next one has more of a final confrontation.

From "Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe" (vol. 5)

[JOE MCCULLOCH] I like that a lot of the evil ex-boyfriends are kind of defeated by their hubris, mostly.

Yeah. Because a lot of this is a big fat metaphorical construct for certain things. So it’s – I like fighting but I don’t really like – I mean I don’t like fighting, I like the idea that comics have fighting in them. [laughter] It seems like they should. So that was one of the reasons why I wanted to do it. It’s not really a logical reason, it’s a feeling thing. I like drawing fights, but I don’t like taking up a lot of the book with fights, so they end up being three pages long, which is not enough. But my priorities lie elsewhere I think. So it’s just one element among many.

Do you ever feel the urge to do, like, a Slam Dunk, where the final basketball scene is seven volumes long or something?

I do, [laughter], I mean intellectually, but – I don’t really want to draw that much. [laughter] It’s so much work!

[AUDIENCE #6] Ok, so when he beats the guys, the evil ex-boyfriends, and they disappear and turn into coins or 1ups or whatever -

This is going to be a big question.

Are they dead?

Um -

Did he kill them? [laughter]

I’ve actually been asked that before. I don’t remember if – I think I just ran away. [laughter] No, I don’t – I don’t want to answer, I guess, because the series isn’t done, and maybe I can conceivably answer the question in the series. But I’m not. But I might! [laughter] It’s, ah, [whispers] it’s a metaphor! [laughter] I don’t know. Sorry. Sorry I’m not good at answering questions.

[AUDIENCE #7] While we’re on the subject of Scott Pilgrim, mass murderer – [laughter] I’m kidding. Bear Creek Apartments was brilliant, and -

Thank you.

And tightly – I mean it was a 16-page story that was a complete thing, it had the twist thing going for it, but you also had a lot of insight into the character, and there was the potential for it to be, y’know, so much more than what it was. Will you all be working together, or was it too traumatic?

It was traumatic for her, mostly, because I was just inching forward, and she was, like, [high-pitched voice] “do you want to do it or not?” [laughter] But I did want to do it, I did do it, and I would like to do more stuff with her eventually.

From "Bear Creek Apartments"; script by Hope Larson

The storytelling and the art were perfect, and the story was written great, it was just – you read a lot of anthologies and things and you see people take their pages and they go nowhere with it, and then you see something that’s just 16 pages and it was complete, it was funny -

I mean, she’s a really good writer. She’s a good writer, and she wants to kind of transition more into writing for other people, which is – that’s her first step in that direction, I guess. And it was fun for me to kind of apply what I wanted in Scott Pilgrim to something that’s not Scott Pilgrim for the first time in a while.

[JOE MCCULLOCH] Actually, on that point, I know you’ve been in some anthologies – what are your feelings on anthologies versus putting something on the web for people to access?

I just turned one down. I don’t – I feel like there’s a lot of them lately, is that true?

I would say there are more.

Image alone has like -

Oh yeah.

Five to ten -

Yeah, yeah.

I think they’re a good place for people to kind of start. Because there’s not really anywhere else other than the web for short stories. Especially for stuff that’s not going to get into, y’know, the [Best] American Comics this year. I don’t really feel the need to participate in them anymore, I guess? If I had a short story I would probably just put it on my website. I feel like I – there’s this weird give and take between what they want of me and what I want of them, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I also feel like if someone asks me to be in an anthology I have to come up with something specifically for that, and that just gives me so much mental trauma, trying to come up with something, it just – it’s not worth it, I’m gonna be staying up for months.

[AUDIENCE #8] Can you talk a little bit more about your choices as far as using video game tropes? Because I think at the surface there’s initially that kind of nostalgic appeal, but I also think obviously you’re aiming for more than that, to use them kind of as metaphors, so I was kind of curious as to what you pick and why, because of course video games are kind of a different narrative entirely, and you kind of interact with them a lot differently than you do with anime, manga or comics.

Right. Well, video games are like a self-insertion kind of storytelling, where you’re the protagonist. And I guess in Scott Pilgrim that approach is just another way of telling the story of your own life, even just to yourself. So everything is sort of presented from Scott Pilgrim’s own worldview-thing for the most part. And so these crazy things that happen are not necessarily the things that literally happen, but are the way that you interpret them. I mean, I always talk about like how I used to just kind of blur my memories of what really happened and, like, what happened in Resident Evil, because it was really trickling. [laughter] So I wanted to extend that to pixel games, which wouldn’t necessarily trick you into believing that you lived them, but they’re just as valid as an experience. Like if you experienced playing Mega Man 3 when you were 12 years old, it’s like you did live through it in some weird way, like, you played that game, you were Mega Man for a while. I just wanted to explore that. I don’t really know what I would say about that, were I to give a lecture on the topic, so I think my lecture on the topic is being explored in Scott Pilgrim. I’m not quite done exploring it.

[AUDIENCE #9] We’ve heard where the romance stuff comes from, and where the video game stuff comes from. Where does the playing in a band stuff come from?

I played in a band at the time. The life stuff, the Toronto stuff, like, the friends, was all kind of a twisted, consolidated dream version of what I was just doing while I was drawing the book. So a lot of the friends are sort of based on my friends, and the band was – not really anything like mine. My band was more like the band in the third book [Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness, 2006], Kid Chameleon. So my band had seven people in it for a while, and it was just kind of ridiculous. It didn’t last very long. But that’s where that stuff came from, I just like playing music with my friends. And like I said earlier, the reason I started writing Scott Pilgrim was just to entertain my friends.

From "Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness" (vol. 3)

[JOE MCCULLOCH] Since I think we’re kind of running low on time here, I’d just like to ask you, being at the Small Press Expo and all, what do you think about the continuing effect of manga on people getting into small press comics? What would be your advice on synthesizing what they read in manga into what they’re doing with their own comics?

You still see a lot of people drawing manga that looks exactly like something out of a shojo magazine or whatever they’re into. I think the first step is to try and tell stories about your own experiences rather than the girls with toast in their mouth. Unless you are a girl with toast in your mouth, I guess. I’ve drawn pictures of myself with toast in my mouth, so – [laughter] But yeah, try and relate it to your own experience, and I think if you can start doing that successfully then the drawings will kind of follow. I feel like that’s sort of been my growth pattern. Y’know, I used to try to draw exactly like Sailor Moon, and then I started trying to tell stories about my experiences, and those characters kind of just evolved.

Just for the traditional final question: what message would you like to give to your readers?

I thought it was going to be, like, “who would you have dinner with?” [laughter] What message? Don’t play video games? [laughter] Work hard instead. No, you should play video games.

***

[The final installment of the Scott Pilgrim comics series, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, will be released on July 20, 2010.]

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17 Responses to “A Conversation With Bryan Lee O’Malley – SPX 2008”
  1. biLL says:

    what great advice at the end! video games have way too serious a hold on my free time, but now that O’Malley has green lit video games, to blazes with school, its trophy unlocking time!

  2. mang says:

    Everytime I look at his style I can’t help but think of Powerpuff girls. Everyone is talking about how this is a mix of american and manga style, how this is some kind of revolution, “it’s new”. (and the same with that king city guy) It just seems like it’s ripping on mainstream american cartoon takes on “big eyed” manga. For the record Cartoon network was doing this in 1998.

  3. […] Creators | Joe McCulloch transcribes a Q&A session with cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley from the 2008 Small Press Expo. [Comics Comics] […]

  4. Thanks for clueing us in Mang.

  5. vollsticks says:

    I was really put off by the covers of those books but a friend more-or-less FORCED me into reading a couple of volumes….the cartooning wasn’t what I expected at all. His line’s a lot less slick and livelier in the interiors. I think O ‘Malley has integrated his influences with his own “thing” really smoothly…those covers are still fuckin’ atrocious, though!

  6. Actually, to clarify the record, Craig McCracken was working in the powerpuff style since his student days at CalArts in 1992, where the characters were called the Whoopass Girls. But there were NA comics pursuing an anime-manga style before that; the ‘big-eyed’ look would date back at least as far as Ben Dunn’s early stuff in the mid-’80s (just off the top of my head; there’s probably some earlier precident), while Frank Miller was working through Goseki Kojima’s gekiga influence in RONIN starting in ’83.

    Anyway, “big eyed” begets a lot of variations, even just sticking to superficialities… like, I don’t think SCOTT PILGRIM and KING CITY look much alike at all. I don’t even think I’d use that designation for Brandon Graham’s stuff… what’s particular about the works in any case is their themes, mechanics and format, not their usage of surface-level anime/manga signifiers. There’s a long history of that in NA comics.

  7. will says:

    I’d definitely read an O’Malley comic that took the ‘airiness’ you talk about and ran with it — I’m almost imagining something like “Slacker” that just follows some people talking, which is really what he’s best at, and if you pay attention to his webcomics, where he started. The videogame/manga thing is a skeleton, I think, that he throws his sense of humor onto. It’s a little more crucial than an excuse to make weird puns, but it’s a little beside the point.

    It would be interesting if he stepped back from the entertainment he talks about focusing on in SP and went back to making slightly harder-to-like, harder-to-boing-boing-about work.

  8. will says:

    That would be a cool sticker to find on a new book: “Now harder to blog about!”

  9. Zack Soto says:

    excellent interview!

    mang: full of shit/aesthetically cross-eyed.

    video games: RDR is the first game in years to soak up time like this, I need to quit it and get back to work.

  10. Zack Soto says:

    also, the Rudolph revelation makes so much sense.

  11. Lastworthy says:

    Great interview!
    I’m particularly interested in his response to the idea of an animated SP, with the idea that it’s “not supposed to be about cartoon people”. I think it makes a lot of sense when you consider the vintage of the interview and the tonal shift in SP5. In that capacity I think SP5 was a lot closer to Lost At Sea than the other Scott Pilgrims were. I’m also kind of interested in how he reconciles that idea with the forthcoming videogame.

  12. name? says:

    Haha I love the advice at the end! I also know what he means about copying sailor moon.

  13. […] transcription of his conversation with Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley at the 2008 Small Press […]

  14. […] McCulloch has posted a long conversation with the author of Scott Pilgrim, Bryan Lee O’Malley over at Comics Comics. Excellent […]