The cartoonist behind the blockbuster comic series turned cult film set out to create a standalone graphic novel more than three years ago. And though he knew the story would take longer than the typical “one book a year” turnaround for the “Pilgrim” series, O’Malley didn’t expect to be delayed from drawing by an injury. Still, the wait is now officially over as today marks the release of “Seconds” from Ballantine Books.
Set in a restaurant built into a 100 year-old Canadian mansion, the story of “Seconds” follows cook/co-owner Katie who, in a move to take control of her own life, ends up making major waves thanks to her relationships with a quiet co-worker and a capricious house spirit. The book marks a new level of collaboration for O’Malley who teamed with art assistant Jason Fischer, colorist Nathan Fairbairn and letterer Dustin Harbin for the final product, and it also represents some significant departures from “Scott Pilgrim’s” fast-paced pop culture stylings. CBR News spoke with the artist about the long road to the book, how “Seconds” is and isn’t like his most famous comics creation, what close collaboration brought to the table and how restaurant life and time warps helped set the story apart.
CBR News: Bryan, I recall you saying a few times before “Seconds” arrived that you were having trouble describing what it was about but that you’d have to get better at it by the time it hit. Have you gotten any better at that?
Bryan Lee O’Malley: [Laughs] Not really, but now there are marketing materials that I can crib from. I don’t know. How would you describe it? Maybe I should start by asking every interviewer that.
I guess I’d say it’s a book about choices that’s driven by a magical conceit to explore how those choices impact personal relationships.
Yeah. Like my other books, it’s about friendships and romantic relationships, and it’s through the prism of this character and her own view of the world. It’s just that in this case, her world is kind of like a fairy tale where she has this fairy tale-like ability that lets me explore those relationships in different ways.
When you were working on “Scott Pilgrim,” you set this pace for yourself where you had to get a book done every year, and ultimately you had to get the final book done so fans could read your ending on the page right before they saw the movie’s version of the ending. How did that schedule impact your approach to this book?
There was still sort of a clock because I didn’t want the book to take five or six years to come out. In the beginning, I wanted it to come out this time last year, but I ended up hurting myself and delaying myself. So I feel like there’s always a clock, but I did give myself two or three years to actually devote to the book and to let it grow organically and be its own thing. And it’s the fact that this is not a series. “Scott Pilgrim” was kind of in motion, and it had to continue. With this, I could craft it from the ground up and let it be a self contained unit. I guess I did that with “Lost At Sea,” but that was over ten years ago.
So this could be a more ambitious story with its own universe. On page one, we’re in this new world, and by the end of the book, you’ve experienced the entire scope of the story. That was a new challenge I set for myself.
Looking at the growth of the project, you have a number of collaborators here, and for someone like colorist Nathan Fairbairn, I know you started working with him when he was tapped to do the color editions of “Scott Pilgrim” which came after you were working on “Seconds.” So did the team it took to make this book what it is build up over those years as well?
Pretty much. The way I did this book was that I did an outline. I probably spent almost a year on the outline and the character designs and the groundwork. Then Jason [Fischer] came on first. I don’t remember when, but he was recommended by a mutual friend. I’ve known Jason for close to a decade, but it was suggested that he would be a great fit for this, and as soon as they said that, I thought, “You’re exactly right.”
So then I started roughing the entire book. I’d done an outline, so I started laying out panels and doing dialogue at the same time. That was obviously a monumental process for a 300-page book. So it was mostly all me for about two years, and then after that — for maybe six or eight months — everyone else came on. Jason ended up staying with me for a while. We were cramming, doing 16-hour days. We did two weeks with no breaks at the very end. It was nuts. But it was actually very fruitful as a collaboration because I think he was able to bring more to the table when we were in the same room. It was a lot easier for us to bounce things, and I’d say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we drew it this way?” Even though I had the framework of the story and the panels were there, he just put more into the panels than I would have imagined beforehand.
Do you think people will play the game where they try to guess which is all you and which is Jason?
It’s pretty obvious if you start thinking about it. But there are certain backgrounds and stuff that I pencilled pretty extensively, and then there are parts where I’d say, “Make something up. Here’s my reference. Let’s do something with that.” So it can be hard to disentangle. Later on in the book, he started doing more as it got more fantasy-oriented. He ended up doing more monster stuff and skeletons. As the backgrounds got more elaborate, his influence was more strongly felt.
One of the first things that’ll stand out to people who read this story right away is the way the narrative captions interact with Katie as the lead character. It’s not quite an omniscient narrator, and it’s not quite a first person account, but it gives the story a real unique voice. How did you develop the story in terms of the tone?
Primarily that was the fact that I was composing on the fly and going straight to dialogue and paneling from my outline. I’m always looking for new things that I could do that are a comics thing, and when you’re doing comics, they always say, “Don’t show us and tell us the same thing.” The narration should be a counterpoint to the story. So I ended up making the narration this other thing that interacts with the story, but it’s definitely doing other work too. It’s entertaining and weird. When I started writing the first pages as she’s driving down the street, that ended up happening, and I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to do this through the whole book.”
The book does share some DNA with “Scott Pilgrim” — particularly Katie as a lead and how she’s kind of adorably self-involved. That’s very much like Scott. What draws you to that type?
I always want to make stories that grow organically out of the character. Somewhat like with Scott Pilgrim, this whole world wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Katie’s point of view. I have this fascination with people who are very external and make snap decisions because I’m not like that at all. I’d sit here agonizing over every single thing she did if it were my life, where as she just plows forward like a complete idiot. [Laughs] I find that both entertaining and really actually interesting to write — to find the depth in a character like that. Part of what I do when I write is try to understand people who are different than me. Influences for her I pull from all over the place — famous egotistical people or whatever. She’s a whole thing that’s so separate from me, but I try to get inside her head.
I think another thing “Seconds” shares with “Scott Pilgrim” comes in the plotting of the story. That fairy tale conceit that Katie has almost makes the repeated parts of the story like a video game in a way and gives the book a different kind of structure. Were you conscious of that as a natural part of your style?
I guess I would call this a kind of time reversal mechanic, which has been a thing in video games for over a decade, so it was definitely on my mind. But it’s more just a way to explore the themes of self doubt and regret and decision-making. I guess I’m not sure conscious of all that, but when I find something like that that works, I let myself run with them because they’re fun and fans will hopefully enjoy them.
That was just always the story I wanted to tell — the story of someone who feels like they got it pretty good but could have it better. That’s how we all are, I think, and that’s just the engine I use to explore that idea.
So between that character, that idea of self doubt, the fairy tale stuff and the whole restaurant setting that we haven’t even gotten into yet, what was the initial spark for this story? What became the element that unified all the others?
So I worked at a restaurant. I was forced to get a job right after the first “Scott Pilgrim” book came out. A friend of mine worked in a restaurant that was basically similar to Seconds. The basement in particular I modeled Seconds’ basement on. It was kind of cavernous and maze-like and had checkerboard floors. I worked there for three or four months as a food runner, so I was just taking stuff from the kitchen to the floor and then back. I never had to interact with anyone so much, so I was just this silent observer. I felt like it was a place I wanted to set a story in one day.
At the time I was working on the second “Scott Pilgrim” volume and writing down ideas for that book, and I remember hanging out with my co-workers one night, and I had this idea for a Russian-style house spirit that lives in a restaurant. This building in Toronto in particular was like 100 years-old. All those old buildings are kind of mysterious, and I don’t know the story of that place. I don’t think anyone knows the story. Maybe you could go in public records and find all the different occupants and businesses that have been in there. But it’s a long history for any building that old. It’s not old in terms of the universe, but it’s old in terms of a human lifespan. So I thought of old world house spirits hanging on into this modernizing world and what they would be like.
Are you the kind of person who watches ghost hunter shows?
No. Like, not at all. [Laughs] There is very little of that haunted house aspect to this. To me, the house spirit is more a positive thing unless you start fucking with it — which is what Katie does. And even the darker stuff that happens later in the book is less of a ghost story and more all the stuff you’re not dealing with while you’re trying to do other things.
The counterpoint to Katie in this story is Hazel, who is more quiet and more respectful of the house spirit idea. I feel like she also helps accomplish the goal you set out for yourself after “Scott Pilgrim” in terms of making the cast of your books more diverse. How did those ideas and Hazel kind of fit in with this story as you were drafting it out?
Working in a restaurant, the staff was very multicultural, I guess. So it was a natural thing for me to put a story in this setting since pretty much everybody who I’ve talked to about this book has brought up this Tumblr post I made which ended up getting a lot of traction. And yeah, when I did it it was black and white, and they were just cartoon characters to me. It was set in this indie rock world where they’re all white kids. So I definitely, consciously tried to switch that up here.
And with Hazel, I think she’s more like me than anyone else in the story. She’s quiet and artistic. I guess I wanted to jam myself in there in some form. She’s not me, obviously. She’s a completely strange character. But I don’t know how it all happens. I just start writing, and I don’t think I have a plan or a solid grip on what I’m doing. But I like how it ended up.
If anything, it was more like if you go back to “Lost At Sea” and take the two main characters, but they’re reversed. So here the protagonist is the outgoing one, and the other girl is the quiet one.
So you started on your own comics with “Lost At Sea” as a standalone story and then jumped into “Scott Pilgrim” as an epic series. After doing another book on its own with “Seconds,” do you have an idea of which direction feels best for where you want to go next? Was “Seconds” a kind of palate cleanser meant to get out of that monthly grind or is it the thing you want to keep doing?
It was sort of designed as a palate cleanser, although it ended up taking the time that it took. But it’s also my own response to “Scott Pilgrim” in terms of wanting to do something different and more ambitious — I mean, I guess “more ambitious” is a weird way to say it. [Laughs] I guess it’s a little more literary, and I definitely wanted that when I was doing “Scott Pilgrim.” “Scott Pilgrim” was very fun and poppy. I wanted to do something that had some more weight and darkness to it. That was part of it.
In terms of what I’d want to do next, I’ve always wanted to go back and do another series. So I’ll probably do that eventually. I mean, I don’t have any other big ideas for a standalone graphic novel right now. I actually don’t have that many ideas in my head. [Laughter]
“Seconds” is in stores now from Ballantine Books.