GREAT "SCOTT" - Talking with Bryan Lee O'Malley

Look up "buzz book" on Wikipedia and you're likely to find a picture of "Scott Pilgrim." A wild mash-up of genres and influences that combines video-game-style action, manga-esque art and indie-rock romance, the Oni Press series' title character is a hip young Canadian slacker who falls for the gorgeous and mysterious American delivery girl Ramona Flowers. But in order to date her, he must defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends in mortal combat-and it's no arcade game.

Writer-artist Bryan Lee O'Malley's series has all but conquered the comics cognoscenti since its 2004 debut, and with the series' fourth volume, "Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together," hitting stores next week, its crossover appeal to mainstream and manga readers, critical acclaim in media outlets like Entertainment Weekly and upcoming movie adaptation from Edgar Wright ("Hot Fuzz," "Shaun of the Dead"), "Scott Pilgrim" is poised to break even bigger.

O'Malley gave CBR an in-depth interview on the roots of the series, the secrets of its sales, the glamorous friends who inspired it-and why he can't wait for it all to be over.

When did you start working on "Scott Pilgrim" Volume Four?

Oh, God. It's been well over a year, definitely. I know I finished the script at the end of August of last year; then I started the art after that. I didn't really seriously start the art until November [of last year], but it just seems like a really long time.

Is that about par for the course for each volume, or does the time it takes you vary?

Well, the first one was really, really rushed. I did it in under three months. I did most of it in one month. The second and the third were probably the same, in the six to eight months range, including the scripts. But this one's just…I don't know. I guess my life's changed since then so I've been busier with other stuff. [I've been] taking my time and trying to make it better. I've been drawing in a different style, at a larger size and stuff like that.

When all is said and done, you'll have six volumes. But by that time, you'll be fairly removed in terms of both time and your career's success from where you started. Have you found that as time has gone by, it's harder to tap into the "Scott Pilgrim" headspace?

I don't think so. It's not hard for me to keep doing them. But I don't know if what I'm doing has changed. It probably has to some degree, and that was always kind of planned from the outset. It's just a growth process, a learning experience. Just trying to connect to something big and see where it takes me.

I'd argue that part of the really enthusiastic response to Volume One was that it was a "Volume One." Fans were saying, "Wow, there's more of this to come?"

Well, yeah, because the first one is all set-up, although it's hopefully entertaining set-up. The whole idea is to do a series kind of like the manga thing: Hook people, have beloved characters and trace their development and all that stuff. That's what's fun about long series, in manga especially.

Obviously manga is an influence, then, and not just visually.

Yeah, it's like a whole big meta-influence on "Scott Pilgrim."

In Western comics, it's almost as if "Scott Pilgrim" sort of created a new genre. I've seen it described as "video game realism," and I think that works really well.

Yeah. But I just can't give myself any credit like that. I did feel like when I was starting out that I was doing something that no one else was doing in North America. So I thought that was cool.

That had to be a pretty exciting feeling.

Well, at the time it was kind of exciting, but at the same time it was like "Is anyone going to read it?" I had no idea. Fortunately it worked out.

To what would you credit that? Is it the video-game action-type stuff or is it the 20-something romance?

I don't know. I think it's a blend. It's stuff people can relate to, and at the same time it's like a secret decoder ring: If you get the silly references and stuff, you're part of the club.

Now you're sort of seeing people will describe a particular book like, "Oh, it's sort of like 'Scott Pilgrim.'"

Yeah. That new Oni book, "Black Metal?" I've seen like 10 people describe it as like "Scott Pilgrim" but about heavy metal.

How does that make you feel?

Oh, it's cool. It's been happening with more frequency. I don't know if it was a Danish publisher or a Norwegian or something, but he came up to me [at the MoCCA Festival] and gave me a book by one of the people he's published. He's like a 23-year-old guy from somewhere in Europe, he was really influenced by "Scott Pilgrim" and it was like the coolest thing ever. It was just this crazy, European, unreadable version of "Scott Pilgrim," and his art is like way better than mine. He's such a good artist.

So you were flattered in that case.

Yeah, it was really cool.

The "Scott Pilgrim" influence is not only in digest-format indie books, but in a lot of new comics that blend together a lot of different pop-culture touchstones that the creators are interested in, in the same way that you blend together manga, indie rock, video games and so on.

You know I sometimes worry that it's like a cultural dead-end if everyone's just kind of regurgitating. I know I'm kind of part of a scene of stuff like that. Even Edgar Wright, who's doing the adaptation, is kind of in the same area in terms of creating a synthesis of everything else that's gone into you as a younger person and turning it into your own art later. But is it really you, or is it just regurgitation?

It seems that the case in favor of "Scott Pilgrim," specifically is that incorporating video game elements-defeating people and gaining a "1-UP" for it-is something I'd never seen in a comic before.

Yeah, I guess I haven't either. It just came natural to me, I guess.

How so? Is there a metaphor behind the video game material?

I don't know. That's the kind of question I have a hard time with. It is a metaphor, but I don't think I thought of it in that way at first. After Volume One I took a step back and thought about what I was doing in a larger sense.

It just started out as sort of "whatever's in my id" or whatever. Just really, really pooping it out and seeing what happened, trying to entertain myself. [As for] intellectualizing the character, I guess I understand where it's all coming from now. I'm older and I can understand my younger mindset, I suppose.

Is that what it is for you? Having access to the way you thought when you were younger?

No, I mean, I still do think like that in a lot of ways. But I don't know…I've answered questions where I can't really remember what I've said before so I feel like I'm contradicting myself right now. [laughs]

Along these lines, a recent Comics Journal review of "Scott Pilgrim" said of the book, "doesn't he know that violence doesn't solve anything?" Is that too literal a way of looking at the book?

I didn't actually read that. Everyone has told be about it, but I'm trying not to read my reviews so much anymore. Apparently that's better for you, but it's really hard not to. [Laughs] But yeah, I think that was a really literal way of doing it. Even when I was doing the first book, when I didn't know what the overall structure of what I wanted was, it still wasn't literal. You weren't supposed to take everything as exactly what it looked like on the page. There are weird transitions to alternate headspaces, I guess.

In terms of that structure, the video game elements come with one built-in: There's bosses, and that's the logical point at which you would move to the next stage of the story.

Yeah. I picked that from manga .too, shonen [boys'] manga like "Dragon Ball." Each story arc culminates in fighting a guy, and then you move on to the next emotional state.

There's a funny homage to shonen manga in Volume Four, when Scott starts his new day job proclaiming, "I'm going to be the best dishwasher ever!" Sort of like how every shonen manga begins.

Yeah, I read too much of that stuff.

What are some of your favorites right now?

I don't know. I get "Shonen Jump" every month because they put me on the mailing list, and I pretty much devour it. It's been fun, but it's only been this year I've been reading it. In terms of manga I don't really read a lot, so that's the only really shonen-y stuff I read. I mean, I read "Monster" and "Beck." "Beck" is a lot like [shonen] sometimes, but "Beck" is a lot more grounded. "Beck" is a more direct influence on the way I want to tell stories like "Scott Pilgrim." But yeah, the other ones are just sort of… just the idea of them, the silliness of them.

I've heard you talk about manga and video games as influences, but were there Western comics of any kind that factored into the creation of "Scott Pilgim"?

I don't know. I don't think I was really reading a lot of that. I mean, I always have been, I'm always reading whatever's current. I don't really read the Marvel and DC stuff that much any more, but I read so much of it [in the past] that it just filters in. I don't think that there's any specific stuff. Unless I've talked about it before and I'm contradicting myself.

That makes interviews exciting, though.

[laughs] Yeah, I'm always walking the line.

You alluded to this earlier, but do you see yourself as part of particular comics scene?

I've always called myself a lone wolf, but when Brandon [Graham's] book "King City" came out I was super blown away by it. I haven't seen that guy in years-he lives on the West Coast now-but he's doing something really cool. I haven't read anything that blew me away like that, and I was like, "This is how people feel when they read my books." [laughs] But you know, that's the ego.

It seemed that in Volume Three, aside from the usual ninja fights, we were suddenly in the midst of a pretty serious examination of the relationship between Scott and his high-school girlfriend Envy Adams, who's now a rock star. Many found it quite moving and sad. Why did you take things in that direction?

The writing in Volume Three was kind of haphazard. I wrote a lot of it as I was going along. The character of Envy kind of grew in fits and starts. I don't know if I knew anyone quite like that. I guess I'm just always trying to explore different possibilities in relationships. As far as it going from shallow to deep, I don't make a conscious decision: "This will be the point where I make everyone cry." I try to keep it all there. In one panel I can go from happy to sad, hopefully. That's the idea.

A particularly memorable line was when, in the midst of making out, she asked him to stop calling her "Natalie"-her real name-and start calling her "Envy"-her rock-star name. I've often wondered what that moment is like when artists decide they've become another person and need to let their friends and family know. Like, when did Marilyn Manson say, "Mom, about this whole 'Brian' thing…"

[laughs] I think I had it where she got her name from one of the other guys. The idea behind her was looking at certain rock stars and seeing how they become otherworldly and trying to find the root of that; that exact moment when she went over. That was the general theme with Envy.

What is your take on Scott himself? He's a good guy, he's a funny guy, but he's also kind of an unrepentant slacker.

He's a profoundly lazy person. He never really goes after anything-he just lets it all fall in his lap. You sort of highlight the worst parts of your own personality. I was a gifted kid, and when I was growing up I didn't want to do anything unless it was easy. It's the same thing with comics for me. Comics were the only things that were easy enough for me not to give up on through high school and university. Scott is just like that, but turned up to 10. He never does anything but stuff comes to him anyway. He's just really lucky.

So he is a reflection of you in some way.

Yeah, definitely. He's some aspects of me that I like and others that I really don't like. He's also the archetypal stupid character. It's fun to write a stupid protagonist because you don't really have to know anything.

They say that's the limitation of superhero writers. Your evil genius or heroic super-scientist can never be smarter than the person writing them.

Yeah. I saw "The Bourne Ultimatum" and I was like, "I could never write that! I don't know anything!" [laughs] Maybe eventually I'll want to learn and convey that through learned characters. But it's fun to have everything revolve around someone who's a little bit slow.

Do you feel that Scott's grown over the course of the volumes?

The idea is that he will have grown by the end. Hopefully. [laughs] I don't think it's very apparent yet. Any growth that he's made has been relatively minor even though he would think that it's major. Volume Four addresses that more.

The supporting characters in the books are in many cases just as appealing, and almost as important, as Scott himself. How closely do Scott's friends resemble your own circle of friends?

I think Scott's friends are consolidated down from a larger number of people. They're kind of an amalgamation of people I've known. My friends in Toronto are actually fairly glamorous for early-20s, poverty-stricken art students. In my comic I don't make them as cool as they could be because I don't want it to be intimidating. So they're toned down a bit. They're cartoon characters, but I try to make them relatively complex.

Bloggers are among "Scott Pilgrim's" most passionate and vocal fans. Why do you think the online reaction to the series been so enthusiastic?

I don't know. It's always hard to say whether bloggers are their own species or if they're representative of the larger population. Sometimes it seems that they're not. Like with "Snakes on a Plane." Apparently, with that, it was only the bloggers that wanted to see it. So we always worry about that kind of thing. I don't know-there are multiple characters whose arcs you want to observe, and you can kind of feel like you're one of the circle of friends. It's been done many times and I'm just falling into the tradition. It's been done well in manga recently. That's the best example: Naruto and things like that. That was my goal; to make people want to read more of my comics.

Obviously, it's appealed to an audience beyond that.

I want to try to work with the devoted fans. I'm trying to work on a new website that will incorporate a street-team element. I think that will resonate.

Do you see a difference between the direct market and bookstores or online sales?

I don't have hard numbers but I think it's about even so far. The big chains haven't gone whole hog onto it yet. Borders just picked it up and they only picked up 300 of each. They're basically just trying it out. Barnes & Noble have had it for a while and they're probably on par with the Direct Market. It's evenly rounded right now but we'll see what happens.

I would be remiss if I didn't bring up the status of the "Scott Pilgrim" movie.

There isn't really anything I can tell you that hasn't already been said. They wrote a draft last year and currently they're writing a second draft. The studio really liked the first draft so we're just waiting to see what happens.

How did you and Edgar Wright hook up?

Oni is represented by [talent agency] UTA and so is Edgar, so basically they were sending him the slush pile of everything. He was kind of going through it, and "Scott Pilgrim" was one of the things in the pile. He liked it and it resonated with him. And that was very shortly after the first book came out. It was the winter of 2004 when he first read it and got in touch with us and everything started to slowly rumble. At this point it looks fairly promising and hopefully it'll get green lit.

Do you think there could be a "Napoleon Dynamite"-level phenomenon when it does happen?

I think so. I'll take that. [laughs] I can definitely see it happening. It's got the right talent on board so far so I'm pretty happy with it.

Do you ever get tired of doing action-based comics like "Scott Pilgrim" and want to get back to more straightforward dramas like your first graphic novel, "Lost at Sea"?

I do. Sometimes I feel that "Scott Pilgrim" is the least interesting comic that I could possibly be doing. [laughs] Maybe it's just because I'm on four out of six volumes right now. But it's not like I'm planning to always be doing silly action comics. I have other stuff that I want to say.

Are there new things that you're working on now?

Yeah, I always have stuff on the back burner, but when I'm concentrating on a book it's just impossible. I don't even want to put a line of something else on paper. With the time that I have left on "Scott Pilgrim," whatever else I come up with is going to change and grow in the intervening time. I just want to wait and see what happens with it. I have loose notes on stuff but I try not to concretize anything.

Is there anything that you feel you haven't been able to do with "Scott Pilgrim" that you want to do with the character or the series?

I kind of wish that I was done. [laughs] It's just taking so long. I look at what I have left, and it's not that much comparatively, but there's two more. At the same time I'm really enthusiastic to do it and I've got great ideas for them. But I just wish that I could be done in six months instead of two years. Hopefully I'll speed up. That's my goal. As for the character, I have two more whole books to explore him, so ask me that again in a couple years.

When you do get through the other side of the project, you'll have a major chunk of comics under your belt that's all of one piece. It's very impressive to have a body of work as large as you do at such a young age, even just in terms of stacking it up on your desk.

I'm looking forward to having another one. The new one is probably going to be the longest so it'll make the stack a bit taller.

How have you managed to be so prolific and get so much done so quickly?

I don't feel like I've gotten that much done that quickly. [laughs] I've done about a book a year. I'm behind on this one. The first three came out about 11 months apart-ish, but this one has been well over a year. So I feel that I've been pretty lax about it.

Well, compared other indie guys who put out one pamphlet a quarter at most.

Yeah, Adrian Tomine and stuff-one issue a year. Well, I'm pretty shitty. [laughs] I can't compare myself to any of those guys who are slow and have actual craft. I'm kind of winging it all the time. The thing that slows me down is that I kind of forget what I'm doing every scene or so and then I have to learn from scratch: "What are comics?" It's such a monumental task. It's frustrating at times, but I am faster than some people. But I'd like to be faster than everyone.

That's kind of a shonen goal, isn't it?

Yeah. To be the fastest artist. Not the best-just the fastest. [laughs]

Now discuss this story in CBR's Indie Comics forum.

Red Hood: Outlaw #30

More in Comics

Unique lists featuring pop culture, entertainment and crazy facts. Covering the hottest movie and TV topics that fans want. The most LOL-worthy things the Internet has to offer. A fresh take on sports: the biggest news and most entertaining lists. The only place to satisfy all of your guilty pleasures. The go-to source for comic book and superhero movie fans. Pregnancy and parenting news, given to you in a way nobody else has. The Most Entertaining Quiz Site In The World. The World's Most Entertaining Car Website A one-stop shop for all things video games. Website for moms seeking advice, community, and entertainment. Simply the World’s Most Interesting Travel Site.