Precious Little Comic: Bryan Lee O'Malley talks "Scott Pilgrim"

Word of mouth is a powerful tool in the comic book industry. From Image Comics' "Amazing Joy Buzzards" (whose creative team recently spoke to CBR News) to Slave Labor Graphics' "Street Angel," a lot of comic books find their fanbase growing from recommendations over the Internet. While there were many universally celebrated comic books in 2004, one seemed to especially cause outbursts of extreme joy and happiness: "Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life," an OGN (original graphic novel) from Oni Press. With the second volume having recently hit shelves and fans salivating for the third volume, writer/artist Bryan Lee O'Malley spoke to CBR News about the series.

"Scott Pilgrim is a 23-year-old slacker with a spotty love life who's trying to clean up his act and land a girl named Ramona," says O'Malley of the series' main concept. "She's new in town. The main thing about her is that previous to meeting Scott, she dated seven evil guys in a row, and they have formed a league to destroy anyone new that she meets. Basically, Scott has to beat all her evil ex-boyfriends in battle if he wants to be able to keep dating her. When he beats them, they turn into coins. Basically it's a love story.

"Most of the characters are based on bits of friends or amalgamations of people I've known. Scott Pilgrim is kind of jobless and happy-go-lucky. 'He enjoys it when life is awesome,' as someone said. Ramona is enigmatic, but has a sweetness to her as well as a snarky side. Scott's friends have an infinite ocean of patience for his silly ways, but they also spend a lot of time making fun of him.

"Scott's previous girlfriend was a 17-year-old Asian-American high school student named Knives Chau, and she keeps showing up like a bad rash. Some other girls from Scott's past are gradually making appearances, too."

The cast has been one of the main reasons for the acclaim surrounding "Scott Pilgrim," with readers appreciating the authenticity of the leads and O'Malley says he drew inspiration from around him. "There are sort of structural things that match my life when I was that age. I lived in Toronto, I had a gay roommate, I had an American girlfriend, I was in a band, etcetera. Most of the dialogue and character intricacy is just made up, except maybe a few things here and there. I like to call that one of my skills."

Not only is the approach to the subject matter fresh, "Scott Pilgrim" is a unique beat in the American comic book world- a bonafide "ongoing" OGN series from an American publisher. "I wanted to do a longer series both as a challenge to myself, to see if I could commit, and also basically because my publisher wanted me to do a series," he explains. "I didn't really have any desire to do it in single issues, because I like the long book format. I like the openness it gives me in terms of pacing and structure and being able to integrate the episodes without worrying about 22-page breaks. I try to write each book as a whole, although they're internally broken into chapters."

From Capcom-inspired battle sequences to an eclectic cast and approach to love, it's hard to imagine how O'Malley might have exactly pitched a series that would seem to appeal to such a diverse crowd. To do so, O'Malley found good references in two popular comic book series and explains, "My pitch was more or less 'Blue Monday' meets 'Dragon Ball,' and some character sketches and descriptions. 'Blue Monday' is another popular series from Oni about the love lives and hijinx of some guys and girls in high school, and, well, 'Dragon Ball' is about dudes with crazy hair punching each other really hard. They took to the idea pretty much instantly."

But for those fans hoping that the series continues forever, well, you better sit down. "No, there's an end. It'll end with book 6," admits O'Malley. "I'm hoping the solicitation for the next one will say 'Volume 3 (of 6).' I'd like it to end. I like when things end."

The first volume of the series, "Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life," seemed to be a thoroughly entertaining romantic comedy until the end, when a huge manga-inspired battle erupted between Scott and one of Ramona's ex-boyfriends. The change was dramatic and potentially off putting to some fans, but readers embraced the change, something O'Malley never feared not happening. "I didn't worry about it when I was on the first book; I just did what felt right and what I felt like doing. Extreme fighting metaphors for relationship turmoil was one of the basic concepts of the book, and letting it simmer in the background until the end of volume 1 just sort of happened along the way. If you read the book again, you'll notice it was always there in the background. I am sorry to everyone who wanted a 'normal' story, though, and I promise I'll do one someday, just for you."

The emphasis on zany antics and over the top fighting, with special rewards, increased in volume 2, entitled "Scott Pilgrim Vs The World" and O'Malley says the trend will continue. "The third book already has more fights. As a relationship goes on, the problems inevitably multiply, and in this series every problem is embodied by punching and kicking."

Fans also got a further glimpse into the lives of the supporting characters, such as Kim P and Scott's sister, but don't expect spin-off series or books with Scott marginalized. "I want to bring the focus back to Scott. The story of the series is Scott's relationship with Ramona, and the satellite characters are just delicious gravy."

O'Malley isn't afraid to show his geek badge of pride in the series, with "Easter Eggs" for fans of comic books and video games, with the book itself sometimes seeming like a role-playing game itself. The reason for this integration is simple: O'Malley has some cool geek friends. "I found out that even my coolest friends had some nerdy D&D-playing skeletons in the closet, which was one of the main reasons I started going ahead with the references. As for the structure-- I think people of previous generations would try to structure their lives like a great novel, a work in progress. Scott Pilgrim, and many of his generation, would tend to structure their lives like a video game. Life is just a linear progression of jumping over pits, getting powerups, fighting bosses and rescuing princesses, and then you go back to the beginning and do it over again. Once in a while you get to do a skateboard level."

Not only did his real life influence "Scott Pilgrim," but the writer/artist says that some of his favorite works of fiction played a large role in the style and tone of the books. "Manga is both the obvious and secret inspiration for the series. I read 'Nana' by Ai Yazawa in French a few years ago, and it was a huge influence on the storytelling and relationship stuff, the character arc stuff. That's coming out in English now, finally (in Shoujo Beat from Viz). This other manga, 'Beck,' was another influence, the first volume of which also just came out in English. That one is about rock bands.

"Another semi-subconscious influence is comedy TV. 'The Office' and 'Arrested Development' on DVD surely jostled some stuff in my brain when I watched them."

The adventures of Scott Pilgrim are set squarely in the modern day version of one of the greatest cities on Earth, Toronto, and O'Malley says the fans have been good to him. "Toronto fans have probably been the most receptive, despite Toronto's general reluctance to show allegiance to anything. I've had a good response. When I debuted the 2nd volume at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, I was shaking hands and signing books for literally like six hours straight. It did not stop. It was really pretty cool. I had a few media pieces around the time of TCAF, thanks to my friend Nathalie Atkinson who was the press agent, but generally I think indie comics are pretty low on the mainstream media radar, even in Canada."

An important credit in any comic is the "illustrated by" section and O'Malley is proud to be providing the art on the series, something he couldn't imagine anyone else doing. "I like my own art even though it's slightly crappy. I enjoy drawing, and drawing has always been a big part of my life. The whole point of doing comics is that I figured I could write and draw, so I might as well use both to the fullest. Doing comics is a single process for me, more and more as I go along. It's a package deal."

While O'Malley does like the black & white format of "Scott Pilgrim," he isn't ruling out the possibility of adding some color. "It'd be prohibitively expensive, for one thing, in the world of poor indie comics publishers. Also, as Scott Pilgrim is presented as pseudo-manga, the black and white art and the small size and the cheap paper and the typesetting are all tailored to that presentation. I wouldn't do a whole Scott Pilgrim novel in color-- maybe a one-shot or something, one day, or a short GN."

As previously mentioned, the acclaim for "Scott Pilgrim"-- both volumes-- has been universally positive and though O'Malley is proud of the work, he's not sure he can say exactly why the book has resonated with such a breadth of readers. "It's something I can't really answer without tooting my own horn a bit too much. But I think it has something to do with semi-successfully balancing the ideas of 'girl comics' and those of 'boy comics.' Maybe I can also write half-decently and I managed to sneakily draw people in to this little world, to the point where they're on board for the rest of the series, do or die. It's all very cold and calculated, I'm sure."

The third volume, "Scott Pilgrim & The Infinite Sadness" has a definite release date and the creator reveals, "The next book's scheduled to be in stores on December 14th, 2005. It will conclude the first story arc. I'm working on it now, so I think I'll be done on time. The next three books aren't scheduled yet, and I'm considering taking a break after volume 3 and doing something unrelated. I don't want to forget how to write things that aren't Scott Pilgrim.

"The next book will be totally awesome, and it will have secret bonuses. I am planning them as we speak."

And for the fans who have tooted the "Scott Pilgrim" horns, O'Malley says, "Thanks for reading, stay in school, don't do drugs unless you really want to. And visit www.radiomaru.com!"

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