Update: If you haven’t read Scott Pilgrim and this interview has you intrigued, enter the Scott Pilgrim contest.
Steven and I read and adored Scott Pilgrim and Lost at Sea this summer, so we were delighted to get the chance to interview creator Bryan Lee O’Malley. The result is decidedly not concise, but my introduction will be so we can get to all the heretofore untold sordid and scintillating details. On with the show!
This one can go off the record[Rose: It didn’t, since I liked the answer so much.] but I wonder whether you’ve read any of Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books. I’m not sure if it’s the big eyes or anarchic mischief or what, but Scott himself and other characters at times reminded me very much of her books. I know you don’t like to talk about inspirations, and I don’t think this would be a direct one if it is one at all, but I see bits of Snufkin and Little My and Moominpappa in Scott whether they are intended or not.
I have never seen those books in real life. I don’t think I even heard of them until I was 23 or something, and I have yet to see the actual books; just some oblique Internet reference followed up with an Amazon search, maybe.
My childhood reading milestones started out with Mr. Men books (see reference in Scott Pilgrim); then of course the requisite Lloyd Alexander and C.S. Lewis; some obscure Steve Senn novels in a dusty corner of my old small-town library; a bunch of “suburban fantasy” kids’ paperbacks by a woman author whose name I can’t remember, around the same time; and Pinkwater and William Sleator (see vague sideways references to Into the Dream in Lost at Sea), and these are all bringing up memories of that old library where I spent so much time as a kid; and then I moved down this way and went to high school and read a lot of Piers Anthony, David Eddings and that type of high fantasy stuff, Charles DeLint, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, your basic nerd lit program.
It seems like there are many more important bookish things that I’m completely blanking on. I worked in libraries for seven years. I played Dungeons & Dragons. I owned a Wraith: The Oblivion sourcebook. I had no time for your Moomintrolls. I really did like Barbapapa as a child, though; is that similar? Probably not as good. I also bought myself a Super Nintendo, so that probably ruined me, in the long run.
You often use music as characterization, directly when Stephanie thinks Elvis is archaic or Crash & The Boys think a great song should destroy the audience, or indirectly in the way that Knives is transformed by her infatuation with Sex Bob-omb. As a musician as well as a comics creator, is incorporating musical characterization essential to your understanding of your characters? Could you write a hero whose musical tastes didn’t overlap with your own?
I’m sure I can theoretically write without even mentioning music, but it just keeps happening the way it keeps happening. I am many levels deep into music snobbery at this point, and second-guess both myself and all the reviews I read before I even listen to an album, in many cases. Putting these little mentions of songs, bands, singers, etc., is really the very teeny tip of the iceberg. Music is not just on my mind, but occasionally all-consuming.
Knives is a character who was conceived as being at a vulnerable age and stage of social growth. Knives’ zombie-glassy eyes in that early scene are a kind of… new level of social awakening, as it were? She’s heard crap on the radio, she’s heard hip-hop and maybe Coldplay or something in her friend’s car, and then she hears this awful band playing live guitar music right in front of her, and it changes her life forever!
It doesn’t matter what it is, I think, but when you find the thing you need at the time you need it, it can take you over immediately. When I was maybe seventeen, I heard a band called Plumtree, and that was that. They were my favourite thing, this little idiosyncratic girl-pop band from Halifax. They wrote a song called “Scott Pilgrim”, and here I am today. When Plumtree broke up in 2000, I latched on to the band they had last toured with, the Salteens, and followed them devotedly (I have seen them play shows nine times). I have since realized that I don’t even really LIKE the Salteens. I do still love Plumtree, though, and I sent them all copies of the book. (And they liked it!)
I was a late bloomer when it came to embracing Rock Music, but when it hit, it hit hard. I don’t think I was seriously in the grip of music until I was fifteen or sixteen. I didn’t become a full on rock snob until I was well into my twenties, and I listened to a lot of crap in high school, but I listened to it with all of my organs, and my soul, etcetera. I didn’t seriously start playing guitar and writing music until I was, again, into my twenties. It was the summer of 2000 that I started writing and recording these awful songs, which is, probably significantly, right after Plumtree broke up. My other favourite band from high school, the Smashing Pumpkins, had announced their breakup a few months earlier. Yes, I was tormented and left alone by my two favourite bands! What to do but fill the void with my own hideous creations?
Incidentally, the line from Stephanie about Elvis was stolen directly from my little brother. Only, as I later remembered, he actually said “This sounds like it was recorded in the 1820s!”, which is more specific, and thus funnier.
This is in some ways a question about both character and author attitudes, but Scott Pilgrim deals with characters who aren’t all white, which Lost at Sea didn’t. Certainly it matters to the major characters that Knives and Matthew and Trasha are of Asian descent, but this isn’t seen as anything negative and almost seems to carry some sort of cachet among Scott’s friends. What was your intent in bringing race to the foreground, and do you have any comments on its role in the characters’ lives and interactions?
Race is odd for me, I guess because I’m half-Asian and half-white. For my whole life it’s been simultaneously a non-issue and a huge issue. When I was a little kid the other kids at school said I was Chinese, and I believed them; I never asked my parents about it. I didn’t find out until later that my mom was actually Korean (I couldn’t tell by looking at her). I also thought my dad was from France, because he spoke French. He was actually just French-Canadian, but I never thought to ask and they never thought to tell me. I grew up in northern Ontario, where the only ethnicities were White and Native American, so I was always an oddity. I didn’t know anyone Asian until high school, when I moved south.
I do have some Asian friends now, but mainly my friends are, coincidentally, a bunch of white kids from up north. (I swear we all met in the big city, and by coincidence.) Scott Pilgrim is largely based on these relationships, so the bulk of the characters reflect that. And I used to, yes, many times wish I was a regular white kid like everyone else I knew. Raleigh is probably a reflection of some of that wistful alienation, and Scott Pilgrim is probably the kid I wanted to be.
I am an adult now (I guess), and I happened to recently meet at least three half-Asians, and I feel a weird kinship with them. We are the same race; that’s weird to me. When I was told one of them was half-Asian, I told him that I had guessed it, and he said “Yeah, right.” I think we’re weirdly cut off from other people. I vaguely envy the Portuguese in my neighbourhood and the Sri Lankan dudes in the kitchen where I work, who have this common language and this shared cultural whatever. All I do is try to fit in with white indie-rock kids, and then, of course, there’s comics nerds.
That’s my really long and roundabout explanation for why I’m probably starting to talk about race, and specifically Asianness; is that a word? I think I’ve come to terms with my own, mostly, and it seems I’m going to explore it, tentatively, through other peoples’ reactions to it. So I’ll say that Knives Chau represents an ideal girl for many young white males I’ve known: Asian schoolgirl is hot. Why are so many white guys obsessed with Asian girls? It’s a mystery of the universe. I won’t try to explain it, but I’ll represent it as realistically as I can. As for Matthew Patel: I just have thought that Patel is a cool name for a while, and I saw a guy who looked kind of like Matthew Patel on the train once, years ago, and always wanted to put him in a comic. I have no idea if he is actually Indian or whatever. Nobody mentions it in the story, because I didn’t really think it was an issue. He was simultaneously cooler and lamer than everyone else.
The first story of yours I read was in the SPX 2003 anthology, a memory about two children on a trip and a strange find at a rest stop. These kids look like they might grow up to appear in Lost at Sea, but I’m not sure whether it’s a semi-explicit tie-in or a result of shared style and content.
It was going to be more of an explicit tie-in at first. I did that story before the bulk of Lost at Sea. The cranky little girl was supposed to be Raleigh, and the best friend was supposed to be her best friend. But then I took out all the dialogue and just added that line of narration (I don’t remember if I’d just heard a friend was getting married, or what), and I think they could be anyone. If it’s a memory of Raleigh’s, her introductory narration is either from a few years after Lost at Sea, or from an alternate universe. Ha. Yes. Next question.
Lost at Sea and Scott Pilgrim both feature Canadians, and I’m interested in the question of a shared universe, whether your creations all live in the same Canada. In both books, most of the setting for the story is realistic with scenes of weirdness tossed in that really don’t seem to unnerve the characters as much as they would me if I were in the situation (more so inScott Pilgrim than Lost at Sea, I admit). Have you thought about how their worlds overlap ours and each other’s, or is this something that will just sort itself out?
I spent years of my life charting elaborate relationships and continuities and alternate worlds for far too many characters, often elves, and I consciously tried to get away from that during my moderately successful early-20’s de-geeking. There is a little “oops” moment in Scott Pilgrim where, on a mailbox, Wallace Wells is erroneously listed as “Wallace Weldon”, indicating that he is perhaps Dave Weldon’s brother or cousin or otherwise of some relation. This was originally going to be my vague hint at a perhaps-shared universe. I guess since I accidentally left it in, it still IS a vague hint.
Being Canadian, I have a probably-understandable affinity for Canadian Content, and also, the more Canadian Content I put in my work, the better chance I’ll have of getting grants! “Canadian” is also one of the few stabs I can make at a cultural identity, I guess, so there’s that.
And about that weirdness, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life shocked some readers when its genre focus switched from slice-of-life to frenetic magical drama. Was this disjunction always part of the plan and are there more curves ahead (I hope!)? And do you use the magical elements to make the story more or less real, more universal or personal?
Yes, the plan has been all along to make Scott’s life kind of like a video game of your actual life, but I wanted to ground it very firmly in reality for the first hundred pages, pretending nothing’s out of the ordinary. I want the characters to be real. I want it to be fun and surreal and reminiscent of your favourite videogames and manga, but I want it to ring truer. (More truly?) Really, I’m probably just in this to trick people.
While hiking for many miles in the deep woods, it dawned on me that I blur my own memories of reality, dreams, movies, books and video games, and that’s what I was making Scott Pilgrim do. Only, in the more baldly literal medium of comics, it’s all equally real, all the time. I have since revised my theoretical take on Scott Pilgrim to include some things that Steven Berg brought up — that Scott is perhaps revising his own reality, and that sort of thing. It jives with certain things my beloved high school creative writing teacher said about me, how I edited on the page as I went, sort of a post-modern John Barth-ish blah blah blah. Perhaps Scott is editing his own life. These thoughts will probably coalesce more clearly, although hopefully not in a bad way, in the proceeding volumes.
Is it more universal or less? If Scott Pilgrim remembers his high school romance as a shot-for-shot remake of Say Anything, will people understand what I’m getting at? Maybe I’ll try it, and we’ll find out.
I’ve written lately about how I see the first-person narration of Lost at Sea as being limiting (in a good way) while Scott Pilgrim’s third-person narration with all sorts of quirky asides is chaotic and changes perspective frequently, but both are effective for the sort of story being told, in the first case a deeply personal attempt to learn to reach others and in the second a madcap adventure with a large and loving cast. I’d love to hear why you chose not to talk about Scott’s Precious Little Life from his perspective but to focus on him while keeping the narration distanced a bit.
I don’t know that it was a conscious decision. I guess it was conscious at some point. I know that I decided not to have him narrate, ever, and to attempt to tell a lot of the story through the reactions of the people around him. Scott is more of a happening, and Raleigh was more of an inner monologue. Or, more idiotically, Raleigh was for girls and Scott is for boys!
Scott was supposed to be inscrutable. In my notes, that had been practically his only characteristic. Thus, narration was immediately out of the question. If he is thinking about his actions, his past, his friends and his life, we only know it from the expression on his face when he’s alone. There are a few panels where he’s alone in the book, and I think invariably he looks like he’s concentrating; that’s not a look he tends to get when he’s talking to people. I… don’t even think that was intentional, actually. But one of the things I wanted to address was the way that we’re different depending who we’re with, and then we’re different again when we’re with no-one. I wanted to paint the picture of everyone based on everyone else’s opinions of them and reactions to them. I get a vivid sense of some of these minor characters based on a few things they carelessly say and a few things other people offhandedly mention about them.
I met more people in the past few years (since I moved to the big city) than I had since high school, and in high school I hated everyone. Lost at Sea was still a reaction to high school, and Scott Pilgrim is a reaction to my early adult life. There’s something about first impressions, and the way your idea of a person grows and changes the more impressions you get of them. That’s how I wanted to introduce everyone in Scott Pilgrim. I don’t want a bunch of exposition saying so-and-so is from wherever, he dated so-and-so, they had a bad breakup and he is very emo. I want it to be like when you’re in a place with a bunch of people, and Person A warmly introduces you to Person B; these are two people you barely know. And after Person B wanders off, Person A mutters to you something about how he hates that pretentious film-school idiot.
This approach has been working, so far as I know. Readers have formed instant impressions based on the appearance of the characters and the few lines of dialogue they happen to have, and that’s curious to me. It’s like cultural anthropology or whatever! Why do people think Kim is so great? Why do people think Scott is such a dick? Is he a dick, or am I just presenting him that way? Am I doing it on purpose, or is it all an accident? It’s a secret! Or time will tell! Or something.
I want tons of reader mail. I want to make charts and graphs of readers’ reactions to characters and situations. I want to put people through the wringer. By the end of Volume 6, I want to have one zillion fans all writing me to tell me they hated the ending and they wish it had all happened some other way.
I once heard David Mack talk about the reasons he created Kabuki, and basically he wanted to write a story about himself but didn’t want to do it in the standard autobio mode, so he created a character who was of a different gender and from a different cultural and historical setting. And then he went ahead and told stories that had emotional resonance with his own life. Raleigh seems to have a milder form of this sort of distance, while Scott seems to have a background that overlaps your own, at least from what little I know of it. Do you have this sort of mindset and has it it changed between books?
I have been mostly interested in doing characters who have things in common with me — working my issues out on the page, I guess. I don’t know if I’ll keep doing this forever, and I certainly didn’t write this way when I was in high school. But yeah, they have things in common with me, and certain aspects or details come from other people, and as I write, they tend to take on lives of their own.
Raleigh is this: I went to college and didn’t make any friends. I felt like I was friend-making-disabled or something. I quit after two years and ran away to California to live with Internet friends who would understand me better. That’s where I first wrote the story. We used to walk around all night and see cats everywhere. And it changed and grew because when I came back to Canada, I got into this terribly romantic long-distance relationship and that’s all while I was writing it. The element of Raleigh having an Internet boyfriend was already in the story, but it was abstract. I really wrote it after my thing ended; I wrote it as I was coming to terms with everything. That explains why it’s scattered and why it’s so deeply felt, in ways. It’s about being really far away from what you think you need, and trying, trying really hard to realize that there are things you need right there in front of you.
That said, it’s not like Raleigh is entirely me. I mean, my parents are happily married, for one obvious thing. I didn’t go to private school, and I never had to wear a uniform. I was on the Internet, and there were girls there who were so smart and so unique and so fascinating, and totally fucked up. I wanted to write a comic for this generation of young people that are too fucked up to live, but not so fucked up that they can’t blog about it. That was me, too.
I’m not sure what I want to say about Scott Pilgrim. He is based on me in some ways, and he’s something entirely unrelated in other ways. It’s hard for me to distinguish. Someone with an outside perspective would probably be able to tell you more. Christopher Butcher, for example, insists that Scott Pilgrim is entirely me.
Jumping off from the question of what’s not autobiography, I’m curious how you handle the people who are not entirely fictional. You’ve named Wallace’s real-life counterpart in the past, and I know he’s proud of his involvement in Scott Pilgrim’s story and in promoting the book. Do you have rules for yourself about what’s fair game and what’s off-limits in the lives of your family and friends? How much input do they get into what goes to print?
Wallace is based on my former roommate. We lived together for two years. They were fairly ridiculous years. I made up Scott Pilgrim and his basic skewed world, and we would ride the bus together and make up more stuff that could go on around him. Some of it made it into the book. Some of it is still to come. Some of it is gone, because the tone changed a bit when I actually wrote the thing.
I don’t know if I actually have rules for what’s fair game. I go on intuition. Scott’s sister is explicitly my own sister, for example, because we thought it would be funny. Her name is Stacey Lee O’Malley in real life. Of course, it’s not really her; it’s kind of a fictionalized, exaggerated version of her from two years ago. The rival band, “Crash and the Boys”, features two of my friends, Luke and Joel — that’s just the equivalent of a celebrity cameo, or casting your friends as extras in your movie. Other characters are loosely based on people I know, or are designed to fill the same role in Scott’s life as someone does in my own. I think this is how people write? I don’t know? It’s a little more explicit in Scott Pilgrim than other cases, I’m sure.
And I have some personal investment in this one as part of a pair of cultural criticism folks, but you’re married to an excellent artist and storyteller, Hope Larson. How is your work influenced and shaped by hers and by your relationship? What are the pluses and minuses of a relationship (or your word of choice) with someone who’s a creator in the same media you are?
Originally, Hope was not interested in participating in comics. She felt like she had nothing to contribute. How the tables have turned! She is drawing like four comics simultaneously as we speak.
I don’t think she’s had that much of an influence on my comics as yet. I think we’ll see that more either as Scott Pilgrim continues, or in later works. I hope her main influence will be that I will be on time, instead of late. The greatest plus, though, is just that we understand each other, and we can discuss these conceptual things, or we can talk about the relative merit of other creators, and we can compare notes on inking and technical matters. She likes my storytelling and I like her capacity for visual abstraction. Or something.
SPX changed our worldview — I think I have to say that somewhere. It was the first time I really felt like a part of something that meant anything. I have contemporaries! I’m part of a community! There are other people my age doing interesting and wonderful things. It gave us hope for the future.
While we’re discussing the spirit of collaboration, I’m also interested in any differences in mindset between your work as part of an artistic team and your work as a solo writer/artist. Would you consider writing a book for someone else to illustrate? To what extent does the writing style influence the art style?
I would write for someone else to draw, if I had a really great idea that I just couldn’t see myself drawing, I suppose. I usually tend to write to my own strengths, though. I’m still waiting for someone to call me up based on their thinking that my dialogue is brilliant, and ask me to write some superficially-similar franchise. Umm… Gen 13, let’s say.
The writing style does influence the art style to some degree. I mean, yeah, I did go from drawing sensitive dot-eyes to drawing big crazy ones. But I try to think of it as a package deal. I’m not “writing” or “drawing” — I’m “comicking,” or whatever the kids in future generations decide to call it. I really don’t consider myself all that good at drawing, but I do consider myself pretty okay at “comicking”. It’s a different discipline and it has to be judged differently. I mean, I can’t play a wicked guitar solo, but I can write and sing and play a song, all on my own, and it sounds pretty decent to some people. And that, although not a metaphor at all, is the perfect metaphor for drawing comics versus just drawing pretty pictures. Sometimes I wish I could draw really beautifully, but these are the abilities I have, and I can’t complain.
You’ve said that Scott Pilgrim is not a trilogy but a larger series, but that’s basically all I know except that it’s going to be several months before I get my next fix and Ramona is outrageously cute on the cover. I know this is not a question, but it certainly is a plea that you share anything you’d like to say about the remainder of the series.
I’d like to do the second and third volumes in rapid succession — hopefully I can finish both before convention season next year, assuming nothing horrible happens. I have those fairly well-planned already, and the first three books constitute a trilogy unto themselves. Volumes 2 and 3 are mostly centered on Scott’s one traumatic ex-girlfriend, who we may already have met without knowing it! After that, I may take a break: do another unrelated book, and then come back six months later with a fresh perspective, taking the series in some kind of Bold New Direction. Not really. I guess it’s kind of planned as two sets of three books, though, at this point, and the break in-between is in consideration.
What can I say about the ongoing story without ruining things? I’m trying to let the characters breathe and write their own situations, and of course my continuing life keeps contributing new ideas. I’m trying to use more interesting Toronto locations, in volume 2 at least. The mix of normalcy and video game surreality will hopefully be smoother, and will hopefully make more sense; at least that’s the intent. That transition in the first book WAS meant to be surprising, or jarring, I have to admit. If people found it too abrupt, that’s their prerogative. I really had no idea if anyone would like any portion of the book whatsoever, except for some of my friends who appeared, so I’m really just totally grateful that there’s such a positive response and a welcoming critical universe here on the Internet.
Update: If you haven’t read Scott Pilgrim and this interview has you intrigued, enter the Scott Pilgrim contest.