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Interview: Bryan Lee O'Malley

Creator of Scott Pilgrim and Lost at Sea

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Bryan Lee O'Malley with

Bryan Lee O'Malley with "Ramona Flowers"

© Deb Aoki

On a Monday evening in July, on Markham Street in Toronto, I witnessed something pretty amazing. Over 2,500 comics fans enthusiastically and peacefully gathered for one purpose: to be one of the first to purchase the sixth and final volume of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour.

While over 150 comic shops across North America hosted midnight release parties that night, only one shop, The Beguiling had a very special guest in attendance: comics creator and former Toronto resident Bryan Lee O'Malley. There were costume contests, video game demos and live bands performing that night, and even Ellen Wong, the actress who plays Knives Chau in the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movie was there too. But for the fans who came out that night, the main attraction was O'Malley, who signed books and posters and posed for photos at two autograph sessions, one earlier in the evening and another after midnight when the book was officially released to the public. To his credit, O'Malley signed items for over 1,250 fans that night, and stayed up until almost 3:45 am to make sure that no one went away disappointed.

I caught up with O'Malley in Toronto prior to that night's events, and before the full court press publicity blitz surrounding the release of the book and the Edgar Wright-directed movie adaption of his creation, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was unleashed upon the crowds at San Diego Comic-Con 2010 a few days later. O'Malley had been up since 6 am that day to do interviews with several TV shows, newspapers and magazines, so he was a little dazed by it all, but in good spirits. We talked about his early manga influences, his Toronto roots, his encounters with Hollywood, and reflected a bit on why Scott Pilgrim is an unlikely superhero for our times.

EVEN A MONKEY CAN DRAW SHONEN MANGA

Q: For me, what's really interesting about Scott Pilgrim is that it starts off being this story about this slacker guy who's in a band, and he has some relationship problems. Then about a third of the way into the first volume, the video game element kicks in somewhat unexpectedly. When I read it for the first time, I thought, "Whoa. What the heck?" So what inspired you to do put this twist into your story?

Bryan Lee O'Malley: Y'know, I don't know! I have a hard time pinpointing that kind of thing. Obviously, I played a lot of video games when I was a kid, through middle school and high school. I was really into manga too.

I guess the concept of fighting the ex-boyfriends, and the structure of this story, one of the things that inspired this was the book, Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga (by Koji Aihara and Kentaro Takekuma). Me and Chris (Butcher, manager of The Beguiling), we both LOVED that book. I was just getting started as a cartoonist. I read the chapter about shonen manga in that book, and thought, 'Wow, this is great.'

It wasn't like I had read a whole lot of shonen manga before then. (Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga) described the structure of shonen manga plots kind of like it's a shish-kebab, where there's meatball, meatball, meatball on a stick, with each meatball representing a fight; that's how it explained what shonen manga really is. (laughs) So that just kind of stuck in my head.

I knew I wanted to structure this story like a video game. The other thing was that my wife, who was then my girlfriend, told me that she dated three guys named Matt — not at the same time, but at certain points in her life. I always thought that was kind of hilarious, so I thought it would be fun to draw a story about exes. Somehow, the 'evil' part came into play.

Also, I wanted to do a comic with fights in it, because I feel that comics are good at that, or that comics are supposed to be about fights. Similarly, if there's a band in the comic, I'll put "The Archies" on the drum kit, because all bands in comics are kind of like the Archies. I don't know – I guess that's how my brain was working at the time! A lot of it just flowed out naturally.

Q: Actually, I wanted to ask you about something that totally threw me for a loop in Scott Pilgrim. There's this scene in Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe, when Ramona... well, for several volumes, when Ramona gets upset, she gets this intense look on her face, and these lines radiate out of her head. All the while, I’m thinking, 'Oh, that's Bryan's way of representing that Ramona is angry, that she's radiating emotional tension.'

But then there's a scene in Volume 5 when Kim asks Ramona, "Hey, what's with your head?" and Scott cries out, "You can see it TOO?" Whoah, wait. You mean those lines coming out of her head are more than just comic-book visual symbols to show the reader that Ramona is feeling certain emotions – but that these lines are actually something that the other characters in the book can SEE? Holy cow. Whut?

Bryan Lee O'Malley: (smiles) I like walking that line where you're not sure whether what's happening is real or not. I like it when I can pull the rug out from under you, a little bit! I think that there was some foreshadowing of this phenomenon in earlier volumes, and it's also definitely in Volume 6.

Q: I so did not expect that. So yeah, you kinda blew my mind there. (laughs)


RANMA ½ AND SAILOR MOON: THE GATEWAY DRUGS TO ANIME/MANGA FANDOM

Q: You've mentioned Ranma ½ by Rumiko Takahashi as one of your 'gateway drugs' that got you interested in manga. Were there other titles?

Bryan Lee O'Malley: I really got into manga in the first place because of Sailor Moon, which was really big on Canadian television. At first my little sister would be watching it, and I'd think "Ugh, girl's stuff!" I was 16 at the time. But she'd watch it every day, and I'd catch little bits of it. When it first premiered, it was playing every day. By the 10th or 12th episode, I was hooked!

So then I became this massive anime nerd! I lived in London, which is two hours away, so I'd come to Toronto with my Chinese friend, and we'd go to Chinatown, not downtown Chinatown but another one in another part of the city, where they had this big mall where they'd sell trinkets, CDs and videos, mostly bootleg stuff. I was really into that stuff.

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