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Interview: Scott Pilgrim Creator Bryan Lee O'Malley

by Manu G.,

The one and only Bryan Lee O'Malley attended the most recent FicZone, one of the biggest events in the south of Spain regarding anime, TV series, video games and comics. O'Malley is the creator of the internationally successful graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim, along with other beloved works such as Lost at Sea, Seconds, and most recent work, a collaboration with Leslie Hung called Snotgirl, which is celebrating its second volume out this month. We had the chance to speak with O'Malley in Granada earlier this spring.

Manu: Let's start at the beginning: Lost at Sea, your first work. You drew it when you were 24 years old. How old are you now?

O'MALLEY: I'm 39. That was fifteen years ago.

Do you think that you reflected your own adolescent feelings in Lost at Sea?

When I was in my early twenties I definitely felt like a teen girl. I think that's pretty universal, to be highly emotional in your early twenties, but at the time the only way I could express that was through a teenage girl character.

What do you remember from those years? What kind of worries and aspirations did you have as an artist?

I think I just started wanting to create things but didn't know how yet. I wanted to have friends, moving on from school to real world. It's just this really complicated time in everyone's life i think. So the struggle was just to make something, and that's how I express it in that book.

Lost at Sea is a really personal comic, somehow poetic. Then there's a tone shift when you created Scott Pilgrim. When did you get the spark to create Scott?

I think what happened was that when I was working on Lost at Sea, I was just 23-24 and my life at the time became like what you see in Scott Pilgrim. I was living in Toronto, I have a roommate who was gay, I had a band I was playing in... a lot of things kind of came in to my life around that time when I was working on Lost at Sea, so it became a very natural next step to do a comic about that time of my life.

Was Scott Pilgrim consciously attempting to soften that emotional rawness, and make these feelings a little easier to digest?

Basically when I finished Lost at Sea, I showed it to my friends, and it made them very uncomfortable because it's very emotional. So yeah, I definitely wanted to make something that would make my friends happy, that would make them laugh. They were my initial audience and when the book came out, that helped it relate to many more people than I ever expected.

When you first meet him, Scott is kind of an idiot, but we watch him grow into someone with self-worth and confidence. Did you have particular inspiration for that personality type?

Scott Pilgrim is sort of shonen manga inspired, so that's how the traditional shonen character is: kind of stupid and very hard headed. And I found it was very fun and easy to write a characters who was really stupid (laughs).

How do you manage success? Does making a big hit like Scott Pilgrim change your perspective on life?

I don't know. You know, since the Scott Pilgrim movie came out I go around the world and the people want to see me, and it's a very different situation than most people's life. I don't think I manage it very well, but I just do my best, because people really like the work, they like me. I have to be nice to them. I'm so grateful, but it's not natural for me, I'm a very shy quiet person, so when you see me in the convention I'm smiling and being nice but I'm working really hard (laughs).

In 2014 you published Seconds, which deftly mixes the ideas developed in Scott Pilgrim with the ideas and emotions in Lost at Sea. Was that always your goal?

I think so. I'm always trying to find a way to bridge the worlds of emotion and fun. That's what makes works ideal to me. So I think Seconds is very good, I was happy with it. I'm always trying to make it more perfect every time.

What kind of narrative style would you say you feel more comfortable with?

Like I said it's easy for me to write some stupid donkey character or to write friendly chatter, but at the same time I'm always trying to go out of my comfort area. So I don't know if I'm comfortable with any one style – I'd just like to write a nice scene.

Do your friends ever feel worry about saying something that you might put in one of your comics?

I don't have any friends... (laughs). You know, It's actually true. I do have friends, but I lost lot of my friends from the Scott Pilgrim days when I moved to California. Besides that, I took some of my friends to the Scott Pilgrim premiere in Toronto and it was so awkward, they left without saying anything at the end, no comments. It's a weird life, making stories, especially with Scott Pilgrim because it was so close to our lives at that time. We all had different versions of the things we were experiencing. And to see my version on big screen - it was very uncomfortable for some people.

Now you're working on the script for Snotgirl, a comic drawn by Leslie Hung about the ups and downs of a fashion blogger. How do you feel about that kind of collaboration?

Leslie Hung and I were good friends, I always liked her art. And I think any good artist should draw a comic, because I think not enough people draw comics. I encouraged her to make a comic and eventually I offered to help her, and it became a collaboration. It's a challenge to write without drawing for me, but I think I'm getting more confident with Leslie as we go on.

Snotgirl is more complex than the initial concept might suggest. What are you aiming to express with this series?

Snotgirl is about the modern world, modern technology and social media, about how we interact with people in 2018. And like in our own world, nothing makes sense. I feel that's sort of normal now, people don't do what they say. It's complex and hard to explain. I'm trying to explain something that I can't articulate with words, hopefully you'll understand it at the end of the comic.

At the same time you're working on Worst World, your new series. What can you tell us about that?

I've been developing my new series for a few years. I thought it would be finished by now, but it's not. It's basically a story about Los Angeles, California, which is a place that has been in lots of stories and movies, so I'm doing a story that adds something to the existing myth of this place. But basically it's like Scott Pilgrim in LA (laughs) with less video games and more anime.

Taking in consideration your previous work, what can we expect? We've seen some fantasy, realism, interpersonal relationships, lots of personal stuff... which path is Worst World taking?

Like I've been saying I'm always trying to find a path that's between all those things and Worst World. I gave it the title of Worst World, so I feel like it's a really big title and I need to do it justice. Which is why it's taking so long to write the story. There's this fancy relationship stuff, action and comedy. So I'm trying to do all the things that I like to do and put them in the books, that's my goal.

Your drawing in Worst World seems different from your previous work, Seconds. How are you handling your artistic approach to this new series?

Seconds was very chibi, very cute, like in manga. With Worst World I want the characters to take me to a different place, with more realistic proportions. And I spent the last few years drawing in sketchbooks, which I've never really done before, just taking time to draw. And I feel like I got more comfortable with drawing. I'm not drawing the actual comic, I'm about to start. Everything so far has been preparatory art.

When an artist releases a new work, they always says something like “this is my best work yet”. Will this be the case for Worst World?

Yes, I hope so (laughs).

Would you like to work on something other than comics?

I have thought about doing other stuff outside of comics. For a while I was talking to some people about doing animation, I was pitching cartoon ideas. But I realized it was taking too much time, even to come up with the ideas it was taking a lot of time away from comics. And if I was successful, pitching an idea, it would take years of my life going to an office everyday to work on the cartoon. It sounds really boring! For my comics it's just me, my pens and papers and my imagination, I don't have to go to meetings. That's too much work for me, too much human interaction.

You said once in an interview that you don't mind being known as “the guy from Scott Pilgrim”. Even so, do you feel any pressure to reinvent yourself with every new work?

It's funny because it's been a long time now. It's been fourteen years since the first Scott Pilgrim book. It's been almost eight years since the movie came out. So now there's a new problem - kids are too young to know what Scott Pilgrim is, which is stressful sometimes. So on one hand I have to keep the fans happy. And on the other hand I have to entertain younger kids who don't even care what Scott Pilgrim is. So yeah, you do have to reinvent yourself every time, it can't be the exact same. If I do something that turns out exactly like Scott Pilgrim, I'm sure a lot of people would be happy, but then a lot of people would also say “oh, this is too old, it's from the 2000s”. I wouldn't be happy with that, I need to innovate.

Do you think it's possible to appeal to a younger audience when you're preoccupied with growing up?

Is it possible? I don't think so. You can't please all the people all the time. You know, with Snotgirl, I feel like a lot of Scott Pilgrim fans just take one look at it and they know it's not for them, which is fine. But with Worst World I feel more responsibility towards that existing fanbase, to make something that can appeal to them and speak to them as they get older. Because it's been a long time. Some of my fans were teenagers when they started reading Scott Pilgrim, and they still need someone to speak for them, so that's what I'm trying to do now.

What would you say is the most difficult part of being Bryan Lee O'Malley?

I don't know, I don't like to complain, because my life is pretty good. I've had so much success, I never expected my life to be this way. I always wanted to draw comics, but I didn't know that I would go to Spain and people would know my name. How can I complain or say that it's difficult? You know, it's hard to take a twelve hour flight to Spain, but when you get here it's fun, so it's not that hard (laughs).

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