Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim books are the best comics being published today. For one thing, they’re the only comics I’ll read on the subway – Scott Pilgrim and his adventures are completely hip and funny. In fact the only embarrassing thing about reading a Scott Pilgrim digest on a subway filled with cute girls is the fact that I’ll probably be laughing out loud.
Scott Pilgrim is a Canadian slacker who plays bass in a band called the Sex Bob-ombs. One day he meets an American girl named Ramona Flowers, who delivers packages for amazon.ca by using hyperspace shortcuts that go through people’s dreams. Scott and Ramona start dating, but he soon learns it won’t be quite that easy – to really win Ramona he has to fight and defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends.
The cast of O’Malley’s universe is big and getting bigger, and contains memorable characters like Knives Chau, the high school girl Scott was dating before Ramona; Wallace, Scott’s gay roommate who is actually his bedmate (they can only afford one bed); Kim Pine and Stephen Stills, the other members of Sex Bob-omb; and many more. It’s a world set in Toronto’s indie rock scene as interpreted through a haze of video games and anime. It’s incredibly unique, original, and endlessly delightful. In the first volume Scott battles the first evil ex-boyfriend in a Bollywood-esque musical number that includes demon girls tossing fireballs. It’s just that kind of book.
The third volume in the six volume series – Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness – has just been released (click here to buy it from CHUD. Click here to buy the first volume, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, and click here to buy the second volume, Scott Pilgrim vs the World), but the story has already been optioned for a movie by Universal, with Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright at the helm.
Bryan Lee O’Malley came to New York this past weekend for the MoCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) Art Festival 2006, one of the country’s biggest conventions focusing on the small press market. O’Malley found himself one of the stars of the show – when I arrived for our interview he had already sold out of all the books he had brought, and it was only four hours since the doors opened. He’s a tall guy, and much smarter than his endearingly dopey lead character.
Two quick things: In my time doing interviews, I have had only a few people sign autographs for me – Peter O’Toole, Brad Pitt, Woody Allen… and now Bryan Lee O’Malley. He did a very nice Scott sketch in my first edition of Precious Little Life. The second thing is that after the interview we chatted off the record for a bit about the movie, and I have nothing but supreme confidence in Edgar Wright’s ability to take this strange and wonderful comic and make it into a truly great film.
Q: What do the Sex Bob-Ombs sound like?
O’Malley: That’s the first question?! Have you heard the first Bis album? The first album, before they went all electro, it sounded like eight year olds playing rock music really fast. I always liked that idea. But it’s kind of like eight year olds playing country rock really fast, because Stephen Stills is the king of the band. So sloppy, fast, Uncle Tupelo meets The Go Team.
Q: There’s Stephen Stills. There’s Young Neil. Are we going to see a Nash? A Crosby?
O’Malley: No, those guys don’t count to me. Just Stills and Young. I really just like the names.
Q: You’re a Gram Parsons fan?
O’Malley: Oh yeah, for sure. I’ve been listening to him again recently. The Flying Burrito Brothers compilation that came out a few years ago. It’s the best thing ever.
Q: There’s a new box set of Gram coming out June 20 – remastered versions of his two solo albums and a bonus disc of unreleased songs and interviews. Is that something you listen to when you’re working? And do you write and then draw, or do you do both at the same time?
O’Malley: I try to write first, but I end up rewriting it as I’m going. Usually I don’t listen to that much – when I’m writing I listen to instrumental and ambient, but when I’m drawing I’m all over the place. I listen to a lot of stuff. Last year it was a lot of Ryan Adams, because he released three albums. The indie rock flavor of the week – I just go through so much stuff. I listed some stuff in the back of Volume 2, stuff that was influential. Spoon, Gram Parsons, The Replacements.
Q: I had read that when you got the movie they had wanted to know where the series was going and you had to work it all out for them. Did you have any sort of idea where the series was going when you began?
O’Malley: I had a loose idea, but I hadn’t decided what each ex-boyfriend was, and they wanted that. They wanted something more specific, so I had to make that up. At the time I was like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?!’, but now I feel like it’s all good. It works. I think it was a good thing.
Q: You met with Edgar Wright and took him on a tour of Toronto. What was he like?
O’Malley: It was good. He’s normal, down to Earth; he’s kind of a nerdy guy. Other than being on his phone and his Blackberry every second of the day – but that’s because he’s a director, I guess. I took him to this weird movie store in Toronto and he bought 200 dollars worth of weird movies. He wanted to see all the spots I reference in the books. And the screenwriter Michael Bacall was there too.
Q: What’s it like to take this book that you’ve created and hand it over to someone else to make into their own thing?
O’Malley: With someone I respect and I know their work is good, that’s nice. If it was Brett Ratner, maybe no – especially after X3. But having this guy who I respect and who respects me – we communicate about it, so that’s good. At least until he started Hot Fuzz. Now he’s dead to the world.
Q: How many copies of Volume 1 of Scott Pilgrim were printed?
O’Malley: Probably about 1200 or 2,000.
Q: And how many of Volume 3?
O’Malley: At least 10,000. It’s been like times ten.
Q: Who’s buying them? Who’s the fanbase?
O’Malley: It seems like everyone from age 11 to 40, men and women both. It’s spreading so rapidly. It’s kind of disturbing. I hear a lot of people who lent it out not to just one friend but to every person they know, and they all went out and bought it. And a lot of them were waiting for Volume 3, so they bought it when it came out – we sold 200 copies on Amazon in the first week, which is pretty good for an indie book. It’s been a crazy viral thing. I haven’t started street teams or anything; they’ve started themselves.
Q: Is there a pressure now that you have an audience that’s ten times bigger?
O’Malley: Yeah. Even when I was finishing up Volume 3 I felt a pressure. I spend too much time on the internet, reading what people say about me. It’s a bad idea.
Q: What’s funny is that almost everything on the internet is positive, which is weird because the internet is the most negative place in history.
O’Malley: I know, it’s weird. It’s starting to get a negative backlash now, because I think it’s at the level now where it’s big enough for people to hate it. I think that’s good; it could lead to bigger and better things.
Q: When you’re working on a volume do you have a goal of so many pages in a day, or do you let it go as it will?
O’Malley: It comes and goes because it takes so long. It’s not like doing a movie shoot or something, where it’s a certain number of weeks until it’s done. This is as long as it takes, and it ebbs and flows. Sometimes I’m really depressed and sometimes I’m really raring to go. But I aim to do a certain number of pages a week, which I pretty much never do – until the end.
Q: Is there an idea of when Volume 4 might hit? Have you begun it yet?
O’Malley: No. I’m working on the plot and script and stuff. But probably not until 2007.
Q: Does Oni get on your case?
O’Malley: They scheduled Volume 3 really early because they wanted to… I guess. I don’t know why. I wanted to push it back, but they didn’t want to, so it was really late.
Q: How has it been at MoCCA – have you had a ton of people here for you?
O’Malley: Yeah. I only brought a hundred something books and I sold them all in under three hours.
Q: And MOCCA is a lot bigger than it used to be.
O’Malley: It is. This year is way bigger than last year, it seems.
Q: Do you think that alternative and indie comics might be coming back? They seemed to really hit in the 90s and then they faded away again.
O’Malley: I don’t know. It seems like it. But then at the same time, I’m getting personally more popular (I guess), so it does seem harder for me to gauge how it’s going. It does all seem bigger this year, though. Last year I brought 60 books and I sold them by Sunday morning. This year was a hundred in the first three hours.
Q: What are you going to do for the rest of the show?
O’Malley: [laughs] I don’t know! I’m going to fuck off and die. Yeah, I got nothing.
Q: Has there been any thought about doing a Scott Pilgrim video game? The book is so video game oriented.
O’Malley: Yeah, but no talks or anything. We’ll wait to see how the movie goes – doesn’t Universal have a video game arm?
Q: What’s the current stance on merchandising in general?
O’Malley: They want me to do t-shirt designs really bad, and I want to do them really bad too, but I just have been busy, and I feel like I’m not good at t-shirt designs. I’ve been struggling with it. Hopefully by San Diego we’ll have some ready.
Q: And toys?
O’Malley: Toys? I’m not sure. We were talking about vinyl figures, but we’re just slow. There are only three people who work at Oni. It’s a pretty low budget operation.
Q: When you began this it was all a low budget thing – you were still a struggling artist. Now I’m assuming you’re struggling a lot less. What is that like? How does it affect you as an artist?
O’Malley: I’m not complaining! I used to complain a lot, but right now I don’t have much to complain about. Which is weird. But it’s nice. It was four or five years of just living month to month, and basically from the beginning of 2006 we’ve been able to afford stuff above what we need. We have what we need, and now we can buy other stuff. We bought a laser printer – we don’t need it, but we printed a thousand pages on it the first week we had it, so we use it.
Q: What is it about Scott Pilgrim that has made it work? What is the element that has made this book so successful?
O’Malley: Most people seemed to get sucked in by the video gamey references. I think that’s a good superficial hook. Hopefully they stay because they have more depth to it – I want it to have more depth, but we’ll see. Maybe towards the end. I want to have a million people reading the last book. And I want to just crush them all.
Q: It’s going to be six volumes? I had heard it was going to be seven at one point…
O’Malley: No, it just seems like it’s going to be seven because there are seven evil ex-boyfriends. But I’m not going to explain why, because I want to make a joke out of it in the next volume.
Q: And the Free Comic Book Day issue takes place where?
O’Malley: After Volume 3, but I’m a little bit iffy about the thing. So I’m not sure. I may put it in the back of Volume 4 and I may not. We’ll see.
Q: Why did you put the “Who’s Who” on the back page of Volume 3? Such a weird spot.
O’Malley: Yeah, it was a stupid idea! It was my fault. It was because I have this continuing motif on the front covers and I didn’t want to spoil that, but next time I will. I’ll have it in the front.
Q: Is there a character who is your favorite?
O’Malley: No. I can’t compare. I like them all.
Q: Is there one who is more fun to draw?
O’Malley: I like drawing Ramona, and I like writing Kim Pine and Wallace.
Q: Is Kim Pine going to get a boyfriend? She’s so adorable.
O’Malley: She might in the next one. We’ll see. It’s a soap opera; I don’t want to break everyone’s hearts. You didn’t see the buttons, but I made “I Wish Kim Pine Was My Girlfriend” buttons, and they’re all gone.
Q: What video games have you been playing lately?
O’Malley: Lately I’ve been buying video games. Like I said I’ve had money to burn lately. I’ve been buying cheap ones for PS2; I’ve been buying ones I missed over the last couple of years because I never got a PS2 until last year. The first Prince of Persia and Breath of Fire, random shit like that.
Q: How about Guitar Hero?
O’Malley: I haven’t played it.
Q: It’s incredible.
O’Malley: People tell me all the time. I hate spending that much money on a video game.
Q: You have to find a friend who has it, and I guarantee you’ll want to buy it after you play it. You have that Hollywood money!
O’Malley: We’ll see when it rolls in!
Q: Speaking of that, what was it like when they called you and said they wanted to option the book? Did that blow your mind?
O’Malley: Probably. I don’t remember. I’m so jaded now. [laughs] It was all done through Oni; they have a production company. They called up and said Edgar Wright read the book and liked it, and Marc Platt of Marc Platt Productions called with his big scary producer voice and I was like, [high pitched] ‘Yes sir! Yes sir!’ That’s all I really remember. And Edgar called – I had a message on my machine when I was a starving artist, and I would replay it. His little English voice.
Q: Are there other ideas that are kicking around that you can’t wait to get to? Scott Pilgrim is such a long project that you probably won’t be able to do another big work for years.
O’Malley: That was my whole plan at the beginning. I wanted to commit to this long term relationship. I think it’s working out so far, halfway through. But that was the plan from the beginning and I look at all the books as one long project. But yeah, there’s stuff where I’m like, ‘I should just quit and write this other book!’ It’s always something that’s completely the opposite [of Scott Pilgrim]. My next franchise that’s going to make me millions of dollars, that’s going to have come after.
Q: Looking from Book 1 to Book 3, your style has evolved. Are you ever tempted to go back to the early stuff in future printings and touch it up, to do the old George Lucas on Volume 1?
O’Malley: That way lies madness. The old George Lucas – that’s terrifying. I want to; my heart wants to, but I refuse.