Bryan Lee O'Malley
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Named after a song by the little-known Canadian band Plumtree, Scott Pilgrim is steeped in indie-rock. References to everyone from The Shins to Neko Case pop up in the pages of the graphic-novel series, and its main characters play in a gloriously sloppy group of their own called Sex Bob-omb. Writer-artist Bryan Lee O'Malley even records humble, lo-fi pop under the name Kupek—but there's much more to Scott Pilgrim than simple hipness. Dovetailing romance, comedy, martial arts, and science fiction with a cartoony style that draws from manga and video games, the series began in 2004 after O'Malley's beautiful, brooding debut Lost At Sea sank without a trace. Scott Pilgrim's vivid energy quickly drew attention: Revolving around the titular hero—a hapless twentysomething who must battle his girlfriend's evil ex-boyfriends while learning to cope with a gay roommate, a struggling band, and the looming responsibilities of adulthood—the book sweetly balances silly fantasy with tangible drama and consequence.
O'Malley's newly released fourth volume, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, is his best to date. Besides the earth-shaking changes Scott and his circle of friends undergo, O'Malley has raised the bar, art-wise: His deceptively basic style is suddenly deeper, richer, and more mature, while his eye for dynamics and graphic economy has gotten even keener. A winner of numerous awards and nominated for a 2006 Eisner for Best Writer-Artist: Humor, O'Malley received an even bigger boost two years ago when Universal Pictures optioned Scott Pilgrim for the big screen—a project that writer-director Edgar Wright of Spaced, Shaun Of The Dead, and Hot Fuzz fame now has plans to help. After recently moving from Toronto to rural Nova Scotia with his wife Hope Larson, also an acclaimed graphic novelist—O'Malley spoke with The A.V. Club about meeting actors, the pitfalls of dialogue, and where his muse might take him after Scott Pilgrim wraps up.
The A.V. Club: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together is a pretty apt title—Scott finally gets a job and has a big breakthrough in his relationship. Were you feeling the same way while making it?
Bryan Lee O'Malley: Not really. Scott Pilgrim is a few years behind me, thank God. I mean, I have my own stuff going on, but for the most part, I was pretty settled already when I was making this book.
AVC: So you went through some similar struggles a few years back?
BLM: I say that jokingly. Scott Pilgrim is fictional. [Laughs.] The book did sort of start out a little autobiographically, with me exploring what was going on in my own life, but it's diverged since then.
AVC: Has the success of Scott Pilgrim been pretty steady, or have there been some surges?
BLM: Each new book that comes out kind of pulls up the old ones a little bit. The new releases are always going to bolster the old releases. It's been a pretty general, gradual, upward curve.
AVC: The art has taken a big leap forward on Gets It Together.
BLM: Definitely. There was a long break before finishing the third book and starting the fourth one; there was about six months when I was absorbing other stuff and not drawing very much. After a long period of not drawing, you have to, like, relearn how to draw. It's not very fun. But yeah, there are a lot of different influences on this book. [Manga and anime legend] Osama Tezuka was probably the biggest. I was going for all this really clean figure-work.
AVC: With the increasing success and visibility of Scott Pilgrim—especially with the movie in the works—did you feel the need to step things up, art-wise?
BLM: I feel like I should be doing that, but sometimes I get the sense that people would rather I keep drawing exactly the same. [Laughs.] I wasn't really the greatest artist at the beginning of this, but I'm trying to improve. But I do get the sense sometimes that if I draw things too nice, maybe I won't be indie-rock enough anymore. [Laughs.]
AVC: In interviews, you usually seem a little reluctant to talk about the indie-rock element of Scott Pilgrim.
BLM: It's just so indirect. It's hard for me to verbalize it. I'm not very good at verbalizing in the first place, so
AVC: But you don't stick to just indie-rock in the book. One of your main characters is named Stephen Stills, and another is named Young Neil.
BLM: I feel like a lot of kids who maybe get the Nintendo references don't necessarily get all the music stuff. I guess I just wanted to put the rounded sides of my interest in there. When I was starting the book, I was listening to a lot of '70s music and country-rock, that Neil Young and Gram Parsons school of music. Now that influence is on the pace of the book, the laid-back feeling of it. Canadian indie-rock was behind the whole thing; the name comes from a Canadian indie-rock song from the '90s. But a lot of that stuff was influenced by '70s rock. I'd been listening to all that, tracing it back. It all goes into Scott Pilgrim. It's kind of my whole synthesis of everything I care about.
AVC: In "Helpless," Neil Young sings about his childhood in Ontario. You grew up there, too. Does his music resonate with you in particular?
BLM: I'm too young to have experienced firsthand the '70s rock, but when I was in high school, me and my friends were super into Neil Young. That was the grunge era, and he was considered cool again. He doesn't really talk about being Canadian all that much—he's really a California guy now—but we felt an affinity for him. He was always a hero of my people, I suppose.
AVC: Do you see Scott Pilgrim drifting away from the indie-rock focus or even the musical focus in general?
BLM: It'll definitely be there throughout the whole thing. It's one of the threads, even though it may not be as strong in the new book. There's a lot of other stuff going on, but it's still important.
AVC: In the first two Scott Pilgrim books, you actually wrote a couple songs and worked them into the story. You included the chord changes and everything.
BLM: I do want to do more of that. I had a lot of fun with that. Writing music is sort of my hobby, but it's been falling off more and more. Doing comic books takes up my entire life.
AVC: You recently moved from the city to the country, too. Has that absence from the music scene made it harder to get motivated to write your own songs?
BLM: For sure. I used to be in bands and stuff, and I don't really have that right now. But I'm always sort of shopping around to start a new band.
AVC: Beside the music side of Scott Pilgrim, there's always been a hint of science fiction, but it pops up here and there without much explanation or follow-through.
BLM: I'm walking a line, I guess, and sometimes I feel like I'm going to go too far one way or the other. In this new book, I tried to tone the science fiction down a little more, but it creeps in anyway. It's a balancing act I'm constantly doing.
AVC: The focus really seems to be the characterization and dialogue. Does it ever become challenging, graphically speaking, to keep things moving that way?
BLM: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah. That was one of my main challenges in this book. There is a lot of talking, but I tried to keep it interesting to look at. I don't want to spend my entire life drawing talking heads. It seems like a waste of everyone's time. I do try to cram more in more dialogue per page, all the blah, blah, blah. Then when it comes to an action scene or an important emotional beat, I try to open it up a bit and have bigger panels per page.
AVC: Your dialogue has a lot of quirks and twists, and sometimes it even takes on a surreal quality. There's little of the forced naturalism that's in a lot of comics.
BLM: I used to be really influenced by Brian Bendis, back in his indie days. But I guess I try to tone that down. With Bendis' dialogue, you kind of hear it in your head, but in standard comic-book talk, every other word is bolded for no apparent reason. It's really stilted. I'm trying to walk somewhere in between. I feel like I have an ear for it. I'm not a decent talker, but I'm a decent listener, apparently.
AVC: What's the news with the Scott Pilgrim movie?
BLM: There's a lot going on, but I'm not actually allowed to talk about it. It feels like something might happen soon, but I've been saying that for two years now.
AVC: With Edgar Wright on board, do you envision it being at all similar to Spaced?
BLM: Fox announced that they're adapting Spaced for U.S. television, but I felt like the Scott Pilgrim movie would be more of a spiritual descendant of Spaced than that Fox thing could ever be. It's got the roommate dynamic. It's got the pop-culture references and crazy antics. And I have a feeling it'll have a lot of whip-pans.
AVC: Any dream cast in mind?
BLM: I've already been introduced to some actors here and there, but no one's signed yet.
AVC: Will you have any say in the casting, or are you basically just a consultant?
BLM: No, I just met actors as people, not as a casting thing. Edgar was sort of having secret meetings with some of them, but I don't know what was said or who he wants for what.
AVC: Your first graphic novel, Lost At Sea, seems just as suitable to being adapted. Were you surprised when Scott Pilgrim took off in a way that Lost At Sea didn't?
BLM: I was definitely surprised. No one read Lost At Sea at the time, and I was pretty much ready for Scott Pilgrim to come out and disappear the same way. The first Scott Pilgrim book actually had less initial orders than Lost At Sea did. I was like, "Oh, great, whatever." I was really just doing it for myself and for my friends, but then it caught on. I guess Scott Pilgrim was intended to be more commercial, but it didn't take at first.
AVC: Do you think the poignant undercurrent of Scott Pilgrim ever gets glossed over by all the pop culture and ninja battles?
BLM: I'm sure some people don't get it, but I think most of them do appreciate it on a slightly deeper level. I'm sometimes sort of in touch with the readership, and they seem to have perceptive questions, for the most part. They're figuring it out. I think the emotional core is what's helping sell it, especially to all the sensitive people. [Laughs.] My readership seems to be the sensitive people, for the most part. Then there are the occasional fans who are like, "Ah, video games!"
AVC: A lot of the character development is very gradual and subtle.
BLM: I'm a firm believer in stories with arcs and beginnings and endings and all that. Scott Pilgrim is sort of one long novel, and it's so long that I get confused and sort of tread water sometimes. But there's definitely a goal to it. People who just dismiss it as shallow, that's their prerogative, but it's not really my intent.
AVC: You once said that you absolutely had to finish the sixth and final Scott Pilgrim book by the time you turned 30. What's up with the deadline?
BLM: [Laughs.] Well, I have other stuff I want to do. I'm trying to hurry the hell up, because these books just take forever. The new one especially; I was just dragging my feet on it. It's more like, "Hurry up and move on with your life." At the same time, I think Scott Pilgrim is for people in their 20s. Or at least it should be created by someone in their 20s. [Laughs.]
AVC: What kind of projects do you want to do in the future?
BLM: I think I'll be exploring similar themes, just in completely different ways from Scott Pilgrim. Like adding a string section to the same crappy three chords.