A Precious Little Life
Bryan Lee O'Malley talks shop about his Oni Press series Scott Pilgrim, his inspirations and the manga industry.
There's only one person who could write and draw a comic involving garage bands, subspace highways and romance, and have it all make sense: Bryan Lee O'Malley. In Scott Pilgrim, he does just that. Scott is a twenty-three year old guy who has it all: he plays bass guitar in a great mediocre band, has a roommate who foots the bill for everything, and he is going out with a seventeen year old high schooler. He's more then content with his life, until a certain girl starts roller-skating through his dreams. When he meets the mystery woman in real life at a party, Scott falls for her. However, the enigmatic Ramona Flowers has six or seven evil ex-boyfriends, and they aren't going to give Ramona up without a fight. Literally. Scott has to physically defeat Ramona's ex-flames, going up against their magic powers and bad fashion sense in order to go out with her.
Bryan's other graphic novel, Lost At Sea, is a calmer but no less remarkable story about a girl on a road trip from California to British Columbia with three people she hardly knows. Along the way, Raleigh reflects on her parents, friends, and the cat that stole her soul.
With appealing black and white art that will be comfortably familiar to any manga fan, both Lost At Sea and Scott Pilgrim are great comics to check out, available from Oni Press.
Bryan Lee O'Malley was kind enough to do an e-mail interview with Animefringe and talk about himself and his stories.
AF/Shannon Fay: First of all, thank you for doing this interview. Right now you're finishing the second volume in the Scott Pilgrim series. What exactly goes into making each volume?
BO/Bryan Lee O'Malley: It changes a little with each book, but generally first there's a lot of thinking, waiting for inspiration, making notes and doing little character and costume sketches. I'll try to form a rough scene-by-scene outline, which tends to change a lot as I work. Then I try to write a script, which is mostly dialogue and some stage directions. This goes through many revisions as well. When I was younger, I never rewrote anything and I always thought I was perfect, but I've come to realize that rewrites are a normal part of the process, and my work has been getting better for it.
After the script I do stuff in this order: thumbnails, layouts, pencils, inks, scanning, toning, lettering. I try to juggle all these tasks, so that I don't get bored with any one thing. I come up with the panel layout, sketch it out in a small thumbnail version, then ink the panel lines onto the final pages (so they won't get erased while I'm penciling and erasing!). After that I roughly pencil everything in, then ink the major stuff with a brush, and fill in details with pens or markers. I do the pages about 7" x 11", so they're easy to scan. Once they're scanned, I occasionally do some gray-tones on the computer, and I also do the lettering that way.
AF: Wow, so a lot of planning and work. Did you ever take any formal art classes?
BO: I only took art in high school. I didn't like it that much. I was rebellious and stupid. I walked out in the first half-hour of the first day of my last year of art class and dropped the course. In university, I took Film Studies, because I thought maybe it would help with my comics, but I was a bad student and I failed a lot, and I was lazy and I dropped out.
AF: How much of an influence were manga and anime on your style?
BO: I was really into anime in high school. Anime was easier to find than manga at that time (mid 90s). There was a rental store called Jumbo Video that seemed to have all the anime, so at some point my friends and I started checking it out and we found some ones that we liked a lot, like Ranma 1/2 and stuff, later, Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop. We were also watching Sailor Moon, which had just started playing on YTV at the time. My younger sister was originally watching it, but me and my friend, Chris McNally got sucked in. Anyway, one day I decided to try drawing in that Sailor Moon style, and I practiced for a while and started making up my own anime fantasy characters, and I drew a few crappy comics and stuff.
After high school, I was reading more independent comics and I started drawing different styles. Then I went to northern California for half a year when I was twenty-two, staying with some comic artist friends. San Francisco has a great Little Tokyo type of area with good bookstores and stuff, and all my friends there had great (untranslated) manga collections, which I obsessively pored over, trying to absorb the drawing and the storytelling and the general vibe. So obviously the Japanese stuff has been a big influence on me. I just don't think I draw well enough to pull it off, so I try to do my own thing.
My California comic artist friends quit drawing comics, and later went on to create this website, Gaia, and now they are rich and famous.
AF: I found a list of yours on Amazon, citing Nana by Ai Yazawa as an inspiration. Can you elaborate on that? Are you looking forward to it being published in English by Viz?
BO: I read Nana in French. I have up to volume 10. I was up to around 4 or 5 when I did Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1. It was my obsession at the time. I just really liked the story. I like the way Yazawa presents information about her characters, and how they are able to grow and change. I find that after Volume 5, Nana went downhill for me. It gets slow and repetitive. But the first few volumes really blew me away. I'm glad it'll be released and that English readers can finally discover it.
AF: Me too, I'm really looking forward to reading it.
Right now, there's a big demand domestically for manga from both Japanese and North American artists. Seven Seas Entertainment is a new company that publishes original English manga, TOKYOPOP has their Rising Stars contest, and Oni Press lists Scott Pilgrim, Lost At Sea and other series as manga. What's your take on that?
BO: I don't know if I'd call my books manga. I didn't even realize Oni Press was billing them as such. Manga is just a publishing buzzword right now. It's hot like Harry Potter, so publishers want to try to get some of that action. Scott Pilgrim is definitely more "manga" than Lost at Sea, but it isn't REALLY trying to be manga. It's influenced by manga in its storytelling and the crazy stuff that happens. The characters have big eyes, but they're not really all that manga-looking. It's something else.
Anyway, I have yet to see TOKYOPOP's true rollout of Western-creator manga. I think it'll start happening as the year goes on. From what I hear, they seem to have slightly ridiculous expectations from the artists that they've hired. Doing a whole book is a huge task. In Japan, they have assistants, plus they serialize stories, creating a constant flow of money and feedback. Here, TP and others are trying to squeeze an entire 150-page book out of a creator, with no assistants, in a really short time, and for a relatively small amount of money. Yeah, I'm doing the same kind of thing, but I decided to do it on my own, and I thought I was crazy. I just hope they know what they're getting into.
AF: There are a lot of writers and artists that eager just to see their name in print, regardless of what deal they get. How did you break into the comic book business?
BO: I was just lucky enough to be introduced to an editor who happened to like my work. He got me a few fill-in jobs and art on Hopeless Savages, and helped me prepare a pitch for my own story. If it's advice you're looking for, I'd say just do what you're doing for the love of it, because even if you get work, you'll still be doing it mostly for the love. Anyway, publishers like seeing that you have an existing body of work, and that you get stuff done on your own. Having comics or stories on a website is better than having pages and pages of character descriptions and story bibles.
AF: Earlier you mentioned waiting for inspiration. Though crazy stuff happens in Scott Pilgrim, it all seems natural and easy to believe when it's presented in the same context as the average, everyday things that the characters go through. Lost At Sea could even be mistaken for a biography, as it's such a personal account of one teenager's experience. How much of your stories are taken from real life? Are there any events or conversations that were just lifted directly from your past and put into the narrative?
BO: I guess my comics are kind of like dreams. When I look back at them, I see all these little fractured bits of my memories and stuff popping up as characters, situations and stuff. Every little bit of the story is just a different reflection of some part of me. It's really kind of bizarre and hard to explain. But yeah, a lot of the little details that get mentioned, things that happen, snippets of dialogue are things that happened to me or friends. I mean, for example, I spent time in California, I had a few long-distance relationships, I had an American girlfriend, my band played a show at the Rockit in Toronto. Generally the things I am obsessed with seem to keep popping up again and again, like the theme of "moving away", which you will see about a million times in Scott Pilgrim Vol. 2. But I don't want to really get into specifics here. It feels like a magician giving away the tricks or something.
AF: Yeah, no spoilers please, but people do seem to move away a lot in your books. I just read Babyfood on your site, which deals with two of the characters from Lost At Sea, where that theme comes up again. It fits pretty well with the focus on friendship often in your comics.
You've said that you plan for Scott Pilgrim to be a six-book series. Are there any other projects in the works, or are you just focusing on Scott Pilgrim at the moment?
BO: I'm considering doing an unrelated book after Scott Pilgrim Vol. 3, but it's just a rough idea right now.
AF: I'm looking forward to it!