Bryan Lee O’Malley Interview

One of my goals for Flipped this year is to work some interviews into the schedule. I was very fortunate to be able to start off with Bryan Lee O’Malley, creator of the Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels and the stand-alone Lost At Sea for Oni Press. He was kind enough to answer my ridiculous questions about his manga influences and a bunch of other stuff.

Flipped: Thanks for agreeing to subject yourself to this. To get started, could you give me some sense of your history with manga? How long have you been reading it, and what are some of your favorite titles?

O’Malley: The first manga that made any impression on me was RANMA 1/2, I think. I was about sixteen years old and I was intrigued and… I really don’t remember, I must have heard about it somewhere, or something, but I think I bought Volume 4 of RANMA 1/2, which is just chock-full of shenanigans and crazy Japanese antics, and it was this whole completely new and bizarre world. I started watching anime around the same time. For a while late in high school, me and my friends turned into big anime nerds.

RANMA 1/2 is still one of my all-time favourites, although I’ve only read a few volumes of it. The thing about manga is that, when they finally get around to releasing a whole series, I’m just revolted by the idea of having a shelf full of it, you know? The idea of having 26 volumes of PLEASE SAVE MY EARTH kind of blew my mind, so I stopped buying it after Volume 8 and sold the whole set. I love it, but I can’t bear to own it. So, I have a few representative volumes of RANMA 1/2, ASTRO BOY, KAREKANO – I have a few volumes of SAINT SEIYA because I’m obsessed with the art – I have BLACK & WHITE, PLANETES and PARADISE KISS, which are just a few volumes each – I have ten volumes of NANA in French. I have four or five books of DRAGON HEAD in French, too. I guess I tend to own copies of my favourites. From having read scanlations, two of my other favourites are BECK and 20TH CENTURY BOYS, which are both incredibly brilliant, especially in large doses.

Flipped: So readers shouldn’t expect to see 30 volumes of Scott Pilgrim sprawling across bookstore shelves? Have you settled on how many OGNs it will take to tell the story?

O’Malley: It’ll definitely end at volume 6. It’s set in stone at this point. I’d like to do a longer, more open-ended series one day, but this one is six books.

Flipped: You’re a creator who has been identified as having strong manga influences before the explosion of original English language manga. What’s your reaction to that perception?

O’Malley: I don’t know – I guess I’ve already come through my manga phase. It’s part of the vocabulary of comics that I’m still learning. The stuff that Tokyopop is printing right now reminds me of work that friends of mine were doing online in the late 90s. I always used to wish that there were publishers who would go full tilt with that stuff, and now there is one, so I think it’s good. It would warm the heart of my 17-year-old self, that’s for sure. I guess I grew up and adapted to what was available. I got here too early.

Flipped: Do you think, if things had been timed differently, you might have made a pitch for a Tokyopop contract or entered the Rising Stars of Manga contest?

O’Malley: If circumstances had been slightly different, I probably would have entered the contest or something, although I was never good about getting my act together for that type of thing. A lot of my friends have either entered the contest or already have books coming out through Tokyopop. I’ve never approached Tokyopop, and they’ve never approached me, so I guess it’s a moot point. I do fine where I am.

Flipped: I should probably explain what I mean when I describe your work as manga-influenced. I think one of the things that sets you apart is that your influences seem to be integrated really well into an individual style. It’s not like lasagna, where there’s a layer of manga on top of a layer of video games or super-heroes or what have you. It’s more like a Quattro formaggio, where there are these distinct flavors that have blended into something unique and separate from what they were individually. And just to throw a question in there somewhere, how aware of your influences are you as you’re writing and drawing?

O’Malley: I definitely think of it as post-manga… I mean, it’s a style where clearly I’ve thought a lot about what goes into manga, and I’ve done the books in a size and shape that resembles manga, yet there’s a lot that’s un-manga-like about it. I mean, I suck at drawing, I’m not the world’s greatest renderer and I’ve kind of given up on having a pristine fine-line style like some of the manga artists I admire. It’s cruddy lo-fi manga, but it’s my best effort. As for my influences, I’m still not entirely sure what they are. It’s hard to pinpoint. I’m probably just blind to see what a copycat I am, or something…

Flipped: I don’t think of you as a copycat, and I really, really don’t think you suck at drawing. But, lo-fi or not, one thing that definitely does carry over is your use of big eyes. I know “big eyes” is one of the reductive descriptors of manga, but I think they’re a trademark and they’re so widely used because they work. They really open up the characters, and I think you’ve incorporated that manga-ish element into your style in a really versatile way.

O’Malley: See, it’s funny, because I don’t think of the Scott Pilgrim eyes as “manga” eyes. I came to them organically, going from actual manga eyes down to little dots and then growing them back into these big round ridiculous things. They’re big, but they’re not manga eyes. They’re just… they’re x-treme. I don’t know.

Flipped: Oni, the publisher of both Scott Pilgrim and Lost at Sea, seems to have a lot in common with manga publishers. They’re very creator-driven; they’re open to a wide range of genres and styles. Did that influence your decision to work with them?

O’Malley: I guess – I don’t really remember why I wanted to work with them, it probably just seemed like a good idea at the time. What you say is probably as true as anything that went through my head. They seemed nice, they seemed accommodating, they had cool creators and interestingly diverse material. The main difference between them and manga publishers, aside from billions of yen, is the lack of that strong editorial hand. But that too is largely due to a lack of time and money (and staff).

Flipped: How closely do you work with editors at Oni?

O’Malley: I don’t… I… they’re like, “do you want to do a book?” and I’m like “okay, how about this one?” and they’re like “sure, it’s due on the 31st” and then a month after you finish the last page, a printed copy is in your hands. There are no corporate interests to protect, here. They’re more interested in what the author has to say, and then trying to make people buy it. Admittedly, someone at Oni did vaguely hint that I should do some kind of potentially-marketable series, and they did light up like a Christmas tree when I pitched Scott Pilgrim, but that’s about it. All the stories have been completely my business. They haven’t even seen scripts since Volume 1. Fortunately I’m a stickler for spelling and punctuation and stuff, but yeah, I basically keep on top of everything by myself.

Flipped: What about the format of your books? Lost at Sea is a stand-alone story, but Scott Pilgrim is a series of tankoubon-like original graphic novels. How did you decide to go with that format for the Pilgrim books?

O’Malley: Scott Pilgrim was originally going to be one book as well, but it kept getting longer. Chris Butcher, The Beguiling told me to do them in the smaller manga size, because they’re easier to rack in a store that’s already carrying manga up the wazoo. So that was his bright idea. Single-issue-comics at Oni were already dwindling out (they only do a handful these days), and I figured I wanted to tell the story in fair-sized chunks, so I proposed it as a series of trade paperbacks. When you step back and look at it, it seems kind of ass-headed to do books of this size without any form of serialization or audience feedback until that first 168-page chunk is on the market – I feel like it’s a bad thing to inflict on creative people, although I’m exempt because I inflicted it upon myself. Anyway, it’s working out so far except for the fact that I keep blowing my deadlines. It’s a lot of pages to draw…

Flipped: Could you tell me a little something about your process? Do you script before you draw, or set out some kind of outline of what you want each book to contain? It is a lot of pages to draw, but both volumes really hold together as individual reading experiences, so I’m curious.

O’Malley: I do a full script, although for volume 3 the script kind of came in fits and starts. I was thinking that I should write more visually, but it fizzled. I start with a broad outline of where things are going, then sort of a scene-by-scene breakdown, and within the scenes I generally write for dialogue, or else I write the basic beats of an action scene or whatever and map it out more fully in my sketchbook. Generally I have the plan at the start, and as I keep drawing for months I lose sight of the big picture, so I just blindly cling to the original plan and hope it all works out for the best. This time I didn’t really finish the script until I was half-done the art, so I hope it works out. I think it’ll be good, but next time I’m definitely doing the whole script first again.

Flipped: I’m always delighted to see copies of the Scott Pilgrim books at Barnes and Noble. They seem like such a natural fit for the bookstore audience for both manga and graphic novels. What has breaking into that market meant for you? Do you have any sense of how the books are moving?

O’Malley: The books have been selling fairly regularly through Amazon since their release and through Barnes & Noble since they were picked up there. I’m not sure how much exactly this translates to. A couple dozen copies per week, or so? That’s the general sense I get. I think it’s doing pretty well for Oni and I got some royalties which made my holidays much nicer. We’re hoping to get into Borders in 2006, which would be a nice boost.

Flipped: I picked up Love Roma based on your recommendation, and I’m really delighted I did. Do you have any other current favorites that you’d recommend? Or titles in scanlation or ones that you’ve read in French that you’re dying to see licensed over for English-reading audiences?

O’Malley: I’m pretty behind on my manga, honestly. I just picked one up called CIPHER (from CMX), it’s like this 80s shoujo. It’s totally ridiculous, but I love the style of those 80s books, it’s really different from the current shoujo trends (which I also love). One of the few I’ve read that hasn’t been picked up in English yet is DRAGON HEAD (Update: Tokyopop has just released the first volume of Dragon Head), which is odd because it had a movie and stuff. I’ve read the first bunch of volumes in French – it’s this story about, maybe, an apocalypse of some sort? These kids are on a train on a school trip, and a tunnel collapses on the train, and almost everyone dies (this is the first page, so I’m not spoiling anything). The few survivors literally crawl around in the dark for the entire first three volumes. It is totally excellent. When they finally get out of the tunnel, you’re just dying to know what’s going on. I still have no idea what’s going on, actually. It’s a masterpiece of the slow burning tense horror story. If I had to compare it to something, it’s a bit like Battle Royale.