Scott Pilgrim first got introduced to the world 11 years ago, in a series of graphic novels that had the slacker bassist fighting off his girlfriend’s evil exes. Then came a beloved cult movie and retro-styled video game. Now, with a new color version of the final Scott Pilgrim book out in the world, it looks like the last time the character’s creator will touch Scott Pilgrim again.
The Scott Pilgrim books seem to be one of those comics experiences inadvertently engineered to pull an audience from many disparate spaces. If you like superhero stuff, cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley sprinkles enough trappings from cape comics to capture what makes those kinds of adventures compelling. Those who love the high-boil emotions and exaggerated visual language of Japanese manga will feel at home here, too. And if you like love stories, video games and garage band drama, that’s all in the Scott Pilgrim books, too.
When the comics featuring the adorably clueless twentysomething hit stands back in 2004, his saga was printed in black-and-white. Four years ago, publisher Oni Press finally cajoled O’Malley into letting them reprint the six-volume set in full-blown color. The color work—which really makes the books pop in new ways—was done by Nathan Fairbairn and that process kept O’Malley intimate with work done ages ago by a much younger self. But, the last color edition hit stands recently, meaning that the Canadian-born artist is probably bidding farewell to the character he’s lived with in some form or another for more than a decade. A few weeks ago, I spoke to O’Malley over the phone to ask him about what it was like to revisit his earlier drawings, what younger readers probably get out of Scott Pilgrim and his current Nintendo obsession.
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Kotaku: It’s been eight years since I first read Scott Pilgrim. I’ve been going back and looking at the entire run and it still feels like it came out of nowhere. The only Western comic that seems like it’s in the same wheelhouse, to me, is Sharknife. What was the catalyst that made this stuff come out of you in this particular form?
Bryan Lee O’Malley: I don’t know. I guess I wasn’t seeing the kind of work I wanted to see in comics in America. I like Japanese comics but they’re Japanese. They have a different cultural context. I guess I was trying to capture that energy with whatever limited ability I had. Scott Pilgrim is what came out.
Kotaku: You talk about the Japanese influence. I can see it in terms of the form, but what is uniquely Western, the stuff that comes from you, is all of this emotional stuff. Rather, not the just the fact that the emotional upheaval is there but the way it comes out.
Because obviously manga has romance, rivalry and drama in all of its various subgenres, but the way it comes out from you is really, really different. Did you decide to go there right away? Was that something that was intentional or did it just come out in the process of making these comics?
O’Malley: I don’t know. I’ve always been into heavier, emotional stuff. My first book, Lost at Sea was a lot more along those lines. Scott Pilgrim is fun on the surface but it has weight to it, and that was always part of the plan for me. That is something that always appealed to me about Japanese manga too, it does have emotions and heaviness to it even though it’s fun and crazy on the surface.
Kotaku: These books were designed as black and white reading experiences, at least as far as I understand it. What was your biggest trepidation about adding color? Did it make you rethink your storytelling tools at all, like how you approached this stuff?
O’Malley: I don’t know. I resisted it for a long time. Probably because it would be a lot of work and I felt that [the end result] stood pretty well on its own. That is what I intended with the black-and-white. It’s both a Japanese manga thing and an American indie comic. The aesthetic marriage of those two worlds was what Scott Pilgrim was all about.
Kotaku: Right, and black-and-white is a commonality in both of those realms. So it makes sense that your resistance to adding color ran pretty deep.
O’Malley: Exactly. But, as time went on, there’s a movie, there’s a video game, there’s a much bigger readership and fandom than before. It made sense to re-contextualize it. Time goes by. It’s been 11 years since the first book came out. By the time we started doing it, which was 2011-2012, it just seemed to make sense. Then we found the right guy to color it, so it started to make a lot of sense.
Kotaku: Are there things you wish you would have done differently now that color has been added? Or does it make you not rethink things at all?
O’Malley: In general?
Kotaku: Yeah. I’m reading them again and I’m surprised at how much still works and some things are even better with the color. Which is, I don’t know, may be a shitty thing to say—I’m sorry?
O’Malley: No, no, no: It’s true. It’s true. Yeah, I never thought about it but then as soon as we started doing it, it made a lot of sense. I love seeing them in color. I get to see my own work with new eyes, which is great. It’s something that I want as an artist, because if you look at something a million times, it doesn’t look like anything anymore.
When Nathan colors my stuff, it looks new to me. I can see my own art. I can see my own strengths and weaknesses more clearly. It looks better. I did get to go back and change and improve a few things here and there. That was really nice.
Kotaku: One thing I noticed in re-reading the Scott Pilgrim books after reading Seconds is that the newer book is less tethered to pop cultural references. Is that a result of getting older and being less obsessed with comics and video games that you were probably consuming when you were making Scott Pilgrim? Or was that a conscious creative decision to have “Seconds” have less of that stuff and have more of a folkloric route?
O’Malley: It’s kind of both. Obviously, I’m not just part of the culture. I made Scott Pilgrim. I’ve already worked on all the references and the pop culture stuff and the video games. I set out to do Scott Pilgrim hoping to purge my brain of all this stuff that I’ve been accumulating since I was a kid. It works to some degree. I get it out there.
I’m still obsessed with lots of the same stuff. But also you don’t want to repeat yourself, and the culture has also changed in the past 10 years. When I started doing Scott Pilgrim, a lot of the stuff I was talking about was not in the cultural mainstream. Even talking about Nintendo games was not mainstream and now it is. It’s very different to do that kind of reference now because there’s like Big Bang Theory or whatever. It’s culturally central now.
Kotaku: You had to pick that one, huh? Just to touch on the movie a little, the thing I liked the most about the way Edgar Wright executed it was how it turned all of that nerd reference stuff into a magical realism. Which was there in the original work. But the metaphor became this living thing unto itself.
Did that make you rethink your own work moving forward? Should you lean less on that stuff or more on that stuff? Seconds felt like all that stuff was there but in a little more subtle way.
O’Malley: Yeah. Seconds is more straightforward magical realism or fantasy. Whereas Scott Pilgrim is post-modern, or I guess I mean just modern.
Kotaku: Yeah. It’s kind of winking at you too in Scott Pilgrim. It’s very much like, “Hey guys. Now he’s pulling a sword out of his chest.”
O’Malley: Yeah. You can’t just make a reference. You have to dance on the reference’s grave. You have to do something more. If recognition is all you’re aiming for, then you’re just like Family Guy.
Kotaku: That’s a very good point. Speaking of the metaphors and the subtext and stuff, does it bother you when people hit on that stuff too much? People speculating whether Scott’s angst must have come from some of your own experiences. It leaves you kind of vulnerable. How do you deal with that?
O’Malley: That’s just normal writer’s stuff, I think. Honestly, I find that before I became a popular writer, I was more worried about that. But most people don’t really care that much. They’re really not interested in me, it’s more about the work. Which is great. So that’s not really something that tends to bother me.
Kotaku: My niece, who is 16-17, she was probably 13 when she started reading the Scott Pilgrim books. I can’t remember if it was me who gave her the books or if she was already reading them and I fed her the rest. I know you don’t have kids. At least I don’t think you have kids. How old do your kids need to be before you let them read this stuff?
O’Malley: Before I would let them read Scott Pilgrim? I don’t have kids but I don’t know, I’ve met lots of fans who keep getting younger. I feel like depending on the parents, and depending on the kid, when you’re 10 or 11, kind of middle school age, getting to that age, that’s probably where I would start.
Kotaku: The books are all about relationships. They’re relatively chaste. There’s no sex or nudity or anything like that. It’s more about the emotional turmoil that comes from wanting things that you don’t know how to actually fulfill.
O’Malley: Yeah. Teens seem to get a lot out of it. It’s kind of aspirational for them. There’s a couple of teen characters but there’s mostly 20 somethings. That’s like what? That’s what every teen wants to be. When I meet a kid that’s 10 or 11, who’s reading them and loves them, that’s really cool. I don’t know what they get out of it.
I don’t understand kids that age. When I was that age, all of these game references and all of that shit that we talked about, mostly came into my life when I was that age.
When I was 10 or 11 was when I got my Nintendo. All of the Japanese culture started coming into my life via that stuff—via Nintendo. I think that’s how Japanese pop culture entered American pop culture is through video games. It all kind of makes sense. It all kind of ties together. Yeah, if I was 12 I would really like Scott Pilgrim if I hadn’t written it. But it depends on the kid.
Kotaku: But now that you’re in your early 30s, what’s your obsession now? What is the thing you can’t get enough of?
O’Malley: Lately it’s mostly TV. Just because TV is where the most creativity seems to be concentrated right now. “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” it’s like we’re in a real boom right now.
Kotaku: Is there a video game that you’re obsessed with right now?
O’Malley: I’m still playing Super Mario 3D World, which is the greatest thing I’ve played in so long. I’m taking my sweet time with it. I haven’t played anything new in months other than that. I’m very slowly consuming it.
Kotaku: You’re probably better off. The thing with Nintendo is they’re a weird Japanese company with all of these bizarre quirks. They don’t “get” online culture at all, but they keep on rolling out these perfectly formed bits of game design that are so well-tuned.
Even their more humble series—like the Kirby games or the Captain Toad one that came out last year—have so much charm and so much subtle cleverness to them that you realize why the fandom around Nintendo is so cult-like, because they just understand the materials of game making so well in a way I think so few other companies do. It’s really weird.
O’Malley: Yeah. Super Mario 3D World is full of beautiful experiences. I just have a great time playing it. It makes me happy. It makes me smile nonstop. I know there’s Bloodborne, which is new. I’m not ready to dive into something like that.
Kotaku: This is my job and even I haven’t found time for Bloodborne. I just wrote up Mortal Kombat and it was a weird epiphany because it feels like this is what I want in terms of time commitment. I want a quick, fast, relatively shallow experience. But I can also go as deep as I want. Whereas a game like Bloodborne, you have no choice. You have to go all the way in. They drop you into the deep end of the pool. Some people are like, “You know what? I don’t have time for this right now.”
O’Malley: Yeah. There’s a time and place. I’ve played Dark Souls. I watch True Detective. I like the dark stuff when it’s the right time. When my mood shifts that way I’ll probably dive into Bloodborne. But, right now, I’m enjoying playing Super Mario super slowly like a child.
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