Hundreds of fans lined up early for Friday’s "Bryan Lee O’Malley Spotlight" at New York Comic Con, where the eponymous creator of Scott Pilgrim and Seconds was joined by moderator and fellow Canadian, novelist/blogger Cory Doctorow, for an intimate one-on-one talk followed by a Q&A with the audience.
The duo started out by acknowledging their shared Toronto upbringing, and discussing the creative climate of Canada.
“You and I both grew up in Toronto,” Doctorow began. “Do you think there was something about a place that was relatively cheap, and kind of low pressure, that made it a hothouse?”
“When you live in that part of Canada, it’s just a vacuum that sucks you in,” O’Malley said. “Apartments were cheap, living was pretty easy, and there was a good community.”
“Scott Pilgrim and Seconds are both so grounded in place,” Doctorow continued. “They’re basically Portlandia but in graphic novel form. Do you think that something has changed in the nature of cities?
“Literally it seems like mysterious entities are buying and modifying everything. I feel like nothing is real anymore,” replied O’Malley.
Doctorow’s next question was on “second acts.” With Scott Pilgrim as O’Malley’s first big success, going on to see a major film adaptation, the novelist asked what happened when Bryan sat down to begin the next stage?
“It started out being sort of reactionary,” O’Malley said. “Seconds was to prove the haters wrong kind of thing. I like to have fun when I write, and I want my readers to have fun. So I took all my dark thoughts and tried to turn them into fun. There wasn’t much pressure from my publisher; it was mostly just my own pressure on myself.”
“So you’re Canadian, and I’m Canadian,” Doctorow stated. “Canadians are sort of like serial killers. We’re everywhere and sound just like everybody else. Now that you live in the States, do you feel Canadian?”
O’Malley confessed that he rarely does. “For a long time I think I might have resented Canada a little bit,” he said. “But then I went back over the summer for the Seconds tour and I was like, ‘I love Canada!’ I visited Halifax in the summer and I thought, ‘I have to move here.’ But I remembered that winter is actually the rest of the year. August is the only time it’s good.”
Doctorow followed up by asking whether or not Canada was secretly the setting for O’Malley’s newest book.
“I didn’t specify a setting for Seconds,” he answered. “I wanted it to take place in the realm of the mind. There was no distinct place. It was ambiguous. I just wanted it to feel a little more open.” He went on to explain that the reason for this decision was that he has readers from all over the world, and wanted everyone to be able to relate to the anonymous setting.
The next question related to the control a creator has over their work. “Can you reflect on what it’s like producing a work where really you’re just the impetus and it rolls on without you, versus something you see through from start to finish?” Doctorow asked.
“With Scott Pilgrim, when I look back on it, it seems depressing actually,” said O’Malley. “I was working on it all alone for like seven years and then when the movie started happening I was like this figurehead but had nothing to do with the movie, really. It was weird because it was something that came from my head originally. Scott Pilgrim was designed to put everything nerdy in my head into a book. And it really worked, actually. I started out to just make my friends laugh.”
The final question Doctorow posed to his panelist had to do with higher education. What are his thoughts on formal training in the 21st century for people who want to be creative?
“I went to university and didn’t know what I wanted to do,” O’Malley began. “I was going to major in film because that was the only thing my school offered that had anything to do with comics. But whenever we had a test or an essay, I would just completely shit the bed. So I dropped out. And then I just ran away to California and made comics with friends. That’s what started my career. I don’t know. I think some people can do very well in a university environment, but it was bad for me. I hope people learn enough to offset that crushing debt.”
With all of the prepared questions out of the way, the audience Q&A portion of the panel began.
The first question was about the character of Lis from Seconds, and how the idea of a house spirit as a character came about.
O’Malley explained that the concept of house spirits is something he had read about in different cultural folklore, and that it stuck with him. “I always liked old houses, and I used to live in this old farm house in Nova Scotia. I wondered how many different owners it had and what the soul of the building was like.”
The next audience member asked what informed O’Malley’s fashion choices for his characters, as they’re always so appropriately dressed for whatever setting they find themselves in.
“I like fashion,” he said, “But in comics I like portraying characters over time. So knowing what they wear to work, or at home, or in their room… it’s such an integral part of the character. And I feel like it’s a place where a lot of cartoonists fall down. It makes it more fun to draw and think about. It’s just my approach.”
On the subject of Katie, his newest main character from Seconds, O’Malley said, “I like the idea of writing these very external characters - I want to write brash characters. I remember reading an interview with a rock star that just sounded like the biggest jerk in the world, and I wanted to write a character like that. Turning 30, going through that part of your life, and wondering what you could have done better is the whole soul of that book. My method is very intuitive, I can’t describe it well.”
Music is a large part of O’Malley’s work, especially in Scott Pilgrim. One member of the audience asked what he listened to while he worked. “I always make a mixtape,” he replied. “It’s always my first step. I can’t get into the headspace unless I have the perfect mix. The mix for Seconds was a lot of interstitials from albums, short songs. I work on them way too hard but it’s really important to me. The mix for Scott Pilgrim I listened to for like 7 years non-stop, hundreds of thousands of times. The new one has two Spoon songs on it right now.”
One of the last questions asked was how O’Malley approached writing strong, empowered female characters. “All I do is try my best,” he said. “Every woman I’ve ever known has informed these characters. And they’re more fun to draw… easier and more fun.”