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Q&A: Bryan Lee O’Malley on His New Book ‘Seconds,’ Food, Cuteness, and Post–‘Scott Pilgrim’ Stress

Talking with the ‘Scott Pilgrim’ comics auteur about the (literally) backbreaking process of making his follow-up book a reality, race, food, fashion, and growing up with his characters — and fans.

On July 15, comics auteur and Internet folk hero Bryan Lee O’Malley will release Seconds, the long awaited follow-up to his cultishly adored Scott Pilgrim series. The stand-alone volume follows Katie, a successful young chef approaching her 30th year, whose career crisis becomes supernaturally compounded by the arrival of a mysterious spirit and a crop of magical, time-turning mushrooms. It’s part cautionary fable, part second-coming-of-age drama, wistfully nostalgic while never shying away from the rough patches on the road from “adulthood” to adulthood.

I met up with O’Malley, native Canadian turned four-year Los Angeles resident, in a sleepy, overgrown patio of a Silver Lake cafe, which bore more than a passing spiritual resemblance to Seconds’s titular restaurant. Even though the book is long since completed, O’Malley is still looking around the place with a curatorial eye. “I definitely want to do a book set in L.A. next time,” O’Malley says. “It’ll probably still be a couple years, but yeah, it’s definitely in the cards.” For now, though, he’s in the middle of moving to a new place downtown and preparing himself for the inevitable wave of Tumblr and Twitter reactions to his first release in four years, which, happily, is what O’Malley calls his “favorite thing I’ve ever done.” We talked about the (literally) backbreaking process of making Seconds a reality, race, food, and growing up with his characters — and fans.

So, the thing that struck me in the first couple chapters of the book was that I couldn’t help but see Katie’s wanting to move on from Seconds as a barely veiled metaphor for you and Scott Pilgrim, or maybe even comics in general. And there’s this issue of having already had a first success, and wanting to distance oneself from that success, which is a very different problem than a lot of your characters have had in the past.

Yeah, exactly. You’re actually the first person to bring that up. I was thinking, Is this way too blatant? But I mean, yeah, it’s there, it’s kind of the underlying backbone of the story.

And it’s a really relatable thing to start it on, too, before you get into magic mushrooms and everything.

It’s just kind of a real-life frustrating situation to be in. And after — what? — seven years working on Scott Pilgrim, I was just like, how do I even move on? I was desperate to move on for years, and I had to finish it, and then finally I got to it, and, I don’t know, it just kind of felt natural to write that [feeling] into the story. I always like to write where I’m at in real life into whatever I’m working on.

So when you started it, you were pretty much Katie’s age, would you say?

No, I was already a little older; it just made sense to put her at 29 — the almost-30 mark — because that’s kind of a big moment for everyone.

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Random House

I’m 28 — I’ve weirdly tended to be around the age of the protagonists in all your books when they come out — and everybody’s telling me I’m about to go crazy for three years. Can’t wait.

Yeah, for me — I just turned 35 — but when I first turned 30, I was just totally fine, but then, yeah, the next few years were interesting. A roller-coaster ride. [Editor’s note: O’Malley was 30 when Scott Pilgrim vs. the World went into production.]

But I appreciated that — because you’ve by and large been, up to this point, very much a youth-culture voice, and it was interesting to see you create a character who’s having a real, grown-up problem for the first time—

A midlife crisis, yeah.

—but at the same time is very cute, very kawaii, maybe even moreso than your past characters. How did you conceptualize Katie, both as a design and as a character?

I mean, I wanted to do an older protagonist. I just don’t think I can write someone drastically younger than me. I feel like I have to keep clearing out whatever’s going on in my head at the time. And after Scott Pilgrim it made sense to do something [about] where I was. But I also want to just draw cute stuff. So I think the idea of where she was at in life and just the drawing of the spiky hair—she looks like Calvin from “Calvin and Hobbes” or something—

She looks like Knuckles.

Or Knuckles, yeah, exactly. Yeah, I don’t know. I just have this thing in my head that I want to do serious stories that are still just way too cute and drawn in a really cute, appealing, rounded, childish way, and it’s like, I don’t know if it makes sense — but it’s just something I’m really strongly compelled to do. I’m mostly inspired by Osamu Tezuka; he varied his style way more, but I’m more visually drawn to the stuff that he did that was actually for little kids. Because when he did adult stuff, he would do a more realistic tone. And I don’t like drawing like that. So I was just like, “I’m going to combine this really kiddy look with kind of adult concerns.”

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Even though it is about more mature characters, the setting is so quaint and cozy, and there’s always a crackling fire and these old beams in the ceiling.

Yeah. A lot of that was inspired by Moomintroll, you know that stuff? Drawn and Quarterly started putting out the books a few years ago. Someone told me about it soon after I started the Scott Pilgrim series. [Tove Jansson’s] illustrations are so cute, and it’s just this really fantastical, self-contained world that has kind of a magical forest village setting. That kind of stuck in my head, and I wanted to do something like that. And it kind of grounds the world in cuteness, too, in this weird way.

A little while ago on your Tumblr you mentioned a couple books from your childhood that influenced Seconds.

Yeah, it is really inspired by a story that my mom used to read me as a kid — basically I ripped off the whole concept, but I changed the story. It’s about this boy who is always leaving the gate to his house open, and his mom tells him that his dog might run away one day; he has to be careful. And then one night he has a dream that there’s an elf in the attic who lives in this chest and says there’s a present hidden in the chest. So he gets this second-chance ticket, and he accidentally lets the dog run away, and then he uses the ticket, and the dog’s back, and it’s the end of the story. It like, has no arc to it at all. It just kind of abruptly ends.

With no repercussions?

Yeah, there’s no repercussions. But that story has always stuck with me. So I kind of just started thinking about other stuff that has kind of been with me since I was a kid, and that kind of became the main inspirational foundation for this: just stuff from my youth, before I became a nerd, basically. Because in Scott Pilgrim, I emptied out everything I ever knew about nerdy shit: video games and everything from the time I was, like, 12 on is all in Scott Pilgrim. So I went back before that for this book, and then I came up with the basic idea, like, 10 years ago. Right after the first Scott Pilgrim book came out, when I was working in a restaurant. And I wanted to do it right away, but I just kind of let it sit and marinate, and then it became totally different. Like, the same basic concept but the content of the story is adult, because I’m an adult now. Surprisingly.

The restaurant setting obviously plays a big role in Seconds. And a good chunk of Scott Pilgrim very memorably takes place in the café that Scott works in.

Right, yeah. And there’s lots of food in Scott Pilgrim. I guess I’ve always been kind of obsessed with food. I always liked drawing food, and I always liked stories — I think I probably just read somewhere that stories are better if someone’s eating in them. I don’t know where that came from, but it really stuck, and I always try to put food in.

There’s a very memorable hamburger in Seconds that is illustrated so lovingly, that you know something has to go wrong. You can’t love a food object that much without something going terribly wrong.

Yeah, exactly. When I read Seconds back after I got it printed, I was like, “Oh, this is another adult problem.” Like, being unable to enjoy food because you feel bad after eating it. Before and after, you feel bad. It’s like: guilt and then intestinal distress.

So much of Scott Pilgrim was music-oriented — music was almost like a third main character. And it feels like maybe music doesn’t even really exist, at least not in that way, in the world of Seconds.

Yeah, I was thinking about that, too. Just because music is not part of the fabric of the characters’ lives, I guess — like, no one’s in a band or whatever. But there’s still music. There’s plenty of music references. I mean, it opens with a Fleetwood Mac quote. [From “Over & Over”: “And I said, could it be me? Could it really, really be? Over and over.”] So it’s still in there; I think it’s just a little less obvious. And the same with video-game stuff: there are still video-game references kind of buried in there.

Even aside from the music, Scott Pilgrim was a huge download culturally. There was just a massive amount of data in there about what it was like to be a twentysomething in the aughts.

Yeah. And moving on from that is very freeing, but at the same time, I could do whatever I wanted, and that was paralyzing. It took me a long time to settle on how things would look, how the characters would look, how big their heads would be, stuff like that. And what they would be wearing and all that shit. So it was a long process. It’s really organic for me; I don’t think I can think about it that much. I just have to let it flow, especially the drawing.

So, even if music is not as much of a presence in the narrative, were there any musical influences that you feel like found their way into how you told the story?

There are. I mean, there’s a few songs that I listened to again and again. And then certain lines ended up making their way into the book. But I mean, the Fleetwood Mac quote is there for a reason. I listened to Tusk — I discovered Tusk for the first time in, like, 2011, which was just when I was starting this book, so I’ve probably listened to it hundreds of times since then. And as I worked on this book for, like, three years, I felt like I was making my own Tusk — this bloated, expensive project that was just ruining me. And thinking, like, Who knows how it’ll be received? I feel like I put that quote in both because it’s funny and incongruous and because that’s what it represents to me: this monumental task that I set out to do.

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So it ended up taking a lot longer than you thought?

Yeah. Because I kind of injured myself. I hurt my shoulder two years ago; it turned out that I had bad posture — I was drawing all hunched over — so it brought up all this stuff to the surface, and I’m still kind of recovering from it and training.

I literally couldn’t draw for six months over the summer of 2012 into the fall. And I basically didn’t start drawing the book again until January or February of the next year. But then I finished it within 2013.

Most of the book was done last year, then?

Most of it was drawn last year, yeah. It was already written — and in 2011 and early 2012 I did that period of sketching the characters, sketching the restaurant, sketching everything. I started writing it, drawing it, and I was going really fast. It was originally supposed to come out a year ago, but I hurt myself, and I had to just stop dead. And it was very frustrating. It was a rough time.

What did you do in the downtime?

I watched all of Breaking Bad, which was good because that was right before the last season started. I didn’t even want to play video games, because I didn’t want to hold anything — I didn’t want to use my hands or my arms at all — so I was just kind of sitting on my ass. I did a little bit of traveling, but mostly I was just reading and kind of trying to take it easy.

How did you try to keep the enthusiasm up?

I mean, I would keep trying. I didn’t want to face the fact that I just had to stop drawing. Every few weeks I’d be like, “OK, it’s time to go back to work.” And I would start, and it would just be really hard, and what I was doing would end up being really bad because it was causing me pain or frustration. And I was super rusty after not drawing for weeks. So, it was just a really long process.

Eventually I started doing kind of one-off stuff; I did this cover for my friend’s comic, Young Avengers, at Marvel, and it broke the seal a little bit. It was good to do something self-contained. I also did this big Battle Royale poster for Mondo. Which was huge. I drew it in, like, 15 pieces. And it was so big, and everything was so small, that I could draw kind of sloppy. It was a way of easing myself back into it. And once I did a few things like that, I kind of got rolling again.

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I imagine doing something that’s contained and short term like that is good for the morale. 

Yeah, that’s always huge: when you’re doing a big project like that, to also be able to do little, stopgap things. But yeah, I mean, for that six months, there were times when I was like, “Am I ever going to draw again? Is this book ever going to get finished?” It was really disheartening.

You more or less started the writing process for Seconds about a year after everything kind of peaked with Scott Pilgrim — the release of the movie and the final volume of the graphic novel — after that had all kind of settled down. And at that point you had both a fan base that was bigger than ever, but also perhaps the commercial disappointment of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to grapple with. How did all that affect how you look back on that era?

Yeah. It was, like, it made me sad. I wished it would have done better. And for a long time, we talked about why it didn’t do that well, what we could have done differently. And that’s natural. But over the years, [there have continued to be] screenings; I keep seeing people discovering it for their first times on Twitter or Tumblr or whatever, or in person, and it’s just taken on a life of its own. The books haven’t stopped selling, which is really cool.

For a while I think I had that thing — you know, like, Leonard Nimoy saying, “I am not Spock.” It was just one of those moments where I was just like, “I don’t want this to be my life.” But, you know, it is your life. And so I think I learned to accept it, to just have fun with it. And some days I feel like that’s my full-time job, being the Scott Pilgrim Guy. And people ask me that all the time — fans ask me that: “Do you hate being the Scott Pilgrim Guy? Are you going to be mad if this is what you are forever?” At one time I would have said yes, but now, no. I think that’s great. At least I’m something, I guess.

You’re responsible for creating something that people don’t hate.

People genuinely love it. How could I be mad about that? I’m well aware I could possibly never create something again that gets that amount of love. Because that’s really difficult. That’s not something you can plan. So I’m just going to continue to do my best and grow as an artist, and whatever response I get, I’m grateful for.

At the same time, there had to be some pressure around whatever you followed up with.

Oh, yeah.

Even if it was going to be a departure, even if you felt like you had gotten something out of your system with Scott Pilgrim.

Originally I wanted it to be more of a departure, because it was during that period when I had just finished, and I was probably kind of depressed, and I was angry. I was like, “Fuck Scott Pilgrim; I want to do something completely different and show everyone!” But I don’t know who that “everyone” was, because I already had people who wanted more. I just had this chip on my shoulder about not being taken seriously. You know, I won an Eisner Award, but it was for “Best Humor.” I was like, “I’m not even that funny! People are funnier than me, but what I’m doing is interesting!”

So I needed to kind of distance whatever I did next from Scott Pilgrim. But then, as time went on, I was like, I also have to embrace it. I have these fans who are waiting for something. And the audience got a lot younger after the movie, so I felt responsible towards them a little bit. [Seconds] is still an adult book, basically fiction, adult fiction. But I feel like it’s accessible enough that a teen can read it and get something out of it. Or maybe read it five years later and get something different out of it.

Eventually it became [less of the] desperate-to-prove-itself kind of book that I set out to do; I feel like I got more comfortable with who I am, and I just wanted to make something that was entertaining and well put together. And that’s what I set out to do. I feel really happy about it. It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done. Which I’ve never felt before. I’ve always hated every Scott Pilgrim book as soon as they were done.

Does that make you nervous at all?

I don’t know. I don’t feel like I can be that nervous about it, because if I’m satisfied for the first time ever, then that’s pretty great.

And you’ve got a ton of people out there who can’t wait to eat it up the day it comes out.

Mm-hmm. I’m going to see the whole spectrum of responses. I’m going to see everyone’s favorite panels on Tumblr within 15 minutes, so that’ll be interesting.

Do people send you that stuff directly, or does it just kind of pass by your radar?

Oh, I see it here or there, or once in a while, I’ll go look and see what people are up to. But I really like seeing my work recontextualized back to me. I find that fascinating. When people just pick panels out of context and stuff, I find that I can look at them in a fresh way, which is cool.

Have you thought much about how Seconds will be processed by those sort of Twitter/Tumblr superfans?

You never know. You never know what fans will do. But yeah, that was part of my concern as I was finishing this book — as it took longer and longer to finish this book, it was like, Scott Pilgrim was a series that had time to grow this fan base over years, and doing just one book feels like a losing proposition in 2014. Like, everything’s kind of got to be a franchise, a multi-platform thing. Will people get anything out of it, or will it just kind of get lost in the churn? I don’t know.

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You had a very honest post on your blog last year about race in Scott Pilgrim and a little bit on how it informed Seconds. And it was interesting to see how that played out in the new book. You’re working with color panels now, and there is a more diverse cast of characters. It seems like that was a pretty conscious decision — are you happy with how it turned out?

I feel good about it. I mean, when I wrote that post, I think I was more than halfway through the book, and I knew it was going to be color. And people often misinterpret that post to be me slamming the movie — that’s the headline that’ll show up. But that’s not really what I was saying; it was more about my own experience, because when I was growing up, it was just, like, everyone was white.

But at the restaurant where I worked, actually, there were four half-Asian people, which was the first time I had seen that many in one place, and then the kitchen staff were all from Sri Lanka, and it was a very diverse world. Whereas, [up to that point] I was still in Scott Pilgrim World, I was in a band with all these white kids. That just kind of naturally [influenced me] when I started doing the book.

But it was also just on my mind. Because when I go do a signing, especially in L.A., the kids are so diverse. And I would say more brown than white, generally. And as myself, looking in the mirror, I feel a responsibility toward that. Or, you know, when kids would tell me they loved the movie, but then I’d look at them and they’re not represented in the movie at all, it just makes me feel bad. I feel like I let everyone down. But at the same time, I don’t regret it. Just, moving forward, I’ve got to do better.

Yeah, and like you said in the post, too, when you’re doing the kind of illustrations that you do, it can be a little too easy to kind of imagine race away from that world, for all practical purposes.

Yeah, especially in black and white. And then when we did the color version [of Scott Pilgrim] — even that I feel weird about. I keep telling my colorist, like, “Make them more golden-hued and less pink.” So yeah, it’s just something I’m still grappling with, I guess. But I think the book looks good. I think the characters feel right. 

And both in Scott and Seconds, there are tons of characters who aren’t white dudes, or half-Asian dudes, or whatever it may be. And you’ve got such a complex female protagonist for Seconds — and also in Scott Pilgrim, too, with Ramona — as well as a ton of extremely different female characters in a lot of your work.

Yeah, I just want all the characters to be good characters. I want them to be all interesting to me and to each other. And that’s what interests me about writing: It’s not just making up one character, it’s all this array of characters and the way they all feel about each other differently. That’s what makes me want to write. And that’s what makes me curious about people. And it’s funny you say that I write so many female characters, because I was just thinking about it, just as you said that, Maybe that’s, like, because I’m just always trying to understand women. That’s kind of my way of trying to process it.

I can see that. When I first read Scott Pilgrim the thing that it reminded me of was 8 1/2. Just going through all the women in this one guy’s life, and how they are so vastly complex and different and they all drive him crazy and he drives them crazy in different ways. And that structure — a universe of women surrounding a male protagonist — could easily come off as misogynistic, but it doesn’t at all because there are such rich lives behind all the characters.

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Right. That’s actually really accurate. I haven’t seen that movie since college, but that’s how I approach my work; it’s almost, like, dreamlike and processing his life, and I just always feel like that’s what my work is about. Because I can’t — I’m so fucking self-obsessed. All I can think about is what’s going on with me, or all these people I know or have known. And with Scott Pilgrim, everyone — especially female characters — but everyone, they’re just analogues of someone I know — or kind of just trying to start writing them, trying to get inside them and see what would I do if I was them, what makes them do the things they do, and just figure out kind of their psychology and emotions.

So, what’s next? Have you started thinking about your next project?

No, not yet. I’ve just moved, so I finished the book in December, and I was selling my house and moving, so it’s just been a really busy six months. I’ve kind of started tinkering and stuff, I guess. I’ve decided I want to do short stories next, so I can kind of get to the end of something and maybe work on some side stuff and then do another one.

Like a collection?

Yeah, hopefully a collection eventually. I just think it would be fun to get ideas out of my head quicker, and I’ve never done that before. I really want to make another video game with the team that did the Scott Pilgrim game, because that game was, like, great but unfortunately it was kind of truncated by the publisher; they cut it off and cut funding and stuff. So I would like to do something from scratch with those guys.

Yeah, and just, like, working on the music stuff [Editor’s note: O’Malley recently started a new band] and hopefully doing some more drawings for friends and stuff. I want to do more show [posters], band stuff. I just kind of want to get out there more. Because it’s so hard to go four years between projects. That’s probably why I spend so much time on social media; I just want people to remember that I exist. And it’s kind of backfired because now it’s, like, the first thing people ask me: “How do you deal with your Twitter?”