Cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley on his long-awaited new graphic novel, ‘Seconds’

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Bryan Lee O’Malley. Photo by Paul Hillier.

Scott Pilgrim is a tough act to follow up. The manga-inspired comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, revolving around Scott’s duty to defeat his girlfriend’s League of Evil Exes, was a pop-culture phenomenon, landing the books on best-seller lists worldwide, and culminating in a Hollywood adaptation directed by Edgar Wright.

Seconds is O’Malley’s first book since the Scott Pilgrim series ended four years ago, and takes that series’ blend of magical realism into a number of new and exciting places. Seconds is centered on Katie, the self-involved 29-year-old owner of a successful restaurant named Seconds. She is woken up one night in her apartment above the restaurant by a mysterious girl named Lis, a house spirit who cryptically offers her a red mushroom, along with specific instructions to follow, in order to erase any past mistake Katie chooses. Naturally, things do not go as planned, as Katie recklessly alters past choices that quickly began to spin her life and relationships out of control, while unbeknownst to her, upsetting more mystical forces at the same time.

I caught up with Bryan Lee O’Malley by phone from his hometown of Toronto, in the midst of his publicity tour for Seconds. We discussed the origins of his long-awaited new book, the legacy of Scott Pilgrim, and the endless creativeness of his fans.

Bryan Lee O’Malley will be at Librarie Drawn & Quarterly on July 31 to discuss Seconds with Brad Mackay, co-founder of the Doug Wright Awards, honouring Canadian cartoonists. More info on the event can be found here.

You worked on Scott Pilgrim for 10 years – where does the initial idea for Seconds fit into that timeline?

Pretty close to the beginning actually. Right after I finished the first Scott Pilgrim book, it wasn’t really making any money, so I got a job at a restaurant where a friend  of mine worked in the kitchen. I was a food runner, it was here in Toronto. I worked there for probably only about 6 months, but I just got sort of a feel for the restaurant world, and just observed it, and absorbed it. I think at that time I had the idea for a story about a house spirit in a restaurant, and it just sort of stuck with me ever since.

In the book Katie already has a successful restaurant, but she has these secret plans to open a new place –  is that something you related to while planning Seconds?

Yeah I guess so, because over the years, as the idea for Seconds kind of grew in the back of my mind, that’s just sort of where I was at, so it made sense for me to put that in, just sort of as a little nod to myself in the beginning of the book. As I’m putting my all into Scott Pilgrim, I’m like, “Oh, I could be doing something different, I could be doing something more.”  And that dovetails with the theme of Seconds, which is all about sort of self doubt and regret, and wishing that things could be better, even if they’re already pretty great.

Since the Scott Pilgrim series was so popular, was there a conscious decision to follow it up with something very different?

A little bit, yeah. Over the years, Seconds sort of evolved up and down; at times I wanted to turn around and do something really dark,  or really adult, or just yeah, just completely flip the script and do something that’s not like Scott Pilgrim at all, but I feel like I found a sort of happy medium by the time I did the actual book. Its got some weighty themes, but it’s also enjoyable and funny. At least that’s what I set out to do.

Over the past few years you’ve been releasing these deluxe colour versions of the Scott Pilgrim books – did going  back and colouring those books have any influence on the style of Seconds?

Yeah, I mean for one thing, Seconds was not originally going to be in full-colour. It was only after we did the first few Scott Pilgrim books in colour that I started to feel like it was going to be important to do the new book in colour as well. And then, obviouly, Nathan Fairbairn coloured both Scott Pilgrim and Seconds, so we each kind of developed this really great rapport and working relationship over the first 4 books, and then he went on and did Seconds after that, which was kind of like a mad scramble. We had to do it in about 6 months, and we were inking it and colouring it at the same time, so we were just like, trading pages every day, and we were all going crazy. But yeah, we have kind of a shorthand these days when we talk about how things are going to look. So it was a really easy collaboration, and it came out really well I think.

You alluded to this earlier, but did anything about the team dynamic of working in a restaurant or any specific experiences find their way into Seconds?

Yeah, the fact that a restaurant is sort of like a closed system, like its own little community, and the dynamics between the front of he house and the back of the house, and then just like, the cast of characters. The restaurant where I  worked was very multi-cultural, which was important for me too, to portray a more diverse world in this book. That all just played into the book.

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One thing that’s great about Seconds is the narrative structure that you’ve put together. I’m thinking specifically of sequences where Katie is arguing or bickering with the narrator – where did that idea come from?

I guess I wanted it to have that sort of fairy tale feeling, like this narration is almost like this kind of “Once Upon A Time” kind of narration. But I also wanted to kind of undercut it a little bit, and there’s this thing in comics where you’re encouraged not to show and tell the same thing. Like, the narration should serve some other function than telling you what’s going on in the pictures. So that was a way for me to play with that, although sometimes I like to punctuate scenes by actually saying what is going on, but I always like playing with the form of comics. So honestly, it was just something that started happening as I was creating pages, and I just kept playing with it and pushing it to further extremes.

Did the idea of being able to reset past mistakes come from any specific experiences? Do you remember when that notion first stuck in your head as something that would form the basis for the book?

Yeah, there’s a short story by mother read to me as a kid, that always stuck with me, that was about  a second chance ticket that would allow this kid to revert a mistake. And he accidentally lets his dog run into the street, and uses the ticket and everything’s fine, and then the story kind of ends. It always stuck with me, because it was just this weird little story that didn’t really go anywhere. I guess I thought I would take that and apply it to my restaurant house spirit concept, and there you have it.

In the book, Katie eats these magical mushrooms that allow her to reset past mistakes – how did you come upon mushrooms as a sort of time-travel device?

I know I wanted something that was food, I wanted something that was visual, and preferably red. So I guess I just hit upon mushrooms, and they’re also like conveniently, psychotropic drugs, and there’s a Super Mario Bros. type of nod, or even like Alice in Wonderland. They have sort of like a rich thematic weight to them.

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How did you end up incorporating the idea of the household spirit into Katie’s story, were they always tied together?

I think I had the idea of the house spirit being in a restaurant first, because the restaurant where I worked was in this very old building, and it was just a strange place. The basement in Seconds is very modeled on the restaurant where I worked. It was kind of like, maze-like, and I felt much older and bigger than myself, so I just thought about buildings having, kind of souls. And then the story of this person who’s in charge  of the restaurant – I saw the boss at my restaurant, I never really met her or anything, but I was aware of her, and I just kind of kept the idea of that person in my head and I just knew one day I wanted to tackle that story.

Scott Pilgrim was set all over Toronto, and Seconds is much more contained –  did you purposely want to have fewer locales for Seconds?

Yeah, I wanted to really work on creating a space, a place that’s memorable. You see that done every so often in books and movies. It made sense for me as this story of the house spirit of this restaurant, and to keep it pretty contained was a goal. And also, it’s set in this city that isn’t any kind of a recognizable city, it’s just kind of a mish-mash of various place I’ve lived or visited, with buildings from all over the place just stuck together in the background. I wanted it to have this sort of dream-like quality outside of the restaurant.

Seconds has a very cinematic feel to it – with your experience with adapting Scott Pilgrim for the screen, do you have any kind of interest in adapting Seconds, either for television or film?

Yeah, I took film studies in school, I kind of knew at the time that I wanted to do comics. It was the closest thing I had to a comics program, or like a visual story-telling program. In terms of Scott Pilgrim, I was relatively hands-off, although I was very included, I was very welcome in the process. I just didn’t really know how any of it worked, so I just kind of observed, that’s just kind of my style. With Seconds, if it ends up getting adapted, hopefully I will continue to be involved and maybe be more involved.

You must have been approached many times, but do you have any interested in working on serialized comics?

I don’t know, I’ve thought about it on and off over the years. You know, obviously I’ve been approached by Marvel and stuff, but working on other people’s characters doesn’t really appeal to me at this point in my career. So that kind of thing, pretty much no. Maybe I’ll dabble here and there, like I’ve done some comic book covers and stuff, but I think I want to keep doing my own graphic novels and big weighty tomes.

Is this tour all set up the way your appearance at Drawn & Quarterly is, with an interview segment and a Q&A?

Um, not necessarily, a few of them are just a signing. I think the one in Toronto is slightly more elaborate, actually, it’s in a theatre. I think we’re doing some kind of weird group reading, I’m not really clear on it.

Do you receive any interesting gifts from fans on these tours?

I haven’t really been getting that much stuff this time, I think because it’s a new book. But on the last Scott Pilgrim book, yeah, I got like, inundated with gifts. Someone made a cake, and I got like, hand-sewn dolls of the characters, all kinds of cool stuff. Fans are really industrious, I love ’em.

Seconds is available now. Bryan Lee O’Malley will be at Librarie Drawn & Quarterly (211 Bernard, Montreal) on July 31 for a reading & signing. 

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