Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim” comics follow a cast of witty, aimless 20-somethings in Toronto as they play in garage bands, work in video rental shops, and fight each other in battles that end when the loser bursts into a pile of coins. Drawn with bold lines and big, round eyes, these characters fall right between North American indie comics and Japanese manga. In black and white, under the banner of O’Malley’s mixed-race name (Lee is his legal middle name, his Korean mother’s maiden name), some fans read the story as taking place in a largely multiracial world.
“In retrospect, it kind of seems that way,” O’Malley told NBC News. “I guess I was just writing myself, and I didn’t even think about myself in terms of race. I grew up surrounded by almost exclusively white people in northern Ontario. I just assumed I was white until proven otherwise, but then I realized that was not the case. That was not the case at all.”
In 2010, the “Scott Pilgrim” series was adapted into a film by Edgar Wright starring Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. With human actors, the racial ambiguity of the comic gave way. O’Malley addressed this on his blog in 2013. “Honestly, when I saw the ‘Scott Pilgrim’ movie it was kind of appalling to see just how white it was — to not even really see myself represented on the screen,” he wrote. “I’ve sometimes joked that ‘Scott Pilgrim’ is my fantasy of being a cute white indie rock boy (which, as an ostracized mixed-race weirdo, was something I occasionally wished for when I was younger). I guess I whitewashed myself out of my own story, and I got what I deserved.”
After that, he said, “Every character I write from now on, every protagonist in all my books is going to be mixed.”
Enter Lottie Person, the star of O’Malley’s new comic, “Snotgirl,” whose first issue is scheduled to publish July 20 from Image Comics. The monthly series, a collaboration with artist Leslie Hung, is in full color, making race more obvious than it was in “Scott Pilgrim.” Lottie is a 25-year-old fashion blogger, thin and stylish, with dyed green hair and skin so fair her shoulders are constantly pink from the L.A. sun. By default, she reads as white, as do her friends. “But they’re not supposed to be white just because they look white,” said O’Malley, who has lived in Los Angeles for six years.
Although Lottie’s background isn’t explicitly addressed in the first issue, she is half Japanese and half Swedish, O’Malley said. If she looks white, that’s not just due to the unpredictability of mixed-race genetics but also because she’s trying so hard to conform to a narrow standard of beauty. This is also the source of her main conflict with herself: behind her perfect appearance, she suffers from allergies so severe that, when she’s alone — where she alternates between narcissism and self-loathing — she’s often covered in snot.
Officially, O’Malley is billed as the writer of “Snotgirl” and Hung as the illustrator, but they are equal collaborators, coming up with the concept and stories together. They both share parts of Lottie too. They’re fascinated by style bloggers, who are constantly doing mini photo shoots throughout L.A., especially in downtown’s Arts District, where O’Malley used to live. They have allergies, his bothersome enough that he’s been driving across the city weekly for immunity shots since January. They’re introverts, more precisely INFPs, O'Malley said, the Meyers-Briggs personality type associated with sensitive dreamers.
“My highest aspiration has always just been to be normal and to fit in,” O’Malley said. Growing up in London, Ontario, a small city halfway between Toronto and Detroit, he rarely talked to his parents or siblings about identity, but he remembers how he became aware of his race for the first time, when he was seven, maybe younger: “I got a tan one summer,” he said. “And I always had a tan, compared to most people. But before that summer I didn’t realize I was different, and after that summer I did.”
Almost 30 years later, he’s still working through what his racial identity means to him and his work. “It’s just like this constant process of seeing yourself, which is so hard to do,” he said. “I feel very unique, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes just so depressing. I don’t feel any connection to Korean culture or Canadian culture or American culture.” Especially being mixed, he sometimes feels guilty identifying as a person of color, as if, compared to others, he isn’t of color enough to feel that way.
O’Malley’s mother has spoken perfect English since before he was born, and although his sister speaks a bit of Korean, he doesn’t speak any. “My mom told me in later years, ‘You just weren’t interested,’” he said. “I probably wasn’t. I’ve never been interested in much besides the fantasy world in my own head.”
As he creates each month’s issue of “Snotgirl,” he’s also working on another graphic novel of his own. Throughout his books, O’Malley’s characters have aged along with him. Before the early-20s Scott Pilgrim came the teenage wanderer of “Lost at Sea” (2003) and, after, the late-20s chef of “Seconds” (2014). This next protagonist will be in his early-to-mid 30s and might get his own series, like Scott Pilgrim did.
“I’m just overthinking everything,” O’Malley said, regarding the new book. “A friend of mine said this the other day, that just existing feels violent, and I feel that so strongly sometimes. And putting work out on top of that is just so much, it’s so presumptuous. But then people need fiction, I think. People need to think about things like that, to have a playground… I’m trying to convince myself of this kind of stuff every day. That’s why getting out ‘Snotgirl’ at a monthly pace, is just — I can’t think about it too much. Just doing it in bits like that, it helps.”