25 August 2010

Mythologizing Toronto

Yesterday I started quoting from Chris Randle’s interview with Bryan Lee O’Malley, creator of the Scott Pilgrim books. Late in the conversation they get deep into the meaning of Toronto:

BLO’M: I can tell you my new metaphorical structure for the book [vol. 6, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour], based on last year. Gideon is Edgar [Wright, movie director], and I’m Envy [local girl who’s been made into a singing star]. He came back to town and started this whole industry, and gave people jobs, and pushed everything around to feed ourselves. I was just kind of along for the ride. So yeah, I feel like in this book I identified most with Envy Adams, which is truly disturbing. . . .

I was gonna do a promo strip for the book that was…all these Toronto luminaries gushing about Gideon coming to town…It was gonna be, like, Chris Murphy and all that kind of stuff.

CR: Margaret Atwood.

BLO’M: Margaret Atwood [laughs]. People saying what a genius he is and stuff. I should still do that, it’d be fun. . . .

CR: I’m really interested to see how Toronto reacts to it specifically, because – I think Scott Pilgrim is part of the general comics zeitgeist in this past decade, maybe the representative series from what a younger generation of North Americans are doing. But also I think it was part of a smaller local thing in Toronto, starting around 2002 or 2003…celebrating or mythologizing [the city].

BLO’M: Yeah. Yeah. I kind of accidentally was in the right place at the right time. People always ask me about Toronto, what it is about Toronto, questions like that, and I’ve never really had a statement. I guess Scott Pilgrim is my statement on Toronto. I don’t think it’s conclusive in any way, but…I only lived there for three, four years. I just happened to be there. I was nobody. It was really weird to go back last year and be introduced to Chris Murphy and Broken Social Scene and all those guys, to have them be like: “Where did you hang out? Why didn’t we know you?” Because I was a fucking nerdy cartoonist! That’s why you didn’t know me, I’m not a rock star.

CR: [laughs] That’s great. I think it’s because Toronto is a really big city, but one that didn’t – I mean, it’s not like New York, where there’s whole layers of lore…

BLO’M: It doesn’t have that weird history, that mythologized history that New York has or L.A. . . . I’ve always been intimidated by New York for that reason, because there’s too many stories. It’s been [so] fictionalized that I can’t really comprehend it.

CR: And L.A., in a different sense, the glitzy sense. But Toronto didn’t have – it had boring, conservative Protestantism…

BLO’M: Conservative white people, yeah.

CR: But there was all this raw material.

BLO’M: Yeah, and I feel like I’ve maybe unfairly mythologized Toronto. I’ve definitely seen kids being like: “I want to move to Canada now!” And, um…it’s cool, but it’s just a city.
Is it perhaps characteristically Canadian to feel guilty about making a big, cosmopolitan city look like an interesting place to live?

I feel compelled to tell a story about Honest Ed’s, a Toronto landmark that serves as a major setting in the third Scott Pilgrim volume. Honest Ed’s is a discount and salvage store that looks like a cross between the old Spag’s, the Corn Palace, and a Las Vegas casino. It’s garish and commercial and more than faintly embarrassing. Scott actually needs goggles when he’s inside.

But when I read that scene, I remembered a secret about Honest Ed’s. When my first book was being published, the head of the press told me that firm’s landlord was Honest Ed. He liked having publishers, galleries, and other cultural institutions in the neighborhood, so he gave them good rates on office space. That garish, commercial embarrassment was actually a pillar of Toronto’s art scene.

So what does that say about Toronto? There are plenty of stories under its surface. The real myth of Toronto might be its “boring, conservative Protestantism.”

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