Seconds: Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Story About Second Chances Sets Up His Own Second Act [Review]
Bryan Lee O'Malley's first graphic novel since he concluded the Scott Pilgrim series in 2010, Seconds is a book about second thoughts, second chances and second helpings. It's also the book in which O'Malley is setting up his second act as a cartoonist. The first Scott Pilgrim book came out almost exactly ten years ago; six volumes and a movie later, that franchise has defined O'Malley's public image. That kind of early, extended success can be a trap for an artist, especially when it's with a project as self-consciously game-changing as Scott Pilgrim. The bigger the audience, the more it demands more of the same.
Seconds is unmistakably the work of O'Malley's singular voice: it's a romantic comedy with magical elements and some witty fourth-wall breaking, drawn in a manga-derived style with big-headed chibi characters. But it's also a very different sort of book than he's drawn before: not a bildungsroman like Scott Pilgrim (or his earlier Lost at Sea), but a fable about a woman who's pretty much got her life together already, trying to undo her mature errors. It's virtuosic in a lot of ways, but one of its many charms is how casual and low-key it seems.
Katie Clay, the central character of Seconds, is a chef who runs a successful restaurant and is trying to open a second one. She's prone to small, reckless decisions with unpleasant consequences, and one night one of them leads to something pretty awful happening. Then she discovers that her dresser contains a sort of Death Note-via-The Butterfly Effect plot device: a kit for undoing a bad choice. You write down your error in a little notebook, you eat a mysterious red-capped mushroom, you go to sleep, and when you wake up, your mistake never happened.
Katie immediately figures out how to hack the inevitable "you can only do this once" rule, to the alarm of a "house spirit" named Lis, who's apparently in charge of the second-chance mushrooms. Sustained on bread and clothing left for her by one of Katie's waitresses, Lis looks like she's dropped in from a Steven Weissman book. Each undoing of one of Katie's mistakes leads to a world in which things turn out differently, and in which something else is unsatisfactory. As is the way of fables, where this is heading is clear from the beginning; it's just a matter of how it's going to get there.
But O'Malley's also a dedicated subverter of clichés, and nothing in Seconds takes a totally obvious route. The real fun of this story is its relaxed, exploratory tone. O'Malley pretty obviously knows much more about even his minor characters than he spells out, which means that they seem real from the moment they appear. He cares about what they like to eat, how they dress, how they arrange their rooms. He's also internalized the narrative techniques of manga more deeply and interestingly than any other English-language cartoonist, and one of the things he does best is pausing and examining the details of a scene, making the story richer rather than faster.
Look at this page, for instance: ten panels, more than half of them silent, every one of them marking a shift in the power dynamic between Katie and Lis. The final panel is one of those punch lines that are O'Malley's specialty, but nearly everything about the page gets funnier and more elegant the more you look at it: the textures of Katie's towel and the floor beneath it indicated with a handful of brush-dabs, the image drawn from Katie's point of view of upside-down Lis smoldering with (adorable) disapproval, the way the borders and background fall away in the largest panel to let the page breathe. (It's also worth observing how much mileage colorist Nathan Fairbairn gets out of making the outline of Lis's hair a slightly darker shade of yellow than the rest of it. "Seconds" can mean "assistants," as well; they're important here, too, both in the story and in its execution.)
Seconds runs into some structural trouble in its final act, as O'Malley raises the story's stakes in a way that allows for more visual spectacle but doesn't entirely fit with what came before. Mostly, though, it's exactly the book O'Malley needed to make at this point: one that shows off a different register of his range without abandoning his gifts. (It calls back to exactly one Scott Pilgrim joke -- the one that appears to be his favorite.) And it's a declaration that, rather than being the Scott guy forever, O'Malley can make comics the way Woody Allen makes movies or Joyce Carol Oates writes novels, say: one at a time, and then on to the next one.
Seconds is on sale now in finer comics shops and bookstores from Ballantine Books.