Seconds original hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Bryan Lee O’Malley
Drawing assistant: Jason Fischer
Colors: Nathan Fairbairn
Letters: Dustin Harbin
Publisher: Ballantine Books/Penguin Random House
Price: $25 US
Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim books are undeniably a master work in the medium of comics, and I fully appreciated his approach in those books. That being said, they weren’t graphic novels that really clicked for me, though it was certainly no fault of O’Malley’s. The young, slacker, characters and the immersion in gamer culture were just so alien to me. I didn’t and couldn’t connect with the title character and his world. Nevertheless, I was anticipating this new O’Malley project just as much as other comics enthusiasts. Imagine my pleasure and surprise to find one of the key elements emerging in its opening pages was the protagonist’s sense of generational isolation from the younger people working in her restaurant. I immediately connected with Katie, and the message at the heart of this book is a philosophy I’ve observed for years, ever since my professional and personal lives came into focus in my 30s.
Katie is a celebrated chef in her community, and the restaurant she helped to establish, Seconds, is the most popular and lauded one in town. There’s just one problem: it’s not hers, but now she’s on the cusp of opening and co-owning a new place. Her ultimate is just within reach, but just like everyone else, Katie has some regrets, some mistakes in her past she’d correct if she had the chance. Bizarrely, she discovers something and someone in her modest apartment in an old house that offers her the chance to do just that. But when she goes overboard, she threatens to undo her accomplishments — and so much more.
O’Malley’s distinct, manga-influenced style is quite recognizable here, but it’s not exactly the same as what we saw on Scott Pilgrim. There’s a little more detail in the characters and a little more variety in the designs. The main character is the one that boasts the most manga, most unusual look (at least among the human players in this drama). She’s also one of the older characters in the book, yet she looks like the youngest most of the time. I think it’s safe to bet that was a deliberate choice on the creator’s part, as Katie’s immaturity and selfishness are really what drive the growing crisis over the course of the book.
While the Asian comics riff in O’Malley’s work has always been apparent, I was struck by more specific influences here. I was often put in mind of Osamu Tezuka, one of the few manga masters whose work I routinely enjoy, as well as a darker, organic style from various manga horror books I’ve read over the years. Another pleasant shift with this book is how this original print run has been offered in full color. While Scott Pilgrim has become available in color editions as of late, the original run was all in black and white. The deep, darker tones employed here by colorist Nathan Fairbairn reflect both the main character’s angst and the slow crescendo of supernatural elements in the book.
I was quickly struck by and taken with O’Malley’s approach to the narration in Seconds. The omniscient narrator doubles as Katie’s conscience and buried honesty about herself, and I love how she interacts with that unheard voice. It adds even more playfulness to the storytelling. Also thoroughly enjoyable is the incorporation of fine food as an element in the story. It’s a wise move on O’Malley’s part, as it makes Katie all the more interesting. And let’s be honest, food obsession is quite trendy at the moment, across a wide variety of demographics.
This is a thoroughly female-centric story. The most important characters are women — Katie, Hazel, Lis — and the men are really the obstacles over which Katie allows herself to trip. In fact, all the men in her life are viewed as problems or prizes, and really, Katie is something of the villain in their stories (and ultimately, the villain of her own story as well). Hazel is a thoroughly likeable character despite her nature as an introvert. And O’Malley’s script and art combine to fully convince the reader she’s the most attractive character in the book. I mentioned earlier how Katie’s immaturity plays a key role in the story, but contrasting with it is Hazel’s innocence. O’Malley makes the point through her that immaturity isn’t necessarily an extension of youthfulness itself.
Seconds is an oddly dichotomous story. It’s a grounded, coming-of-age story about a woman’s difficult transition into being an adult and letting go of her past. At the same time, it’s a thoroughly surreal story, with magical mushrooms, house spirits, manipulation of reality and journeys to other words bringing a pervasive weirdness that’s incredible but surprisingly alluring. While the plot is bizarre and grows even moreso the deeper one makes one’s way into the book, ultimately, there’s a rather simple (and somewhat predictable) message at its heart. Mistakes are as much a part of our successes as the good decisions we’ve made along the way, and tugging at those threads of regret will inevitably lead to unravelling the entirety of our lives. 9/10
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