Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds: A Fairy Tale for 30-Somethings

I want to take a second to talk about Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds.

Now, first of all: if you’re on this site, and like the things people generally come to this site to read about, and you haven’t already; you owe it to yourself to go read all 6 volumes of Scott Pilgrim. Read, don’t watch- while Edgar Wright did an admirable job adapting the comic to the big screen, the rushed pace of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World fails to do any sort of justice to the source material.

Go on. I’ll wait.

Done? Good.

You liked Scott Pilgrim? Great! You and I are kindred folk, and what I have to say next will basically be preaching to the choir. In fact, feel free to skip the rest of this review and just go ahead and buy the book. I’m almost entirely sure that you’d like Seconds, although given the nature of the internet it wouldn’t at all surprise me if you’re the exception and my advice is in bad faith: in which case I apologize in advance, and maybe you really should have taken the time to read the rest of the review. Still, I’d say that the probability of someone liking Scott Pilgrim but not Seconds to be somewhere around 0.0000001%- based on an exceedingly scientific methodology, of course.

You hated Scott Pilgrim? Ah, well. That’s ok- perhaps your cultural zeitgeist and mileiu are entirely different from mine, or the one presented in the comic; perhaps the narrative of lost twenty-something Gen-Yers struggling to find meaning in life did nothing for you, being either irrelevant or too typical; perhaps the humour, art style and/or narrative style offended your aesthetic sensibilities- despite my endearing love for the work, I would be the last person to proclaim Scott Pilgrim a flawless masterpiece, because it clearly isn’t one.

Still, stick around: I think a case could be made for Seconds being, if not a flawless masterpiece itself, at least a more refined work- and appealing especially to people who disliked Scott Pilgrim, in large part because of that refinement.

THE REVIEW: IN BIG BOLD LETTERS

Aesthetics pt. 1

The very first thing that’s readily apparent from the first page of Seconds– that practically jumps out of the page- is the art. Unlike Scott Pilgrim‘s manga-inspired Black and White motif, O’Malley has fully embraced the traditional western format of fully coloured pages. Nathan Faibairn’s colouring is evocative and vivid, and complements O’Malley’s art style really well- there is a life and well, colour to Seconds entirely its own, that divorces it from O’Malley’s other work.

Bryan Lee O'malleys seconds review

That’s not to say that the anime and manga inspired style has been erased- far from it, in fact. O’Malley’s panel composition, character design and use of onomatopoeia share far more in common with their Eastern counterparts as opposed to their Western, but at the same time, it has evolved from the outright mimicry of Scott Pilgrim– the art occupies a strange place between east and west, between Bill Waterson’s luscious full colour landscapes from Calvin and Hobbes and the bold lines and clean character designs of Osama Tezuka’s Astroboy, taking and discarding elements from one or both or neither and fusing them together into one cohesive whole.

It’s an art style entirely of O’Malley’s own creation, built from his life experiences, and I for one am glad for its existence.

Narrative- Premise

Seconds is about Katie.

Katie isn’t an entirely happy person, despite her accomplishments. She started a restaurant (named, wait for it- Seconds), yet despite contributing to its success she doesn’t own it- despite being executive chef in the best restaurant in town, she is dissatisfied that it’s not hers. Also, her love life is kinda a mess (but hey, this is written by the same guy who did Scott Pilgrim, were you expecting anything different?). She’s decided it’s time to move on, to start fulfilling her own dream of owning her own restaurant, but all her plans are stalling out and running away from her.

It all comes to a head one day, all at once: the progress on the new restaurant has bogged down, her ex-boyfriend shows up again and one of her waitresses gets into a horrible accident, inadvertently caused by Katie distracting the head chef from his kitchen (Katie, herself looking for a distraction from her own troubles, was fooling around with the head chef).

Browbeaten by life, she crawls into bed- but in the middle of the night, she wakes up compelled by some unknown force, opens her dresser and finds a small box with a single mushroom and this note:

A Second Chance Awaits:

1. Write your mistake

2. Ingest one mushroom

3. Go to sleep

4. Wake anew

Narrative – Impressions

If I were a pretentious literary critic, this is the point where I’d start bandying about terms such as “magical realism”, “postmodern surrealist narrative” and most heinously “graphic novel”- thankfully I’m just pretentious, and there’s no need for such obtuse terminology. It’s a fairy tale, told in comic form.

Here the constant comparisons to Scott Pilgrim finally pay off for this reviewer: If Scott Pilgrim was the manifestation of the ennui of my generation of 20-somethings: the harrowing Hero’s Journey into adulthood told by way of Star Wars, Street Fighter and Nintendo; then Seconds is a cautionary fairy tale for my generation of 30-somethings.

Like all fairy tales, the plot is simple- with a simple trajectory, and is forced by its simple nature to perhaps touch upon some all too contrite themes. This being a spoiler-free review, I unfortunately can’t go into too much detail- suffice to say that you can probably see the shape of the story already in your minds eye just from the synopsis I ripped from the book jacket provided above.

Yes, it’s basically the plot of Groundhog Day.

Two things: 1) Groundhog Day is a pretty damn good film, really- and much more sound thematically than A Christmas Carol, if you do not mind the non-sequitur, and 2) like all fairy tales, what matters is the manner they are told in, and less so the actual content of the tale.

Narrative – Character

Katie is an asshole.

bryan lee o'malleys Seconds

I say this in the nicest way possible- she’s sarcastic, grouchy, immature, entirely too self-assured, prone to selfishness and hedonistic. Her only saving grace is her self-awareness combined with her snarky wit, which she uses to mask the crippling insecurities that we’re gradually introduced to as the story progresses, and that she has to eventually struggle with and overcome. Yes, these are traits that she shares in common with Scott Pilgrim; these are, also, the traits that make her a good character- I think the literary terms are well rounded and dynamic, but don’t quote me on that.

One of the two things that holds up Seconds, as a story- that elevates it beyond the run-of-the-mill, is just how strong the characterization is. O’Malley puts that expressively quasi-chibi artstyle to good use here- every character exudes character, even when the characters in question are literally doing nothing. The art conveys what needs to be said, and what the characters are thinking. But the art isn’t the only thing exuding character- Katie’s self-aware, 4th wall-breaking narration (cutely provided in captions, where necessary) and the snappy free-flowing dialogue all ground the characters in a very real sense of place and time- in a consistent here-and-now.

However, the emphasis has to be placed on character– while the cast assembled all display depth and nuance: from the slightly air-headed yet wise Hazel, to Katie’s charismatic ex-boyfriend Max, to the enigmatic house-spirit Lis- this really is Katie’s story. How she reacts to events, how those events affect and change her, what she learns about herself- that’s the real meat of the narrative; the detours and denouement that explores her character what makes the story compelling- the reflection she provides of someone at that stage of life, unsightly and otherwise, what creates relevancy.

Aesthetics pt. 2

The other thing that elevates Seconds is, ironically, the first thing that’s readily apparent. The art isn’t just a mere vehicle for narrative- comics (much like film and animation) are a visual medium, capable of holding and imbuing meaning beyond what mere words can achieve.

And meaning is imbued here- page layouts, individual panels, panel sequences, character designs, encapsulation, full-spreads- the list goes on. Nearly every line and every coloured in area contains layers of meaning, and not in some hollow ostentatious manner; everything is working together to tell a cohesive tale.

This is what is truly amazing about Seconds– the art. Words fail to do it justice: it is at once both warm and personable, stylish and hip, eloquent and precise.

Bryan lee o'malleys seconds

It is whatever O’Malley wishes it to be- the true mark of a good storyteller, and the surest sign of the maturity of his craft.

Conclusion

I think, for me personally, at least- that the reason I like Seconds so much, that it works so well as a story for me, is just the sheer earnestness and honesty that it exhibits. O’Malley and the team behind Seconds clearly put in a lot of effort into the book, and it shows.

Like Scott Pilgrim before it, Seconds itself spares no effort to hide the horrifying reality of life- all the little heartbreaks and small crisis’s that contribute to the average person’s life story. But what differentiates it from it’s predecessor is, for lack of a better term, a certain maturity, both in subject and style. There’s less pop-cultural appropriation, less of an effort to be relevant and metatextual; instead that has been replaced with a true-er appreciation for life’s little ironies and its wonders: a fairy tale for 30-somethings, and a reminder that it’s never too late to turn things around.

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