Seconds is the third major work from Bryan Lee O’Malley, the Canadian comic creator most famous for the six-part Scott Pilgrim series published from 2004 through 2010 that spawned a criminally under-appreciated feature film directed by Edgar Wright. After four years of relative quiet on the comics scene (O’Malley is also in a band), he has returned to the spotlight with his second standalone graphic novel.
Illustrated in his well-established anime-influenced style, the story follows Katie, a successful chef and co-founder of a restaurant that shares a name with the book’s title. While Seconds was once a source of pride for Katie, her great accomplishment as a fiery mid-twenties chef seeking to create something unique and personal with a group of similarly idealistic friends. Her fire has waned in the following years, as her co-founders moved on to other opportunities, and her interest began to erode despite the consistent success the restaurant has seen. The desire to have something truly of her own has returned to gnaw on her, and on the cusp of turning 30 she has decided to move on, working to open a brand new restaurant in a run down, stately house on the other side of town. Still working at Seconds but generally checked out, Katie endures a brutal day where everything seems to go wrong as the novel opens. One of her servers is badly burned by a kitchen accident that Katie is at least partially responsible for by fooling around with Andrew, the new chef replacing her. Her ex-boyfriend abruptly shows up looking to talk. The renovations of her new digs are behind schedule and above budget. Her relationships with her coworkers are strained, stressed and complicated. Murphy’s Law is in full effect.
When she wakes in the middle of the night to find a small, shabbily attired girl named Lis perched on top of her dresser pointing at one of the drawers, she finds a small box inside where there should be clothes. Inside the box is a notebook, a small redcapped mushroom and a piece of paper with four instructions:
1. Write your mistake
2. Ingest one mushroom
3. Go to sleep
4. Wake up anew
Bleary-eyed and confused but utterly desperate and miserable, Katie gives it a shot, scrawls something in the notebook, pops the mushroom in her mouth and goes back to bed. The next morning, she finds her server’s arms clean of burns and Andrew having no knowledge of their affair. The mushroom worked. It was like the previous day had never happened. But, as one would expect, actions have their consequences, and Katie soon sees the darker side of her mushroom-fueled rewriting of history. The cost of her renovations have jumped by $6,000. Andrew barely acknowledges her existence. The only positive that seems to have actually come out of the change was the new friendship she has forged with the server who had the accident. Her buyer’s remorse is strong, and her temptation is tested when she discovers a cache of the mushrooms below the floorboards in the basement. Despite Lis’ clear instructions that people only get one mushroom, one chance to fix the past, Katie grabs a dozen of the mushrooms and gets to work trying to craft the perfect life.
The conceit of Seconds is something we’ve seen quite a bit. It’s an especially popular trope in movies thanks to recent-ish films like About Time or Ruby Sparks. It speaks in many ways to the obsessive laziness of modern culture; the dream is to fix all problems with as little effort as possible, and there’s nothing more effortless than writing down a few sentences in a notebook and eating a mushroom. But these stories (and other similar stories like The Butterfly Effect or Click) are all about the consequences that come from trying to find and easy, lazy fix to one’s problems. Seconds is no different, though it also adds a few new wrinkles to the plot. Specifically, the presence of Lis and what she represents is a pretty major departure from standard design of these stories. Lis and Hannah (the server friend) are differing degrees of in the know about what is going on, which creates a bit more continuity from timeline to timeline and gives Katie and outlet beyond her own mind as her greed and desires for change spin out of control.
O’Malley’s art and writing style are well-suited to telling this sort of story. The cartoony nature of the art could make one expect something more suited to the kiddies, but O’Malley has fought against this tide before and uses his refined sense of humor and plotting to make sure the tale remains squarely in the adult sphere. His use of narration is a particular delight; Katie often hears and reacts to the narration in humorous fashion, but it never feels overdone or gimmicky the way it does in, say, a Deadpool comic. The panel and lettering design is excellent; the book’s creators definitely know how to make a panel pop thanks to some nonstandard placement of narrative text or word bubbles. The action and storytelling is clean and comfortable to follow. It is a kinetic reading experience, one that practically demands to be completed in one sitting. The narrative and the art weave together to create an accomplished, compelling package. The line work is more mature and sure of itself than the sketchier work from Scott Pilgrim (O’Malley did have help for this one, in part due to a shoulder injury that stopped him from working on the book for some time). It is very much an evolution in both storytelling and art.
What really makes Seconds special, though, is O’Malley’s fearlessness when the story needs to get dark. Surprising the audience with a turn toward the serious and dark can be a tricky canard when the book is predominantly comedic, but when done correctly it can be eternally rewarding (think Douglas Adams’ two masterworks Life, the Universe and Everything and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, both of which aren’t afraid to darken up the story in order to raise stakes). The climactic set piece of Seconds feels (and is, really) cosmic in its scope, but manages to remain rooted in the story it is telling to ensure nothing is out of place or too abrupt a change in setting or tone. These scenes are deeply felt and emotional, the sort of moments that can fully take advantage of the unique medium that is comic book storytelling. The art is fantastic and the story engrossing. It is a powerful end to an engaging story.
If there is one issue that can be found within the pages of Seconds, it would be that O’Malley does slip into contrivance from time to time. He makes the intriguing choice of limiting Katie’s ability to change the past only to events that actually happen within the restaurant, but in practice everything she would ever want to change happens there anyway, which seems like a missed opportunity. Similarly, the denouement wraps things up a little too neatly in Katie’s life; perhaps some more lasting consequences to her meddling with the space-time continuum might have been warranted. These issues cannot be denied, but in the context of the overall story and presentation that O’Malley has given, they are minor niggles. Surrounding these foibles is a strongly constructed and genuine tale about the malaise of the late-twenties unfulfilled and the lengths they will go in order to find comfort and inspiration. O’Malley has stepped up his game with this new work, and Seconds is a book worthy of the reputation he built while releasing Scott Pilgrim. It will take time to determine whether this new book is better than the longer form Pilgrim, but it certainly has the potential to become O’Malley’s opus. Seconds is definitely something special.