1. Write your mistake
2. Ingest one mushroom
3. Go to sleep
4. Wake anew
EVENTS MUST OCCUR ON THESE PREMISES
This is the tantalizing offer presented to the main character of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s latest graphic novel Seconds. There are times when we all wish we could go back in time and get a do-over, tackle the affairs in our life with the wisdom that hindsight brings. Yet however wise these decisions to alter bits of our past might seem, Seconds reminds us that changing the past in what seems like wise ways will always have unforeseen consequences in the present. Seconds is about second chances, and is O’Malley’s second published graphic novel after his New York Times Best Selling Scott Pilgrim series. It’s a fun stand-alone story that has as much to say about taking responsibility for your actions as it does about the challenges related to maintaing a relationship and building your dreams, that life is hard but rewarding. It’s a solid story that merits a second reading, and beyond.
The protagonist of this story is Katie, a 29-going-on-30 year old chef who previously created a very successful restaurant called Seconds and resents that she doesn’t own it, even as she lives in an apartment above it. However, after having scrimped and saved for years has finally saved up enough to co-finance her own restaurant which is being constructed in an old building she’s always admired. Yet while all of this is happening, she realizes she has few friends, is resented by the staff at Seconds with whom she’s always hanging about, is in an unfortunate affair with the new head chef she trained to take over the kitchen at Seconds while still pining over her old flame Max, and the construction on her new restaurant’s costs keep mounting. However, she’s been having strange dreams about a wispy girl on her dresser who tells her to look there if things go wrong, and when one of Seconds’ waiters burns herself with hot oil, Katie searches and finds a mushroom along with instructions to write down her mistake, eat the mushroom, and fall asleep. When it works and Katie uses these mushrooms to reenact many regrets, her world becomes more and more unrecognizable and begins to slip into the unreal.
It’s been five years since O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series ended, and Seconds showcases narrative and art that have matured well along with its creator. Those college students who related to Scott Pilgrim when it initially ran will definitely find the 29-going-on-30 angst of Seconds recognizable as well. Gone are the cherished video game references, though O’Malley’s story and art in his latest project still have the same sense of fun and fantasy combined with well-written characters that made the Scott Pilgrim franchise so popular. Katie is a well-realized character filled with comic expression who carries the burden of expectation coupled with impatience. She puts on a brave face, but having worked so hard to get where she is, she can’t stand the setbacks preventing her dream from becoming a reality, and deeply regrets having to have made many of the sacrifices necessary to get where she is today. This comes across in the various moments when she rocks back and forth between obstinate confidence and utter depression over her decisions, made tangible through O’Malley’s beautiful manga-style drawings complete with over the top expressions and literal starry-eyed awe and enthusiasm. Her mania causes her to consume more and more mushrooms, and as each change she makes comes with its own set of problems, the graphic novels builds up to a fever pitch in which she loses control of the changes altogether.
The supernatural side of the story is drawn straight out of folklore through the character Lis, the wispy girl on Katie’s dresser, who also happens to be a house spirit that protects Seconds. She is suitably impish, always crouching, wearing an odd assortment of clothing left out for her by Katie’s employee Hazel, and speaking in broken English. Lis warns Katie repeatedly that she is only meant to have used the mushroom once, and her rising anger is chilling; she lashes out in one of the only ways she can, by aggressively rearranging Katie’s furniture. Hazel, a waitress in Seconds, acts as a foil to story by giving exposition on the nature of house spirits and giving Katie someone to speak with regarding all the changes that she’s made by using the mushrooms. She’s the dreamer to Katie’s realist, saying of house spirits, “we make things good for them… they make things good for us.” Only Katie can see Lis, and perhaps meant as an interesting commentary on the power of illustration, it’s Hazel’s drawings of Lis that influence the house spirit’s appearance.
The art direction is completely on point. Seconds lacks the frenetic energy of Scott Pilgrim in that there’s no zany combat, but as the theme of Seconds is a bit quieter, so too is O’Malley’s artwork in which so much of the visual storytelling is achieved through the characters’ expressions and body language. His settings are well designed and feel like authentic spaces, and when magical things begin to infuse Katie’s world, the overall shape of the world becomes suitably warped and surreal. The colourist Nathan Fairbairn’s subdued palette fits the project particularly well, giving the work something of an autumn hue that works well in conjunction of the colour of Katie’s hair, emphasizing her close ties to the events taking place and the imminent fall that is gradually progressing as she eats more and more mushrooms.
If Scott Pilgrim was O’Malley’s love letter to Japanese action manga and video game culture, Seconds is his successful attempt at creating an atmospheric tale grounded in reality but with elements of a fairy story; he even provides a narrator who Katie can hear and often breaks the fourth wall to engage with. The art is beautiful and on point, the characters are well developed, and no movement of the story is wasted in establishing its message. It’s a story about the danger of dwelling in the past, and learning to accept the things you can not change. Katie reminds us that in this hectic world in which we live, the best thing you can do is stay firmly grounded in the present. An excellent read!