Between 2004 and 2010, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim was released to the world in six digest-sized volumes. It was a massive success, garnering industry awards and spawning the film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It made O’Malley a comic celebrity, and in 2011, he announced his follow-up, Seconds. The single (though sizable) book hit shelves last week. Turns out, the graphic novel was not only worth the wait, but it could actually be the year’s best.
Seconds follows Katie, a discontented chef who created the book’s titular restaurant. Though “angst” is used to describe Katie’s existential woes, the word seems a bit young for the kinds of problems experienced by our protagonist. Twenty-something Scott Pilgrim’s story had that vibe — youthful and cute, sincere but waist-deep in pop culture winks. Katie may at first seem as immature, but her narrative, and the consequences of her actions, are decidedly more adult than Pilgrim’s.
But the story is fantastical. There are house spirits and notebooks that let you undo your mistakes by writing them down and eating a mushroom, but not without a price. (There’s something a bit Death Note about the notebook, but that's where the comparisons between these stories end.) But the types of mistakes she’s making and the measures she’s taking to correct them suggest that O’Malley wanted to take a deeper venture into adulthood this time around. Through the course of the book, Katie delves back further and further into her dissatisfaction, “correcting” years’ worth of things she feels are wrong. Those consequences are as mystical as they are haunting in their realism. And O’Malley’s humor shines throughout, including a scene in which she makes frivolous use of the notebook to hide a night-long drunk.
Perhaps the best example comes through in a scene in which Katie realizes that getting back a boy with her little notebook doesn’t come with complete happiness. The first thing she notices is how “strange and boy-centric” her apartment has become, as in this reality, the two are married and living together. And then, she discovers her grand idea for a new restaurant was no longer just her dream. It was now shared, and she had lost the control she desired. (And O’Malley’s penchant for the kitchen is on full display in this work, complete with recipe asides and restaurant drama.)
With Seconds, O’Malley’s maintained the best artistic attributes of his past work. The one-liner asides that exist outside of the speech balloons are back, begging for multiple viewings. From kitchen layouts to cosmic dreamscapes, the book just pops. A red hue covers pages in which she’s doing a “Revision,” taking a grotesque turn as the story progresses. A piece of furniture somehow brings dread every time it appears. The entire art team should be thanked for the effectiveness of these choices, including lettering duties from Charlottean creator Dustin Harbin.
At first glance, an easy complaint with the book is that Katie can come off as rather unlikable, as she somehow makes the same — or worse — mistakes after she gets the ability to erase them. But by the book’s end, it’s this aspect that makes her the year’s most relatable protagonist thus far. She’s self-consumed, arrogant and seems to only make the right decisions after making countless wrong ones. But against the Everyman or Everywoman consistently pushed by this medium, in which sometimes all it takes is “believing in yourself” to overcome the odds, Katie is a welcome hero. Her dreams and desires are complicated, and no single action will fix them all.
Perhaps that’s one of O’Malley’s biggest narrative strengths. Scott Pilgrim had to rise above his youthful laziness and merge with NegaScott to accept his mistakes and move on with his relationship. It was a touching twist, regardless of its inherent silliness. Katie has to come to terms with the fact that every clean slate that comes from her little notebook leaves her lonely, yet again.
Seconds is 323 pages, and somehow easily read in a day. But don’t think you’ll forget it tomorrow. With the long break between O’Malley’s works, it’s a reminder that great works take time. And thankfully, it produces books that can be re-read, filling the time between now and the creator’s next offering. The slate’s not clean each time; you end up learning a little more.