by Bryan Lee O'Malley (with assistance by Jason Fischer)
One of the most highly anticipated new graphic novels of the last few years, Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds, has finally arrived, four years after he finished his classic Scott Pilgrim series. As with many writers, recording artists, or directors who have a giant hit on their hands, I'm sure O'Malley felt a lot of pressure to satisfy his fans and meet or exceed expectations.
Seconds is definitely an interesting book, and while reading it, I was most curious to see how much O'Malley switched up his approach to story-telling.
The book is about Katie, a successful chef who, at twenty-nine, is beginning to worry about where she is in life, in terms of controlling her own career, finding love, and living a life that really gives her what she wants. She's reached a certain degree of fame in her city for her cooking at Seconds, a lovely restaurant situated on a hill overlooking the town, with exposed rafters and a warm fireplace. She lives above the restaurant in an attic apartment, but she does not own the business, and at the point where the book opens, doesn't even actually work there anymore, despite the fact that she spends most of her nights in the dining room or in the kitchen.
Instead, Katie has taken a big gamble, and has, with a very positive business partner, purchased a run-down building on the wrong side of a river that runs through her town, which she is slowly having renovated so she can open Katie's, her own place where she does things her way.
You would think that she'd be happy, but Katie is a lonely wreck. The appearance of Max, her ex, at the restaurant one night sends her into a spin, and she ends up making out with Andrew, her replacement chef, in the walk-in. While they are off doing their thing, Hazel, a waifish young waitress, gets injured in the kitchen, and Katie feels terribly responsible.
Later that night, Katie has a strange dream where a spectral young woman comes to her and gives her a box that contains a notebook and a strange red-capped mushroom. There is an instruction card the explains that if Katie writes down what she regrets, then eats the mushroom and goes to sleep, things will be better in the morning. The next day, Hazel is not injured, and Andrew has no memory of anything special happening between he and Katie. Basically, the day had been re-written, and only Katie had any memory of what had happened.
From there, Katie discovers a stash of these special mushrooms growing under a floorboard, and goes on a bit of a spree, rewriting days to try to fit with how she wishes they'd gone, and eventually graduating to using the mushrooms to revive her relationship with Max, and to correct errors she made in choosing the site of her new restaurant. As the story unfolds, Katie begins to regret fixing her regrets more than she does the original mistakes.
O'Malley plays with the concept of 'house spirits' here, and as Hazel and Katie become closer, they work out just who the woman that Katie keeps seeing on her dresser really is. These aspects of the story reminded me of Latin American magical realism, as concepts like house spirits and magic mushrooms are just a readily-accepted part of O'Malley's otherwise very normal comic book world. I'd say that the conceit works very well, although as the book reached its climax, which involves a second house spirit, I found myself wanting to get back to the more everyday aspects of the story.
I think that this book is a worthy successor to Scott Pilgrim. Katie is older than Scott's crew, although to be honest, reading about the midlife-like crisis of somebody who is not yet thirty is kind of irritating for someone who crossed that divide a ways back. The waitresses, who are invariably pretty and are identified by their proximity to being twenty-one, could probably have hung out with Scott, but with the exception of Hazel, they aren't all that important to the book.
O'Malley's style of cartooning has not changed very much, although the colours of Nathan Fairbairn do add a necessary dimension that makes the book feel more mature than the Pilgrim books. While embracing magical realism, and still using some classic manga tropes (like the teardrops that appear on the side or back of characters' heads when they feel stressed), O'Malley has abandoned the video game in-jokes that filled the visuals of Scott Pilgrim, again making this feel like a much more mature piece of work.
One thing that I loved about Pilgrim that is missing here is the clear sense of place. We don't know what town Katie lives in, and the city feels like it's not a part of the story at all. When we see outside shots of Seconds, it looks like it's in the countryside, and we barely see cars parked outside, even when the dining room is packed. Perhaps its just because Scott Pilgrim was set in Toronto, and made such great use of iconic locations that have meant something to me personally (the Reference Library, Honest Ed's, and Lee's Palace in particular) that I identified so much more strongly with it, but I missed that aspect of this story.
I think that with this book, O'Malley has proven that he is not a 'one-hit wonder' creator, but is instead a strong cartoonist, with a knack for creating endearing characters and situations. We've all wished we could go back and undo mistakes we've made or things we've said, and in this book, he taps into that feeling very well, while showing us why an easy fix is never the right answer. Sure there are times when I started to feel that the book was a little too precious, but overall, I really enjoyed reading this book.