I remember loving Scott Pilgrim initially, then feeling beaten down by the hype that started building around it over the course of subsequent volumes (and looking back on it, six is kind of a lot!), rolling my eyes profusely while hearing about the movie while it was in development (I’m not a Michael Cera fan, what can I say), but then, in a fit of acquiescence and spendthrift excitement, buying the final volume and feeling delighted. The movie wasn’t half bad either. All of this to say, it’s hard for Bryan Lee O’Malley to be labeled other than as the Scott Pilgrim—it was a moment of great visibility for the graphic novel format. O’Malley’s manga-esque, yet quintessentially American cartooning style, his inside jokes about video games, and romantic twenty-something entanglements add up to a fun, silly, and engrossing read.
That being said, Scott Pilgrim was very much of its moment. Graphic novels were on the upswing, nerds were cool, and manga was still super-niche. Okay, maybe things haven’t changed that much. But at first glance, Seconds looks like Scott Pilgrim redux, and that initially put me off. Our heroine, Katie, is a sprightly red-head who looks like she’s been plucked straight out of a video game. She’s broken up about her recent break-up, stressed out about her career as a chef, and often beefing with her coworkers, filled with doubts and what-ifs. She’s spunky and sour, defiant and hilarious—which doesn’t sound like that much of a departure from Scott Pilgrim. The classic stuff of quarter-life crisis. So pardon my skepticism.
But, as quickly as I started to think that I was just reading Scott Pilgrim, things got weird fast. Katie finds a house spirit in her restaurant who will grant her wishes to fix the youthful mistakes she’s made, but with the proviso that everything else will change because of it. It’s a bit of the monkey’s paw or a butterfly effect dilemma: be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. It’s been done many times, usually turning into science fiction—the where’s and what-ifs of alternate timelines. But in Seconds, it’s fabulist, a maze built of personal choices and emotional repercussions.
Surprisingly, Seconds takes a sharp turn away from the ordinary; as alternate scenarios present themselves, they get stranger and stranger, until there are skeleton-men serving meals and the world outside is literally on fire. It is a fundamentally supernatural story with restaurants appearing like fairytale cottages, basement kitchens that double as frightening mazes of hallways and doors, and a sassy house-elf and a sinister witch to top it all off. O’Malley does a great job of building a plausible and beautiful real life universe, one which when slightly altered by an overabundance of careless wishes, becomes the stuff of rich and eerie fable. It’s unexpected, unique, and it works. With every page I turned, I thought he would step back from the strangeness and get back to quarter-life-crisis, but his commitment to immersing the reader in a fairy tale was unwavering.
For me, the selling point of Seconds is O’Malley’s sense of setting. The picturesque cottage, Katie’s stony and stately new restaurant, snowy city street scenes that felt both cozy and ominous, and that terrific and terrifying basement. For a book that was about the interconnection between one’s sense of place and one’s sense of self, O’Malley fully committed to creating one woman’s universe in miniature. The color work, completed by Nathan Fairbairn, was remarkable as well. Boldly-colored characters and dramatic scenic shifts between darkness and light were also a treat. This would have been less pleasurable without his coloring, so it’s fantastic that O’Malley had the opportunity to use it.
Seconds may not be for everyone, as not everyone loves the heavy-handedness of a good fairytale, but you owe it to yourself to give it a chance. If you didn’t love Scott Pilgrim, this is a departure. If you did love Scott Pilgrim, this touches on some of the same themes, but takes them in a different direction that is more mature and imaginative. Seconds is singular, surprising, well-paced, and a lot of fun to read and admire. It’s no Scott Pilgrim, though, and that’s a good thing.
by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Ballantine Books, 2014