There is a moment in Seconds that will speak to just about everyone. Whether or not you get the social commentary or the cultural witticisms doesn’t matter. You’ll get this. It’s a moment that will elicit empathy in just about anyone who’s ever tried to do anything and amidst the insanity of everything around it, is notable for its very presence.
And that’s just one panel.
Seconds, the latest graphic novel from Bryan Lee O’Malley, is the story of Katie; a successful chef, who at 29 is about to open her second restaurant. She has a premises she believes in, a business partner she can trust and a reputation that’s guaranteed to bring in business. By anyone’s standards, Katie has it pretty good. Until she indirectly causes a serious accident in the kitchen, her building costs skyrocket while her partner is out of town, her ex-boyfriend shows up to make her feel old, and – as if that wasn’t enough – her apartment is suddenly haunted by a total weirdo creep spirit named Lis. With so much going so wrong so quickly, it’s a good thing Katie has access to a patch of magic mushrooms that can re-write the past.
If that concept seems a little convoluted, don’t worry about it; it works in practice. By laying out the mushroom’s work in literal ‘revisions’, it’s clear from the start how the system works but also, more importantly, how it doesn’t work. Katie’s attempts to rewrite history start small, but as the requests get bigger, her world gets less and less familiar. The more she changes about the past the more her present becomes unrecognizable and this concept is explored by setting small, everyday human interactions against a mysterious supernatural plot growing quietly behind everything else. Somehow, one never overtakes the other and Seconds remains a story about a normal person with normal struggles while also being a story about magic mushrooms, time travel, and ghosts in fur coats.
Fans of O’Malley’s previous work may find it difficult to separate Seconds from what has come before. Visually, it’s less dynamic; everything stays firmly within the panels and even when the lines disappear, the artwork is no less rigid but crucially, this never becomes boring and O’Malley actually uses our expectations of these grids to do some pretty interesting things that give Seconds a rhythm unlike anything else he’s ever done. It also benefits hugely from being his first full colour work and some of the art frequently disrupts the rhythm of the panelling by just being really, really good. Seconds isn’t a particularly long read, but you might find yourself going back to stare at your favorite pages long after you’ve turned the last page.
All that said, Katie’s story slots perfectly into O’Malley’s oeuvre. Mal’s strongest asset has always been his ability to talk about normal, boring stuff that everyone has to deal with in chaotic and often hilarious contexts that mask the real message and make it easier to swallow. Seconds, while making its own points, references the stories that came before it in pretty interesting ways. Katie’s relationship with her ex-boyfriend Max quietly echoes Scott Pilgrim‘s tale of dealing with someones emotional baggage and accepting that you won’t always be in control of your life, the central theme of Lost at Sea, is a major theme here too. This book is definitely a step forward for Bryan Lee O’Malley, but it’s clear he’s still the same irreverent yet thoughtful writer we fell in love with before.
Seconds is a wonderful book. It’s entertaining and enlightening, hilarious and heartwarming, intelligent and yet completely insane. If you’re a fan of O’Malley’s work, it sits comfortably between the anarchy of Scott Pilgrim and the poignancy of Lost at Sea, creating something that touches on the brilliance of both. If you’ve never read anything by Bryan Lee O’Malley before, there’s never been a better time to start.