Seconds: A Graphic Novel
Not everyone can create a popular six-graphic-novel series that’s the basis for a major motion picture and still being reprinted (this time in color) ten years later. So it’s not surprising that the next book by Bryan Lee O’Malley, creator of Scott Pilgrim, has been heavily anticipated.
That can be a heavy burden to bear, but I’m pleased to say that Seconds: A Graphic Novel is a terrific read, shaking off the sophomore curse. It’s the story of Katie, a young chef who works at one of the best-regarded, popular restaurants in town. But she’s an employee, not an owner, so she’s working to open her own place. Unfortunately, that’s become a bigger project than she thought, with her choice of an older location causing more problems than expected. Then her ex-boyfriend Max visits, raking up unsettled emotions.
Katie is feeling her age, about to enter her thirties, the decade where you realize that you can’t always just start over, the time when you recognize that decisions have consequences, and some choices can’t be reversed. In other words, Katie is growing up, but she’s hating it. Then Katie dreams, one night, about a white-haired primitive sprite, a spirit that tells her she has an option “if things go wrong”. She finds a box that contains a mushroom, a notebook, and an instruction card. Eating the mushroom causes a cosmic reset, where she can erase her mistakes.
One you have the strength to make major changes in your life, then change for its own sake can become addictive, and Katie falls into the trap. But the story is about how she needs to recognize the need for community, for getting along with others and playing within the established rules to build harmony. In other words, it’s not just about her.
O’Malley has refined his art style. The video-game-inspired cute characters and big eyes are still present, but they’re shown more confidently. The pages are dense, with multiple panels focusing the eye on key elements. The panels where we see more than one character at once are rarer and thus more potent. I was impressed at how much story we get here and yet how much more I wanted. Some of Katie’s choices are lightly, briefly told, since we can piece together the details ourselves. The technique involves the reader more in sympathizing with her, making us part of her story.
So many normal virtues are turned on their head. Katie’s first change is for someone else, a compassionate gesture to fix their pain that she caused. (Although one might see that as using someone else as the experimental guinea pig.) Katie’s talented, which lets her act up without others calling her on it. Katie’s determined and independent, which has allowed her to achieve things, but her lack of willingness to follow the rules, her insistence that she’s special, will undermine her. We’re supposed to applaud that kind of “I can do it! On my own!” confidence, but here, it’s a tragic flaw, evoking older heroic tales and the lesson of avoiding hubris.
Seconds means many things, most involving second chances:
- It’s Katie’s second try at a restaurant.
- It’s a reminder that good food makes us want more.
- It’s an indicator of how quickly life-changing decisions can be made, in merely seconds.
One of the subtly interesting elements to me was how difficult Katie found it to accept the ongoing process of setting up her new place. She was impatient and uncomfortable with the compromises. She has a perfect vision and that the world doesn’t want to give it to her exactly as she imagined is making her sullen. That’s another part of growing up, of realizing that things are not going to be exactly how you imagined them, and how to accept the best you can make it.
Then there’s the classic warning to be careful what you wish for. When Katie gets what she thinks she wants, she doesn’t realize what the choices have cost her. Simply wishing for a better relationship means you skip putting in the work to make it so. A different choice might not be better, but some stubborn people have to see that to realize it.
Seconds left me thinking a lot, about how I became the person I am now and what I might have done differently. It’s inspirational and exciting and an impressive accomplishment. This interview with O’Malley shows some sample art. (The publisher provided a review copy.)