Graphic Novel Review: Seconds by Bryan Lee O’ Malley

Although the Scott Pilgrim series wasn’t Bryan Lee O’ Malley‘s only work, it was his most successful and left and indelible mark on pop culture. In the years after it ended the public wondered whether O’ Malley would be able to duplicate that success. It remains to be seen whether Seconds will have the same lasting impression as Scott Pilgrim, but as a piece of work it’s a resounding success.

The novel follows protagonist and restaurant chef Katie Clay as she attempts to move up in her career. There’s a piece of property she wants to buy and turn into a bigger restaurant, but various setbacks cause her major headaches. In addition to that there’s some fairly typical romantic drama.

All of this leads Katie to discover a spirit that grants her a magic notebook and  mushrooms that allow her to relive her past and fix any mistakes that led to her current dilemma. As the novel progresses she discovers that she ends up creating more problems by tinkering with the past and eventually turns her world into a literal nightmare.

panel from “Seconds” by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

O’ Malley is one of the very few creators in the public eye who is immersed in millennial humour. He just gets it. His attempts to relate to this generation succeed every time because he grew up on the sarcastic/ironic/bizarre online forums where this culture began. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this book is how smoothly Lee O’ Malley jumps into the subject material. Those wondering if his style was only as strong as his video game references should be pleased to discover that he writes as capably about life in a restaurant as he did about an immature slacker in the Toronto punk scene.

Katie is appropriately older than Scott Pilgrim was, and her experiences and attitude reflect that. She’s more mature and capable, but still prone to making rash decisions. She’s definitely her own character, even if a tiny reference to O’ Malley’s previous series sneaks in sometimes (“Bread makes you fat?”).

In fact, every character is vividly defined. The shy, quirky new waitress Hazel is understandably innocent, while Katie’s boyfriend Max is…exactly how you’d expect someone named Max to be like. Even secondary characters instantly recall people you’d meet in every day life. None are caricatures or stereotypes, and all have their own flaws. It’s a great snapshot of humanity wrapped up in a fantasy conceit.

The art is the same “anime vis-a-vis Tumblr” style that the Scott Pilgrim series was in, but with a more muted colour palette entirely befitting of the folkloric story. There’s a very European sheen over the whole thing, even if the base art is definitively based on Japanese tropes. Every so often you get wordless panels like this that evoke a deeper, darker side of the story.

The singular story and more focused plot allows for O’ Malley to get a little more existential this time around. Not just with the art, but the story as well. It’s not some “super-serious” morality play, but it is a decidedly less lighthearted jaunt and aims to leave readers with a lesson: don’t dwell on past mistakes, move forward.

If there’s one area that the book stumbles on it’s the time travel aspect. To be fair, the theme is tricky no matter who’s attempting it and trips up even the most seasoned writers. It just gets a little muddled towards the end, more so than usual due to the phantasmagorical universes O’ Malley creates for Katie.

It’s a minor distraction however, and ultimately doesn’t detract too much from the read. The book concludes in an appropriate manner and solidifies O’ Malley’s reputation as a viable ambassador of modern youth culture.

Final Grade: A