August 2014

Matt Terl


Seconds: A Graphic Novel by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Bryan Lee O'Malley is best known for his Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels, and justifiably so. From the first page of the first volume, those books are a gleefully energetic mash-up of manga, slice-of-life, early twenty-something ennui, your best friend's awesome band from back in the day, the crushing regret and occasional triumph of growing up, and video games. They are smart and simple in all the right ways, and taken together the six volumes are just about as perfect an argument as you'll find for how to tell stories about life in comic book form.

What's sometimes obscured by the instant-classic status of the Scott Pilgrim books is that they aren't actually O'Malley's first significant work. O'Malley had knocked around the comic book industry for a few years before Scott Pilgrim hit, providing art for a miniseries written by someone else, and writing and drawing an entire standalone graphic novel, published (like the Scott Pilgrim books) by Oni Press. That was Lost at Sea.

That book, rereleased in 2014 in a tenth-anniversary hardcover edition, has all the earmarks of an early work -- a reach that exceeds its grasp, an overreliance on purple first-person narration, and an occasional clunky art moment in a scene transition or panel-to-panel flow. It's a quieter book than Scott Pilgrim, and is regularly dismissed (then as now) as too emo to be taken seriously by anyone other than superfans -- think of a graphic novel version of a Dashboard Confessional album and you won't be too far from the mark.

Probably for exactly those reasons, it's also a really astute, honest portrait of late-teenage life, covering friendship, angst, romance, and road-tripping, with a little bit of fantastical maybe-mysticism thrown in for good measure.

All of which is relevant to us right now because O'Malley has a new book out, Seconds: A Graphic Novel, the plot of which hinges on the idea of rewriting or revising one's own personal history. And Seconds feels in many ways like a revision of Lost at Sea.

Or, to be more accurate, Seconds feels like O'Malley taking the tools and techniques that elevated Scott Pilgrim and attempting to use them on material much closer in spirit and plot to Lost at Sea.

[A BRIEF DIGRESSION ON SOME SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE TWO WORKS: Quickly, so as not to get bogged down in comparison, similarities between the two books include, but are not limited to, the following: female protagonist, deeply internalized first person narrative, unexplained weirdness and/or magical realism, a budding friendship between a shy introvert and a brash crankypants being central to the narrative, etc.]

The plot of Seconds centers on Katie, a talented chef who is trying to leave behind the restaurant where she made her name, to start a place where she's got some ownership stake. After things start to go wrong -- boyfriend problems, job problems, a workplace accident -- Katie finds a MacGuffin that lets her rewrite a bad decision out of history. But, as is the way of these things, there are rules and a cost to such wonders, and Katie doesn't pay enough heed to either, so we have a story.

[A BRIEF DIGRESSION ON THE MACGUFFIN: There are two elements that drive the history-revision mechanics in the story. One is a notepad, and the other is a mushroom. That mushroom, to me, is the clearest sign of O'Malley synthesizing the disparate elements of his other two major works: from one perspective, a magic mushroom is a trope in Lost at Sea-esque stories of fantasy and magical realism -- Alice in Wonderland leaps immediately to mind. On the other hand, a mushroom is also the power-up in the Mario games. And on yet another hand, mushrooms that warp perceptions and cause hallucinatory time slips aren't fantastical at all, but instead are things that actually exist and get eaten all the time, including (probably) by wildly creative twenty-nine-year-old chefs.]

Lost at Sea is the ripped-from-the-MySpace-page story of being in your late teens. Scott Pilgrim, the guitar-and-video-games-and-getting-a-real-job early-to-mid-twenties. Seconds is late-twenties to early-thirties, when you start to realize that all of your decisions in those earlier phases had consequences, and led you to where you are, good and bad, and you wonder if maybe you could've fixed things.

It's a natural progression, and a clever fantasticalizing of an everyday feeling. One of the things that elevated the Scott Pilgrim books was O'Malley's instinct for a killer pop hook. It serves him well yet again in Seconds, as he lightens potentially ponderous moments with conversational narration and threads humor throughout the mundane, non-fantastical details of life.

But there's something in the book that fails to cohere. Individually, the disparate elements of the book are terrific, but -- perhaps ironically, for a story that features revision so heavily as a primary theme -- the overall arc feels like it could've used some more refinement and honing.

Scott Pilgrim's life-as-a-video-game conceit helped O'Malley out on a number of levels. It was a relatable, brilliant hook to the book, a way of taking some of the most well-worn ideas from slice-of-life comics and making them feel thrillingly new again. But it also forced an overarching structure onto O'Malley's sometimes meandering tendencies: you had multiple iterations of [level --> boss fight --> experience points], all leading up to the big boss fight at the end of the game. No matter how much O'Malley wanted to break away from that restriction -- and there are plenty of points through the six volumes where you can feel him straining against it -- he had locked himself into it with volume one and was forced to see it through to volume six.

And maybe that was to his benefit, because in the two works without that conceit, O'Malley sometimes has difficulty getting his characters to feel like they're moving forward. (In fact, there's a compelling argument to be made that, through revision after revision, Katie actually spends this book regressing as a character rather than evolving. At the very least, despite 300-plus pages of ever-weirdening action, Katie somehow doesn't seem to have actually learned anything by the book's end.)

In a book entitled Lost at Sea, a certain sense of aimlessness and drifting can be expected and easily forgiven. In a book about trying to hone past decisions to achieve a desired future result, it's a bit more distracting.

Ultimately, these complaints are somewhat academic. O'Malley's mastery of the fundamentals of the craft keeps Seconds breezily engaging and readable. The action moves along, the drama is compelling in the same soap operatic way as any number of high-gloss TV shows, and the fantastical elements are deployed effectively to keep the action rising.

And it looks great as well. O'Malley remains adept at balancing the occasional clever framing of a scene with rock-solid storytelling chops and clear, thick-lined cartooning. This is the first of O'Malley's major works to be originally published in color, and it's clear that he and Nathan Fairbairn developed a consistent vision approach during the latter's after-the-fact colorizing of the Scott Pilgrim series. Pages of Seconds are washed in reds, blues, and earth tones, but the colors -- even at their flashiest -- always serve the story and never overpower it. Dustin Harbin's lettering is clean and unobtrusive. It is, at the very worst, an exceptionally professional, readable, good-looking book.

[A BRIEF DIGRESSION ON FORMATTING: Part of what made Scott Pilgrim so intriguing was that it had a bit of DIY indie grit on it. Not in the content, which was all video games and teen movies, but in the black-and-white printing and the manga-style packaging (complete with STOP! THE BOOK STARTS AT THE OTHER END! jokes) and in the whole Oni Press aesthetic of the early twenty-first century. It's easy to speculate that the books wouldn't have been nearly as successful had they been issued -- like Seconds, as well as the Scott Pilgrim reissues -- as full-color hardcovers. From a certain perspective, hardcover, high-gloss, expensively deluxe Scott Pilgrim volumes are the Jerry Garcia neckties of the pre-millennial generation. Seconds looks gorgeous, but it comes at the expense of some of the underdog charm of its predecessors.]

O'Malley could very easily have become paralyzed by his own success and spent his time churning out Scott Pilgrim imitations to ever-diminishing returns. (And, in fact, the most grating moment in all of Seconds is when it most overtly references Scott Pilgrim.) Instead, he's very clearly trying to synthesize his more naked early work and his more famous second work to move everything to a new place. The actual result is a very readable mixed bag, but it will be fascinating to see what tools it gives him to eventually explore being mid- to late-thirties.

Seconds: A Graphic Novel by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Ballantine Books
ISBN: 978-0345529374
336 pages