This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 21, 2014.
I am writing this from my home.
Seconds has placed me in a state of mind where I am very aware of that location and what it means to me. It is a comic about youth, work, romance, friendship, dreams, finding meaning, and much more. But beyond all of that it is a comic about creating a home.
Seconds is Bryan Lee O’Malley’s third comic published as a graphic novel. When considered alongside the first two, it creates a pattern of growth both in the works and from O’Malley himself. Lost at Sea, his comics debut in 2003, follows an 18 year-old on a road trip across the United States. It is emblematic of themes commonly associated with high school, recognizing the need to move beyond one’s self in order to explore the world. IfLost at Sea is high school, then O’Malley’s more popular sophomore effort Scott Pilgrim is college. It focuses on a changing group of friends, each attempting to address their own needs and understand what it means to be an individual. It is also clear that O’Malley is maturing as an artist and storyteller between these comics, as his style, nuances, and art all become more complex.
And so we come to Seconds, O’Malley’s most ambitious and satisfying work to date, which I would describe as early adulthood.
The first thing that is clear is O’Malley has continued to develop as a cartoonist. Seconds is a comic packed with images, averaging somewhere between eight and ten panels per page. The number of panels on each page do not overwhelm the work though. Every image serves a specific purpose in relation to what comes before and after it. Eastern influences are very clear in his work, featuring many more aspect-to-aspect and moment-to-moment transitions than are typically found in Western comics. O’Malley uses these transitions to structure a more introspective and thoughtful tale. It is possible to move through each page of Seconds and discuss why O’Malley chose to use every panel the way he did. There is a choice reflected in every image and every juxtaposition which helps tell the story in the best way possible. This comic reveals the growth and further maturation of its teller just as much as its characters.
The comic centers on Katie Clay, a chef who is attempting to open a second restaurant while still being involved with her successful first endeavor. She discovers a patch of mushrooms and a notebook at her restaurant that allow her to alter mistakes from her past. Unsurprisingly, she ignores warnings to use the mushrooms with caution and events go awry in a big way. The original restaurant is named Seconds and is the most obvious source for the title, although the word “seconds” can also be applied to second chances, second lives, or second guesses.
Much of Seconds centers around mature mistakes and these “seconds” that are associated with them. Katie is not a failure and she does not lack direction like O’Malley’s previous protagonist Scott Pilgrim. She knows what she wants and has plenty of opportunities to pursue her dreams. That’s not to say that she is without regrets. The fantastical elements of the story are introduced when she makes a definite mistake that causes someone else to get badly hurt. However, in being allowed to change the world for this clear example of having done the wrong thing, she begins to second guess other decisions where the repercussions are less clear.
Breakups, benders, and bad business all become opportunities for Katie to alter her world. Regrets are no longer sources of strength or lessons for the future, but simply lines on a page to be erased. She becomes obsessed with the idea that she can make things perfect. When it becomes clear that there is no such thing as perfect, events have already spun outside of her control and she risks losing everything good in her life.
It’s easy to sympathize with her journey. Given a second chance, who would not seize the opportunity to recreate their lives? That’s the easy solution though, and an imaginary one. Focusing on her own mistakes and the chance to erase them, Katie loses track of how these mistakes helped shape her life and the lives of those around her. Partners, lovers, and friends all entered her personal orbit as a result of her regrets and her life may be better for it.
When Seconds begins, we are introduced to the restaurant Seconds. It is filled with all of the things Katie cares about. It is not perfect, but it is a warm place, a good place, a home. That is what Katie comes to learn and it reflects one of the most important lessons of adulthood; to accept things for being good, not expecting them to be perfect.
I would be remiss to not mention O’Malley’s collaborators on Seconds. Jason Fischer, Dustin Harbin, and Nathan Fairbairn all bring their own talents to bear and make the comic function as a whole. It is difficult to separate Fischer’s work as a drawing assistant from O’Malley’s, but the high quality results and all compliments to the art should be shared between them. Harbin’s lettering helps to create a personal atmosphere. Hand lettered, each page feels like it was crafted from start-to-finish by another human being imbuing it with a distinct personality absent from most digital fonts.
Fairbairn’s colors will be the addition that makes Seconds most distinctive to longtime fans of O’Malley’s work. Although Fairbairn is currently in the process of coloring all six volumes of Scott Pilgrim, this is O’Malley’s first comic to be initially published in color. Together, they take full advantage of this new tool. In addition to the distinctive figures, each character comes with colors by which they are easily distinguished and that reflect who they are. Katie’s bright red hair pulls focus to her on every page and highlights her passionate personality, while Lis’s (a supernatural spirit) blonde hair is more ethereal in nature. Dreams and other sequences delving into the supernatural are almost monochromatic, cast in eerie reds that distinguish them from reality. It is difficult to imagine reading this comic in black and white, given the ways in which Fairbairn’s colors flesh out the world and enhance the story.
The ultimate result of all their work is Seconds, one of the most exciting and innovative comics of 2014. It is a masterclass in craftsmanship that reveals both O’Malley’s personal growth and that of his collaborators. More importantly, it is a story that feels and is deeply human. It reflects upon our relationships, jobs, hobbies, and how all of these individual components of life come together to create the place we call home. It acknowledges the mistakes and frustrations that come with living and provides a parable for transcending an obsession with things that went wrong in order to put forth the wonder of the home we create in the process.
Seconds reminds me as I sit in my favorite chair (a leftover from college) typing this review that I am home. I am in a place of my own creation and choosing. For whatever mistakes brought me here, it is a place I am glad to be.