SECONDS – Bryan Lee O’Malley Serves Up A New Graphic Novel – Review
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The Talking Heads
It would be a lie to call all artists and writers perfectionists, but all artists and writers are notorious reworkers. Even if someone’s style is conversational there are going to be at least a few passes of rewriting to make the words on the page seem more spontaneous and off the cuff. As Twain said, “‘The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Artists of course have their own level of reworking that is if anything more exacting. Looking for that one piece of shading, that one ineffable telling detail that gives an image life. And if you fail well there’s always the ever overflowing wastebasket.
Uncoincidentally artists and writers are notorious basketcases when it comes to their personal life. Because if there’s one thing that legitimately has no redo button on it’s the organic chaos that comes from trying to deal with life in general and people specifically. Nothing that you say gets unsaid, nothing you do gets undone. In a perverse way life forces a creative person to work against their instincts. Go ahead make all the plans and have all the rules and expectations that you want, the universe could use a good laugh.
If you’ve read Seconds perhaps you can see where I’m going with this.
Chefs are certainly artists by temperament as much as anyone else and the lead of Seconds, the deeply loveable, intrinsically flawed and prickly Katie is given the one thing everyone wants and no one should have. A reset button. An opportunity to erase her mistakes from reality itself.
If a lot of Scott Pilgrim (fans should search the panels carefully) was plain lifestyle porn, displaying the kind of early twenties that no one quite has and everyone wants, Seconds feels like the jaundiced epilogue from the other end of the decade. All the freedom, possibility and promise drained away. A time when you’ve pretty much ended up the person you’re going to be and now have to figure out a way to live with that. When even the most successful people can feel like they’ve blown it. Katie, who has a successful career, unfulfilled ambitions and a nonexistent social life certainly feels like she has. So when she’s given the opportunity to start undoing her daily damage she’s perhaps understandably reckless about it. But this is a fairy tale and there are prices to pay for greed.
But that makes the book sound darker than it is- well sort of- because one of the remarkable things that Seconds does is subtly shift from O’Malley’s trademark tone of gentle magical realism to something genuinely upsetting. Up until that point all the usual trademarks and pleasures of O’Malley’s work are there; expressive art which expertly juxtaposes the mundane and the magical and seems deceptively simple until you find yourself flipping back fifty pages a dozen or so times to linger over the perfect detail of certain panels. Smartly deployed dry but ultimately affectionate humor. Characters you want to hug. O’Malley adds a few new tricks to his style to keep things from becoming too predictable, most impressively a series of splash page dioramas that are Andersonian in their careful detail. He also switch hits into a more complex almost wood cut style at a few key disconcerting moments. These lead the book to its concluion making it something darker, different and genuinely rich in the process.
So take Seconds as you will, a metaphor for the artistic process, a fractured love story, or a simple fable expertly told. It works equally well on any of those levels. Simply put this book is absurdly good, melancholy, beautiful, funny and genuinely poignant. Far from a “sophmore” slump with Seconds Bryan Lee O’Malley proves himself once and for all an artist wise in his knowledge of the creative impulse and the vagaries of the human heart.
In a certain sense this review is subjective. O’Malley has the uncanny ability to write directly to where I am in my life. I discovered the first volumes of Scott Pilgrim in College when their sense of gentle absurdist anarchy, soap opera, and magical realism built out of the deterius of my childhood and adolescence appealed directly to my sensibility. The melancholy fifth volume of that series hit me hard at a time I was dealing with the consequences of various actions and its autumnal air summed up the feel of a whole year of my life. And now that I am also twenty nine, mulling over the results of ideas dragged kicking and screaming into reality, opportunities squandered, goals accomplished, dreams cast aside, relationships broken, friendships maintained, priorities made, paths not taken and all the diverging ways that the last years of my life could have unfolded. As I look over the countless choices I’m forced to ask myself if I’m happy with how it has gone and if it’s how I want the remainder of my life to go, O’Malley’s work once again hit me directly where I live and quietly crushed me. I can’t promise that it will resonate as strongly with you as it does for me. But from where I’m standing Seconds is a flat out masterpiece.