“I could cry for the time I’ve wasted
But that’s a waste of time and tears.
And I know just what I’d change if went back in time somehow
But there’s nothing I can do about it now.”
But what if there was, Willie? It’s been four long years without anything new to read from Bryan Lee O’Malley. This absence has been conspicuous because in that time, the film adaptation of his instant classic Scott Pilgrim series has become the epitome of the kind of awesome cult flick that geeks can still call their own. The dreaded mainstream has taken Marvel and DC’s heroes out of nerdville and made them into pop culture prom kings and queens, but we’ll always have Scott. Some things just weren’t meant for the mainstream.
Nonetheless, Scott Pilgrim was that rare work of art that perfectly melds self-aware pop counterculture sensibilities with deeper themes and metaphors that are somehow both extremely relatable and ingenious on a level that too few works are even willing to strive for these days. I’m still kicking myself for being stupid enough to put off reading it for as long as I did just because the drawings were cartoony (it took the film to convince me). Bryan Lee O’Malley is one of a kind and it’s about freakin’ time he gave us another helping. Seconds, if you will.
Seconds is that follow up four years in the making. No pressure, though. It’s only got to blow my mind, make me laugh, get me thinking deep philosophical thoughts about the nature of life, and make me feel deep human emotions from looking at little chibi people the way the once in a lifetime epic that preceded it did. Easy peasy. How do you follow up Scott Pilgrim? You give the reader something they would never have expected. Again.
Right off the bat, Seconds puts itself in its own class apart from its nerdy male post-adolescent slacker of a younger brother with a female protagonist on the cusp of 30 with her own successful business and a helping of arrogant self-centered entitlement. Polar opposite, then. Cool. Toss in a restaurant for a setting, its employees and customers for a cast, some heavy-duty multiverse metaphysics, a dash of Russian folklore, and adult perfectionist angst salved with solipsistical philosophy that somehow manages to be life-affirming, and you may start to get an idea what you’re in for. Thematical spoilers follow.
At 29 Katie runs the most popular restaurant in town. Kind of. You see, Seconds is her home. Literally. She lives above the restaurant. She took a rundown old building and turned it into a community fixture by serving the best food and pouring her heart and soul into her passion of being a first class restaurateur. It’s pretty cool to have accomplished your dream before hitting 30 and be loved and respected. So why isn’t she happy?
Our heroine is at that point in life where they realize that life is kind of unfair and shitty while still lacking in the wisdom and perspective to deal with it on an emotional level. You see, being not rich Katie had to find an investor to start up Seconds. Her culinary delights and hard work made the place a smash hit, but guess where the lion’s share of the money goes? Not to her.
So she’s been saving up, living in the restaurant’s attic, and has the location of her new restaurant –one SHE will own- all picked out. But life isn’t really easy for people who don’t already have more money than they can figure out what to do with. She needs more than she has or she’s going to lose her second chance. So what she does is partners up with this local dealer kid and starts cooking the best meth ever! Oh wait, no. Wrong story. This one’s about shrooms.
Although Katie technically doesn’t even work at Seconds anymore, she still struts around like she owns the place, seducing the chef, walking the tables to greet the guests, and criticizing the employees. One night, these things lead to an accident where somebody gets hurt and when our guilt-wracked protagonist gets home, she finds a mysterious box.
As instructed, she eats the mushroom, writes down her regret, goes to bed, and in her dreams she goes back to before the event with the ability to act differently. When she wakes up, having corrected the previous night’s mistake in her dreams, the real world is affected and what happened never happened. Her do-over dream now reflects her new reality.
Having now taken an interest in the shy girl, Hazel, who was the victim of the previous night’s accident that never happened, Katie learns of her beliefs in house spirits who watch over the occupants of their domain, which explains that weird girl named Lis who keeps appearing on her dresser in the middle of the night and eating bread in the rafters. Upon further investigation, she finds a whole stash of the magic mushrooms underneath the floorboards of Seconds; each one representing a chance to correct a wrong in her life. Lis is not pleased and delivers cryptic warnings, but what does she know? It’s party time.
This is, of course, a pretty typical Groundhog Day/Butterfly Effect scenario, and as a device it’s extremely cliché and almost always ends the same way. But this trip through the multiverse of causality is not some half-assed Family Guy episode. This is a rarely charming and thoughtful take on the idea that deserves to stand well above even the best past examples.
First off, there’s Katie herself. She’s not the lovable ball of nerdy loser Scott was, but in her way, she’s just as irresponsible. She’s almost always the smartest person in the room -even if she is so bull-headed that she argues with her own narrator- but she’s so self-centered she always assumes she’s going to be able to handle anything.
Sure, who wouldn’t want to spend all night before work binge-watching Netflix and then go back in time and get a good night’s sleep instead? Or eat the biggest, nastiest, awesomest burger you can find until you’re sick and then go back and have a nice salad instead? The narrator very cleverly refers to this as “having her cake and eating it too and also not having her cake and never eating it”.
But that’s when more adult regrets start really kicking in. Like Max, the one who got away. What if she hadn’t let him get away? What if she went back and got a different contractor for her new restaurant instead of the asshole demanding payment up front? She could make her life perfect if only she hadn’t done all of those things she did! What could go wrong?
Life hack: always listen to the cute nerd girl.
At this point, Seconds becomes much more than an exercise in sly character humor and cute drawings. It starts blazing philosophical trails through the reader’s mind. Because if you hadn’t done all of those things you did you wouldn’t be you and your life wouldn’t be yours. This becomes extremely apparent through Katie’s little space-time exercises.
Sure, you could go back and do the opposite of everything you ever regretted, but where would that leave present day you? In an unrecognizable hell of your own creating (but not really); a life that represents decisions made by somebody else, for somebody else. Somebody who thought they knew better, and were probably wrong because they are in the future being a big know it all and not in that moment doing their best like they should be.
Hindsight may be 20/20, but each of us makes the decisions we do because we are who we are in that moment and living with those decisions is the very meaning of who we are. Could imperfect present you even live in a world created by the ideals of some all-knowing future version of yourself? Life’s already too complicated for that bullshit.
To make different decisions would have made you a different person. Our lives are made up of the things we have chosen to do. And you know what? Sometimes the best things in life can spring out of our mistakes without us even realizing it. The further back Katie goes to change things she thought were wrong with her life in the past instead of working on making the present better, the more alien her new life becomes to her until she can’t even tell what’s real or what her past is.
With O’Malley’s style at play, this is not only thematically brilliant but refreshing. The melding of folklore, modern culture, adult themes, endearing manga style, and philosophical space-time conceptualization as a parable for self-acceptance is powerful. Seconds may lack the depth of cast its predecessor possessed (although Hazel is beyond adorable…and a Buffy fangirl), but it’s only one graphic novel. We had five to get to know Scott and his friends. Considering that, Seconds gets its character moments done in impressive fashion.
I can’t help but feel like some of this story may stem from some of O’Malley’s professional regrets after authoring such a massive success in Scott Pilgrim. It would explain the long wait for this book and the fact that it’s under a new publisher. His minimalist manga art style isn’t for everyone, but it shouldn’t deter you from something so well-written. And I do have to say that this features some of the most delicious illustrations of food I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever had my mouth water from reading a comic before.
Seconds’ philosophical moral core about recognizing the beauty of what you have instead of constantly demanding an idealistic abstract nonexistent concept of perfection is so simple, but it’s still something that people have trouble integrating into their lives. Near the end of the story, Katie is enthusiastically explaining her new lust for her life (as is) to her restaurant’s owner proper and he scoffs and points to his wall, where the famed prayer of serenity hangs. You know the one: serenity to accept, courage to change, wisdom to know. It’s a really funny moment where O’Malley acknowledges he’s just written this long, involved personal epic about space-time metaphysics and existential philosophy just to say something so simple and trite. But you know what, it’s the goddamn journey that counts and I had a really great time on this one. Hopefully it won’t be another four years before we hear from him again.