Graphic Novel Review – Seconds
Looks like it finally happened, I found something so well crafted, structured and executed that I had to make a new rating category. Swallow Me Whole came pretty close, but Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds is truly a masterwork of the graphic novel genre. It doesn’t add anything revolutionary to the idiom itself, but there is a stroke of genius in just how well the story is fleshed out in a format that has pretty strict limits on the complexity and length of narrative due to page space being spent on images rather than compact lines of prose. It also has a little to add to the metanarrative. O’Malley worked on the book for three years, the other people who worked on it were Jason Fischer (Drawing Assistant), Dustin Harbin (Lettering), and Nathan Fairbairn (Color). The publisher is Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House.
Summary: Katie Clay, is 29, an accomplished cook, a prospective restaurant owner, and occasionally haunted by a girl on top of her dresser. To add to this, she lives above and needlessly lords over the restaurant Seconds, a restaurant that was built around her cooking and featured her as head chef before she decided to move onto owning her own joint. As is typical, progress sours on the building renovation for her new restaurant location, and during a workplace accident that she had a hand in causing; one of the Seconds waitresses named Hazel is badly burned. That night, she digs in her drawer to find a notebook and a mushroom with instructions telling her to write down one mistake, ingest one mushroom, sleep and wake up. She does so, and the accident never happened. Once Katie finds more mushrooms, she starts fixing more of her mistakes, with both mundane and dire consequences, although Hazel stays consistent between all life revisions. As is typical, this has implications that she didn’t initial predict.
Visuals: Bryan Lee O’Malley shows a bit more diversity with his character designs in comparison to say, the style from the last Scott Pilgrim volume. The cast has more racial diversity in opposition to the parade of white people that the Scott Pilgrim series featured, and characters have more diverse body types as well, in contrast to the extremely limited male and female template that was used for much of Scott Pilgrim. The clearest difference is that all the characters have distinct eyeball shapes. As would be expected of the guy who came up with Ramona Flowers, there’s some creative hair to admire, although I do think that the semiotics involved in the character design has more to do with common signifiers for standard character roles rather than the specific characters. For example, Katie has bright red, spikey hair, which is usually a trope used to signify the lead character in manga styled media, but there isn’t much focus on why or how she has such a unique cut.
Themes: The masterful mix of the mundane and the magical goes a long way toward making this book both relatable and interesting on a more creative level. Many of the graphic novels that I’ve liked lately have taken this approach, but I’d say that this one gets the seamless mixture just right. There are three main focuses for the narrative: regret, hubris, and morality being tainted by magic.
Katie’s regrets are the catalyst for her dependence on the mystic forces that she gets introduced to. Her ability to directly alter these events contributes to her hubris as the novel progresses, because her life changes drastically as a result of the revisions, but she never gets to personally experience the change as it happens, so the rewards that she gets as a result are ultimately hollow to her on an emotional level, and she can no longer understand who the closest people to her are, because she’s changed them so many times while she’s stayed stagnant. This sets up the truism that being rewarded without having to experience the hardship, advancement or maturity in a growing relationship is a meaningless gift.
This ties in well into an old as balls concept in fiction; that using a supernatural ability to get around the moral and ethical hardships of life can corrupt you. For example, in The Hobbit, Bilbo uses the invisibility ring to help his friends and save his life when he first starts using it, but as time progresses, he uses it to avoid obligations and to hide away from the Battle of Five Armies. This was showing that when people can take the easy way out, they are more prone to making unethical decisions. It was certainly more compelling than the reveal that it was the Ring of Power and it just corrupts people because it’s evil. Katie’s journey with the consequence-erasing mushrooms is a more effective way to tell this kind of parable, as it clearly outlines what Katie is missing out on by engaging in these life revisions, but it also gives her a constant chance to change things for the better, which fuels her desire to indulge in the path of least resistance even further.
Overall: What an enjoyable book. It weighs in at 320+ pages, so it is lengthy by graphic novel standards. Some little tidbits I’ll add are that O’Malley throws in a ton of references to the Scott Pilgrim series for those who are paying attention. Fortunately, the dialogue makes more sense than it does in Scott Pilgrim. I didn’t get into some of the mythological elements of the story because of spoilers, but it is quaintly internally consistent and the information is doled out in a slow pace that keeps the mystery interesting. I more than highly suggest it, and welcome it as the first book in my Top Tier rating. (Watchmen also fits this Top Tier standard, but I’m never going to review it)
Seconds On Amazon