A Meaningless Game in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

from: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot


For most of us, life is spent second guessing our decisions. Why did I zig when I should have zagged? What if walking down the dark alley wasn’t the greatest choice? Why did I start writing about comic books and when will I be able to just stop? It’s human nature to doubt ourselves at every opportunity. In Seconds, Bryan Lee O’Malley explores just what would happen if you had the power to change those choices and decisions as Katie, an almost-thirtysomething year old chef on the verge of opening up her own restaurant, discovers the secrets to do-overs in her life. For every decision that goes wrong, she has the opportunity to turn the clock back and do it all over again, this time controlling what’s going to happen. That would seem like what all of us would want, that chance at a do over in life. But even with the magical powers of do overs, life still remains out of her control.

With Seconds, O’Malley hasn’t gotten away from the video game realism of the ever popular Scott Pilgrim. Even if the mechanics are different, Katie seems to have many save points in her life and is able to rewind back to them and correct all of the mistakes she made. It’s great to be able to go back but O’Malley realizes that even as she has to move forward there are plenty of future decisions and plenty of future mistakes to go back to. The lessons for Katie aren’t how to manage the life and decisions that she’s already made but how to live in the here and now in a way that mitigates any mistakes she may make. Katie’s first mistake is that she sees everyone around her as props that she can try to control the actions of. When she discovers the magical way of rewinding her life and “fixing” it, her friends, colleagues and lovers lose part of their humanity. Actually, Katie loses the view of their humanity as they become things that make her life better or more fun. Say something wrong and get someone mad at you? Just turn the clock back to make yourself feel better.

The State of the Dining Room

The State of the Dining Room

Part of the weakness of O’Malley’s writing is that like Katie, everyone else is a prop to be used to tell her story. With Scott Pilgrim, there was a sense that everyone had their own story. O’Malley told only the parts of their story that related to Scott’s life but with the way that characters moved in and out of the story, he created the sensation that all of these characters were going off to have their own lives that would now and again intersect with Scott’s. None of the people around Katie have the benefit of having their own story. From the ex-boyfriend to the protege chef that she uses now and again for a good time, all of the characters function only as part of Katie’s story. Even the house spirits that give her the ability to manipulate her reality only exist as plot tools, moving Katie from point A to point B and then back to point A again.

O’Malley isn’t afraid to get messy in this book but he seems very uncomfortable with truly tormenting his characters either. Katie is an adorably cute girl but she’s hardly likable. She’s just wrapped up in her own life like almost everyone her age is. It’s not a character defect; it’s a defect of her age. As the book goes on, we grow to emphasize with her but Katie never becomes the hero of her own story. We don’t even see her learn to correct her mistakes without the help of her magic mushrooms, the ones she has to eat to change the world around her. In the end, she gets everything she wanted without any main sacrifice. She’s right where she wanted to be when the story started. In the end, she gets the guy, the career and the friends that she has wanted all along. She wins everything so whyreally go through during O’Malley’s story? She went through some trials and tribulations but ultimately there was no cost to any of it.

Joined by Jason Fischer (drawing assists,) Dustin Harbin (letters) and Nathan Fairbairn (colors,) O’Malley’s storytelling has never looked stronger. This is obviously the work of the cartoonist of the Scott Pilgrim books, Seconds has it’s own distinct visual identity. With a squarer page than the standard comic, O’Malley’s story snakes through the pages, sometimes doubling back on itself to create visual layers to the book. While not as complicated or compact, some pages are reminiscent of Chris Ware’s comics. The pages read left to right, top to bottom but there are groupings of panels that feel like distinct compositions with a larger one. O’Malley creates these visual constraints on Katie’s life so when her do-overs of reality start taking strange turns, he controls how abstract or fantastic they are to the readers. You can feel Katie’s life constantly closing in on her.

... the girl was there.

… the girl was there.

Fairbairn’s colors provide the biggest evolution in O’Malley’s artwork, giving the artwork a humming sense of energy and life. With the colors really creating a lot of tension as Fairbairn works with contrasting temperatures, O’Malley drawings is much more controlled and deliberate than his previous work. From the unique layouts to captivating images of the horrors of Katie’s actions, he feels more confident in his mark making. Katie’s life is filled with wonder, joy, shock and horror because of her decisions and the artwork, O’Malley’s cartooning and Fairbairn’s coloring, capture those emotions. O’Malley is even able to occasionally abandon his signature style and take the story into otherworldly directions when the story becomes surreal.

Sometimes I think I’d like to live in a Bryan Lee O’Malley world. Whether it’s the madcap video game realism of his Scott Pilgrim series or the world of his latest book Seconds where house spirits have the power to change reality, O’Malley’s comics have an innocence as the characters are oblivious to the world around them. There’s some small comfort in the idea of being able to exist within your own cocoon and not pay attention to the needs or feelings of those around you. Scott grows up a bit and begins seeing the wants and desires of his friends. Katie never does. If this is a video game, she ultimately wins. When she meets the game’s boss in the end, she’s solve the puzzles and defeats the enemy, gaining everything she wanted. Her world isn’t changed; it’s just the best it can be for her. That’s where O’Malley doesn’t go far enough. Katie isn’t a literary character that grows and develops during the story. She’s just an avatar for the reader to carry us through these crazy adventures, a playable character for us to win or lose with. And in the end, there’s nothing to lose.

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