Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels spoke to the Millennial Generation with a level of fluency that was nothing short of pioneering. For young adults born between 1980 and 1995 – who grew up with a steady diet of Transformers and NES games – Scott Pilgrim synthesized the nostalgic elements of their childhood seamlessly into the indie rock-loving cultural niche that was somewhere between slight dorky and slightly cool. Besides the inherent fun of an indie-comic aesthetic married to a world that operates like an 8-bit video game, the Scott Pilgrim books were surprisingly profound, offering subtle but serious commentary on the difficulties of what it means to grow up, mature, and love another human as a Millennial twentysomething. O’Malley proved that he understood his audience (being part of it, himself) better than others creating entertainment for the no longer children, not yet grown-up crowd.
O’Malley’s newest work Seconds, the long awaited follow-up to Scott Pilgrim, is in most ways quite different from its predecessor. The artwork has a seventies manga sort of aesthetic that’s beholden to creators like Rumiko Takahashi, with lovely, soft-flowing lines and smooth character designs (occasionally juxtaposed with more angular characters closer to the Scott Pilgrim style.) The video game elements are completely gone, and aside from the magical realism elements that drive the plot, the world is fairly realistic. But the core of Seconds builds upon the themes of Scott Pilgrim, exploring Growth and Learning in a parallel, if not quite progressive, manner.
Protagonist Katie – with her Goku-esque red hair and curvy design – is an immediately appealing protagonist compared to the likes of Scott Pilgrim in that she has concrete objectives in her life, rather than aimlessly wandering through her twenties as an entertainment-gorging zombie. She’s the founded and head cook at Seconds, the best restaurant in town, and she’s been saving for years with the objective of opening a second restaurant that will be fully her own. But Katie’s life takes a turn for the dramatic when she encounters a strange, white-haired girl with freaky glaring eyes who gives her a mushroom and notepad that allows Katie to undo a mistake. It works so well that Katie finds more mushrooms and keeps doing it – creating more and more problems as she attempts to fashion the perfect life for herself.
The premise is perhaps not completely original (it feels like the sort of thing you might find in, say, a Twilight Zone episode) but O’Malley’s execution of the concept is poignant and well-done. The underlying theme of Seconds is Control. Katie (and all of us Millennials, by extension) has grown up spoiled by the idea of control. Social media and other technology creates the impression that we are free to fashion our lives as we see fit, for quick, punchy consumption on Facebook, Twitter, or (God forbid) Tumblr. The magic mushroom plot device is simply a fantastic articulation of this idea. But as Katie makes one change after another, playing God and trying to make her life perfect, she actually loses control as things get worse and worse. Seconds implies that our lives aren’t really (at least not, fully) under our control, and that our attempts to micromanage everything to go our way only ultimately leads to sorrow. This has its roots in the sin of Idolatry – in this case, the worship as one’s self as God. But we were never built to stand up to such elevation of ourselves. This is the sin of Babel, the urge to Make A Name For Yourself. I am reminded of a poignant As Cities Burn lyric: “My heaven tower sways, atop their fleeting praise…” When the acclamation and success vanishes, the Self-Idolater topples, having built their lives upon the unstable foundation of Self.
But Seconds also has much to say about Discontent. Katie should be happy – she works at a thriving restaurant, doing what she loves (making amazing food.) But Katie doesn’t like being the co-owner of the restaurant – she wants her very own place with her name on the sign, and the process of living like a pauper to save money, trying to renovate and fix the new space, while juggling stuff with her main restaurant, is taking its toll on her. Katie would be much happier and healthier if she chose to be satisfied with her level of success and achievement – among other reasons because it wouldn’t have cost her a relationship with the guy she loves. Seconds highlights the strange tensions in which Millennials live – on one hand, many of us are lazy, aimless slackers with no clear course of objectives in life beyond the next hit of drugs (electronic gizmos, social media acumen, the newest entertainment, and sex/alcohol/narcotics), but there’s still a great deal of pressure to Achieve, even if it’s not as obvious because it no longer wears a square-shouldered business suit, Rolex, and BMW. The predominantly areligious nature of Millennial life means that there is a vacuum of purpose and meaning in our souls, which only gobbles up the Sex, the Cat Videos, the Social Justice Crusading, the Instagramming, the Electronic Drugs, and everything else we furtively shovel into its gaping maw. Seconds needs its supernatural fantasy elements because a purely naturalistic world is doomed to despair as everything, sooner or later, falls into the maw of the metaphorical Sarlaac at the burnt-out dead-end of our dreams and aspirations. For that matter, Scott Pilgrim is much the same way.
By the end of the story, Katie learns to give up control, and to loosen her grip on material aspirations ever so slightly for more important things – her relationship with Max, and more importantly with her adorable, ambiguously brown co-worker Hazel. But there’s a sense that things haven’t really been resolved, that the spiritual questions remained largely unanswered in the midst of a social milieu that desperately wants to deny they exist. The final question we are left with is, what happens when we reach the Dead End?
Seconds doesn’t completely succeed in answering the Important Questions it raises, but it’s still a satisfying work. The story is well-written and very nicely paced, and the artwork is simply outstanding. The city’s depiction is lush and immersive, and Seconds itself – where most of the story takes place – is simultaneously fully-realized and ambiguously dreamlike, and the book is surprisingly creepy and eerie at points – which I did not anticipate going into it, having known very little about the book beforehand. The character designs are excellent and varied, ranging from the super-deformed style of Katie to the almost Girly-esque Hazel and angular Max. The only real weakness is in the characterization – Max and many of the other secondary characters could have been fleshed out better, but ultimately this is Katie’s story and for that reason I’m willing to let it slide.
Seconds deserves special note for its presentation. The book is a gorgeous hardback that’s the best-feeling book of any sort that I’ve handled in quite some time (disclaimer: I do most of my reading on Kindle.) And it’s in full color, as well. The coloring is simply fantastic and makes a massive contribution to the look of the comic. The layout and pacing is so good that I’m certain O’Malley (if not for his glacial pace of producing his work) would make an outstanding storyboarder or director of animated films/series.
This is an excellent work of fiction and very much worth reading even if (like me) you don’t usually read graphic novels. It’s easy to enjoy on a surface level for its terrific arc and enjoyable story, but the deeper questions raised by Seconds deserve real consideration. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t O’Malley so long to bring us his next work.