Seconds by By Bryan Lee O’Malley Drawing Assistant: Jason Fischer Letters: Dustin Harbin Colors: Nathan Fairbairn.
By Bryan Lee O’Malley
Drawing Assistant: Jason Fischer
Letters: Dustin Harbin
Colors: Nathan Fairbairn

Bryan Lee O’Malley seems to be growing up as a storyteller. The Canadian cartoonist made a name for himself by capturing the desultory lives of privileged, self-absorbed people in their early twenties. With his latest graphic novel Seconds, he's moved on to privileged, self-absorbed people in their late twenties facing down a quarter-life crisis. It's similar to ground covered by compatriot Michael Cho in Shoplifter. But where Cho was ruminative, O'Malley can't help but be a little mischievous. He mixes the mundane with ambiguous fantasy elements, which keeps the overall tenor comparatively lighthearted. O'Malley hasn't completely left his gamer roots behind, but he subtly mixes those references with time-altering supernatural forces that tempt the protagonist with a taste of omniscience. Isn't that sort of like the multiple reboots, power-ups, and additional lives offered in video games?

This is a beautifully crafted comic. Manga has influenced its fair share of Western cartoonists, but the last decade has witnessed the emergence of a generation of creators, not to mention critics and fans, who were nurtured by the manga boom, absorbed the kawaii aesthetic, and married it to their own native sensibilities. This is most obvious in O'Malley's quasi-chibi figures and wide-eyed facial expressions. But it runs deeper than such superficialities with his solid black and white compositions, excellent readability, and steady pacing. O'Malley gives the impression of effortlessly transitioning from intimate close-ups to wide-angle shots. He's careful with how his characters inhabit their environments - what space they occupy in a single room or even an entire building. And O'Malley isn't shy about using quiet moments or panels focusing on inanimate objects to establish mood.

Seconds by By Bryan Lee O’Malley Drawing Assistant: Jason Fischer Letters: Dustin Harbin Colors: Nathan Fairbairn.

Though O'Malley's black and white art (with assists from Jason Fischer) is satisfying on its own terms, Nathan Fairbairn's colors have helped transform it. O'Malley's thick lines have a certain organic quality that easily lends itself to the indie comics aesthetic. The usual coloring techniques used in mainstream superhero comics would ill suit it. But Fairbairn's understated approach is a perfect match that makes the art far more accessible to the casual reader. He keeps the palette simple and the rendering flat, which makes the figures pop out. The shock of red hair from main protagonist Katie practically defines the book's color scheme. And since the story is about a chef working in a restaurant, the colors add necessary appeal of the book's requisite food porn. One effect that's impossible otherwise is how the atmosphere takes on an eerie orange glow when something supernatural takes place. This sets the story apart from the b&w comics that would have had to resort to distorted panel borders or other similar devices to suggest the same thing.

The title Seconds contains multiple meanings. It can refer to second servings of food. It can refer to the seconds of a clock. Second guessing a decision or second chances in life. Within the book it also refers to the name of the restaurant founded by Katie and where she worked for several years as executive chef. She's succeeded in moulding her startup into one of the city's best restaurants. But she feels unfulfilled. As she closes in on her thirtieth birthday, Katie is looking to shape a new course for herself. And as with many adults her age, she's beginning to re-examine her life as she takes into account the effects of her past choices. The story gets going when she stumbles upon a macguffin which allows her to alter her personal history in limited ways.

Seconds by By Bryan Lee O’Malley Drawing Assistant: Jason Fischer Letters: Dustin Harbin Colors: Nathan Fairbairn.

As with any "be careful what you wish for" morality tale, the outcome is predictable. Katie's first revision is fairly innocuous. But as she becomes accustomed to abusing her power, she gradually loses sight of other people's humanity, even as she gains the boyfriend and restaurant of her dreams. O'Malley and Fairbairn are able to modulate the book's signature visuals as Katie's poorly thought out revisions allow unwanted supernatural forces to invade her reality. The world becomes more twisted and abstract, populated by strange creatures that trouble no one but her.

Seconds' principal shortcoming is the protagonist herself. While other characters populate the book, they never achieve any significant impact beyond being objects who Katie treats with varying degrees of importance. So the reader is largely stuck in her head. Katie's personal failings are the stereotypical flaws of a person her age, socio-economic standing, and first-world country status mentioned at the top of this review. O'Malley is able to make Katie more engaging through the disembodied voice of a sympathetic third person narrator (whom she argues with from time to time), but otherwise she's not very likeable. The problem is that O'Malley seems hesitant to make her truly suffer. There's a sense of increasing unease as her revisions produce unintended results, and her actions do come back to bite her in the ass. But nothing ever seems to pierce that impenetrable armour of innocence. Without the plot structure enabling the magically-driven conflict, she actually seems to regress as a person. Katie never quite makes it past the stage of amusing cartoon character to actual human being. She starts out cute, and she finishes up just as cute. So there's little sense of growth or maturity from the experience.

"There are things we can't change, and we just have to accept that." Katie states authoritatively towards the very end. Sounds pretty grown-up. But the comic's concluding pages strongly imply that Katie's triumph is complete: she gains everything, loses nothing, and still can't see past her own nose. On the contrary, the world still revolves around her. Maybe she'll evolve in the next ten years.

Seconds by By Bryan Lee O’Malley Drawing Assistant: Jason Fischer Letters: Dustin Harbin Colors: Nathan Fairbairn.