Review: Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley

SecondsSeconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Bryan Lee O’Malley
 Ballantine Books

Katie Clay is getting it together.

The protagonist of Seconds, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s highly-anticipated follow-up to the Scott Pilgrim series, Katie by all appearances has her life in order. A twenty-something with red, spiky Sonic the Hedgehog hair, she’s the executive chef at Seconds, a cozy and popular little restaurant, and is planning on opening a second restaurant as well. But Katie is awkwardly trapped between two stages of her life: her new restaurant is an incomplete shell of a building, and she feels out of place among the new generation of “stylish, sullen babies” who work with her. One night, a series of small mistakes leads to an ugly workplace accident, and Katie discovers a mysterious mushroom and a card that reads:

 1. Write your mistake
2. Ingest one mushroom
3. Go to sleep
4. Wake anew

Katie follows the instructions and wakes up in a world where her mistake never happened. After discovering more magic mushrooms, she becomes determined to edit her life so that it’s not just better, but perfect. Unfortunately the magic mushrooms belong to Lis, a feral-looking girl who is actually the house spirit dwelling inside Seconds, and she’s not happy.

seconds5Seconds is a mature, thoughtful work, infused with magical realism reminiscent of the films of Studio Ghilbi, with maybe a little Guillermo del Toro added to the cauldron. Katie is a multi-faceted lead, funny and temperamental and—in the beginning—somewhat selfish. As seen in Scott Pilgrim, O’Malley excels at creating characters that are likeable and charming even when they fuck up spectacularly. She’s also the oldest of O’Malley’s protagonists, who seem to age with each consecutive book:  Lost at Sea’s Raleigh was a teenager, Scott Pilgrim was in his early twenties, and Katie is 29.

Katie’s overwhelming desire for perfection—for control—particularly resonated with me; though I’m not a chef like Katie, that struggle of “it’s not done until it’s perfect” is probably familiar to a lot of creative people. Who wouldn’t want to re-edit their lives with a red pen, if they had a stash of magic, time-unravelling mushrooms? Who wouldn’t want to fix projects that fell apart, or say that one thing to an ex that would have made them stay? (The ex in Katie’s life, Max, is the dreamiest boy O’Malley’s drawn yet.)

Of course, the problem is that Katie traps herself in this cycle of revisions, and she becomes so wrapped up in fixing mistakes that she forgets to move forward with her life.  One step forward becomes two steps back—in one revised timeline she never breaks up with Max, but progress on her restaurant grinds to a halt. Money problems get worse. As the executive chef at Seconds, she also has power and responsibility that can be easily abused by her constant time-meddling. And, oh yeah, that house spirit is still pissed off at her.

Luckily one constant in Katie’s life, no matter how many changes she makes, is the young waitress Hazel. The developing friendship between the two women is the real beating heart of the book, more so than Katie’s relationship with Max. Katie and Hazel are different enough that they may have never really talked to one another if not for their mysterious connection to Lis (Katie is intimidatingly intense, Hazel is shy and enigmatic), but their friendship feels sweet and authentic.


If Scott Pilgrim was a love letter an entire city (the series incorporated many real-life locations in Toronto), Seconds is an ode to a single building. It verges on cliché to say that the restaurant Seconds is itself a character, but when it’s possessed by a walking, talking, glaring house spirit, it’s technically true. O’Malley has a focused eye on the architecture of the building, and a fantastic awareness of space.  The fireplace where Katie and Hazel talk about Lis feels warm and inviting, but deeper into the building, the pantry where Katie disappears when she feels sorry for herself is cold and oppressive. Katie also lives above the restaurant in a tiny apartment; living above her work, she is in a sense as much a house spirit as Lis. It’s easy to overlook the background art in comics, but in Seconds every room is important, and even the pictures on the wall or the arrangement of furniture give insight into the characters’ inner lives.

Seconds is the first of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s book to be originally published in full-color, and Nathan Fairbairn’s colors are vital to the book’s mood. (Fairbairn is also the colorist of Oni Press’s deluxe re-release of the Scott Pilgrim series.) The scenes showing Katie’s revisions of her life are awash in red ink, and the color links her to Lis—her fiery burst of hair matching the drawer that Lis inhabits, as well as the red-capped mushrooms. Bryan Lee O’Malley is also one of the best artists in the industry when it comes to paying attention to women’s fashion and styling, and it’s a treat to see his character designs in vivid color. (I’m sure Lis and Hazel cosplayers are pleased.)

Seconds is a major artistic achievement and an important step in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s continuing evolution as a writer an artist. Mature and meticulously crafted, it’s placement on “Top 10 OGNs of the Year” lists are inevitable and well-deserved—there’s only one Seconds.

Kayleigh Hearn

Kayleigh Hearn

Still waiting for her Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters acceptance letter. Bylines also at Deadshirt, Ms-En-Scene, The MNT, PanelxPanel, and Talk Film Society.