Seconds Review

Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds, and the commercialization of everything comics

Four years after ending the popular Scott Pilgrim series, the author and illustrator Bryan Lee O’Malley released his best single piece of work to date, the stand-alone graphic novel Seconds. Not too long ago, back in April 2022, it was announced that Blake Lively and Edgar Wright would team up to helm a live action film adaption of the graphic novel. The work of Bryan Lee O’Malley, with its magical realism and modern day settings, is a better fit for live action adaption than other illustrated works; the Scott Pilgrim vs The World film being a standout in terms of the concept being executed well. But I still couldn’t help but feel a deeper sense of dread about the need to convert even the most mildly popular graphic media into meatspace. While I gush about the greatness of Seconds in this essay, I will also close out with frustrations on the commercialization of sequential art into television shows and movies, even though I think Seconds is a prime candidate for a book that could be adapted easily.

Seconds is self-contained story, and since graphic novels can’t fit as much on the page as a book written in prose can, the scope of the narrative is not especially grand. Seconds comes in at 336 pages, making it one of the bulkier graphic novels I’ve read, but it is still a breezy read that can be completed in a night. The plot follows Canadian chef Katie Clay, a successful 29 year old who ran a kitchen at a renowned restaurant named Seconds, which she now lives above as she moves out of its kitchen and into a new business venture starting a different restaurant at a difficult-to-renovate building downtown. Despite her credentials and the fact that a lot of people look up to her, Katie feels down because the new building is costing an arm and a leg, she has less and less sway with the kitchen she used to lord over, her ex-boyfriend can’t stop dropping by to eat, her flirty fling with her replacement head chef is souring, and she swears she’s starting to see a ghost on her dresser. One night a mousy server named Hazel gets badly burned as an indirect result of Katie’s interference, and feeling deep regret that night, Katie finds a mushroom and a note at the bottom of her dresser. And after following the directions, the next morning, Hazel’s injury never happened.

This kind of story has been done a thousand times. The protagonist is given a magic tool to get everything they want and in getting it abandon the experience of living their lives, not overcoming the struggles in their way or enjoying the real, human presence of people they wanted. Aladdin, Faust, Teen Wolf, they all went through this. Hell, Adam Sandler did it, and not even THAT badly. The overall lesson of the story is an adage that is lampshaded at the end as something that should be fairly obvious. Where Seconds shines is in the specificity of everyday modern life details being slowly overtaken by a magical plot and balancing those details well. Early on in the story, the minutiae of working in a restaurant is the focus of much of the conversation, framing devices and plot points. Following the inciting incident the plot takes a leisurely pace. After discovering that the oddball Hazel leaves out treats for “house spirits” before closing the restaurant, Katie and Hazel pair together to learn about the mushrooms and the ghost that inhabits Seconds. This house spirit warns Katie not to take more mushrooms to alter reality, a warning she ignores to turn back the clock on watching Netflix all night, or getting drunk and wailing to her employees, or having some NSA sex with the head cook. Even with the mystery of the house spirit hanging over them, Seconds takes its time to show Katie and Hazel enjoying the small things such as thrifting for clothes.

Clothing is a major focus in Seconds, although I could not find much to suggest that each individual fit holds any symbolic meaning. Female fashion is clearly an interest of O’Malley’s, and characters wear all number of outfits, changing in and out of them on more than one occasion. The act of changing clothes is an attention to detail that I do think serves one purpose that helped elevate this book for me. The day by day leisurely pace of the first portion of the story is something I rather like, you get a sense of slow daily progression in the story mostly due to nights being kept track of and clothes changing. As the story’s stakes begin to ramp up, years don’t necessarily pass in a flash, but they are in a sense erased. When Katie wishes to reverse the effects of a months-old fight she had with her ex-boyfriend this effectively pushes them ahead to being married the next day she wakes up. She remembers nothing of getting married, living with her now husband, or any of their happy life. All those routine days and nights and changing of clothes were snapped past in an instant, the slow crawl of life smashed into an end result that cannot be savored. The act of savoring, I would imagine, is the reason why the book takes place primarily in restaurants. At the novel’s end where, predictably, the wishes are all reversed and Katie has to live her life as it was, warts and all, there is one thing that does remain after the wishes are all taken back: Hazel remembers everything. The fact that she gets to keep her friendship with the quiet weird girl at work is enough of a small blessing for Katie to break down and work on changing her life the hard way; more so than anything learned from the magic mushrooms or the house spirits.

All the small things

All of this can be displayed on the big screen with relative ease. Even the most fantastical parts of the story in its third act would not be difficult to shoot for a movie. Having some real detailed restaurant sets, and high production value for restaurant food and everyday clothes could even enhance the best parts of the original work. But even though this story could fit easily into a 90 to 120 minute movie, I still have to wonder why anyone thought it was needed. Edgar Wright will be on as screenwriter, and as director of the Scott Pilgrim film he no doubt has some love for this material, but his style of quick, witty comedy has little to do with the far more toned-down and sincere Seconds. The film will be Blake Lively’s directorial debut, I would assume because it is a low-budget, low stakes project and she in all likelihood enjoys the source material. But why? Who is the audience for this movie? The 800 or so people in the US who actually buy graphic novels for fun? More likely people looking for something, anything, to watch. There is no small chance this will not receive a theatrical release and will instead see its home on streaming services. Streaming services which have nabbed every comic book concept they can have gone to the races. Sometimes the results are better than they should be, like with The Boys, but mostly you get Jupiter’s Legacy.

I suppose it really doesn’t actively hurt any viewer, me especially. Seconds would honestly make a good movie, and if I don’t want to watch the endless glut of comic book shit on TV, well, I already don’t (unless its The Boys). Who it can frequently dispirit and rip off is the original creators of the sequential art media. Marvel movies lift designs from comic books where the artists were paid a flat rate and don’t see a dime of royalties from the movies. Cinematographers get to take a half day because the story boards were basically done for them. Why pay new screenwriters for new stories meant for, you know, the screen, when Edgar Wright (still love ya, even after Last Night in Soho) can add a few gags over the course of week to a story that doesn’t need it? Producers have every reason to cut corners, and when you get down to it, people would rather watch something than read something. And if they do read something, for most people, its because they watched it first. So with this market, fuck it, maybe its better for everybody.

Seconds was written by Bryan Lee O’Malley, illustrated by O’Malley and Jason Fischer, colored by Nathan Fairbairn, and lettered by Dustin Harbin. Seconds is available through Ballantine Books.

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