We've all been new to the world, and inexperienced, and we've all felt things very strongly, and we've all seen the world through the blinders of someone who believes it will Always Be Just Like This. Milestone works of fiction about young protagonists, like Catcher in the Rye, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, hell, even the Hunger Games series appeal to so many readers because even though we're not all old, we've all been young.
Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-volume Scott Pilgrim series has in one decade become a comics milestone, the kind of gateway drug to the medium of comic books that attracts a passionate, loyal army of lifetime readers. The books, about an aimless, young Torontonian who must defeat his new girlfriend's seven evil ex-lovers in battle, have been adapted into an artistically (though not commercially) successful film by Edgar Wright, and they're generally considered comics masterpieces.
Part of Scott Pilgrim's genius lies in O'Malley's artwork, which is cartoony and friendly and wildly energetic, a horny mix of manga and Jack Kirby and Archie comics. His writing is inseparable from the artwork: pop-culturally obsessed, inventive, interested in the special brand of fun and sexiness that comes from treating everyone—no matter what gender or preference—like a human being who is worthy of empathy. But the other reason the comics have become generational milestones is the universal appeal of a book about the pleasures and pitfalls of youth. There's a fun what-the-fuckness to Scott Pilgrim that springs from the youth and the inexperience of the protagonist (and one would assume, by implication, the creator). The electricity of Scott Pilgrim poured right out of the books and into the hearts of its readers. But what can possibly follow its punk-rock exuberance? What, everyone wondered after they set down the sixth Scott Pilgrim book, finally caught their breath, and wiped the sweat out of their eyes, could Bryan Lee O'Malley possibly do next?
For four years, we saw very little in the way of new comics from O'Malley. Four years is a fairly short span of time in comics—as much as novelists might hate to admit, it takes twice as long to write and draw a book as it does to write one—but it's an eternity to fans who were used to receiving one new Scott Pilgrim book every year, like clockwork. This week finally saw the publication of his next book, a complete-in-itself comic called Seconds, and I'll spare you any suspense: It's terrific.
In its first few pages, Seconds charms its readers precisely because it's so different from Scott Pilgrim. As a lifelong reader of comics, I've often shied away from the term "graphic novel." On the wrong book, it feels pretentious or silly or just wrong. But Seconds bills itself on the cover as "a graphic novel," and it earns the descriptor. It's been a long time since I've read a comic book this downright novelesque, this persistent in its explorations of theme and character.
The protagonist, a chef named Katie Clay, is older than Pilgrim, though she's still just one year away from 30. She's accomplished something with her life—she founded and guided the growth of Seconds, a restaurant that has become "probably the most popular restaurant in town," where "the food [is] beloved" and where she roams the tables at dinnertime, basking in the fact that she's "pretty much the star" there.
But it's been four years, and Katie's sick of resting on old successes—O'Malley has never been one to shy away from an occasional flourish of autobiography in his work—and so she's trying to build a new restaurant called Katie's in a less-inviting part of town, something completely her own. Progress on the new place is bumpy, and Katie begins to loathe spending time at Seconds, which is especially problematic because she lives in a small apartment above it. Like anyone who's old enough to accomplish anything with her life, she's nursing some significant regrets: A solid relationship suddenly fell apart for unsatisfying reasons, and her professional career has been plagued with doubts.
That all sounds astonishingly normal for an artist whose previous books relayed the personal growth of his cast of characters through a series of florid special-effects-laden fistfights, but O'Malley hasn't abandoned his video-game magical realism for naturalism. A few pages into Seconds, Katie bumbles into a fantasy world that activates the book—it's no spoiler to say the plot involves ghosts and magic mushrooms that grant Katie the ability to erase past regrets from her life. The fantastic elements are less flamboyant here than in Scott Pilgrim; they tend more toward the atmosphere in one of Murakami's weirder novels, that persistent quietude of wonder that soaks into the pages.
O'Malley's growth and maturity as a writer is mirrored in the art. Seconds is, at times, punishingly beautiful, a full-color, stocky slab of a book with something to gawk at on every page. It's awash in reds and browns and ochre-tinted flashbacks; colorist Nathan Fairbairn has drenched the pages in the colors of autumn. And O'Malley somehow maintains the integrity of his simple, cartoony lines while packing more and more detail on every page. You can see the grain of the wood in every floorboard in Katie's apartment, see the shape of every individual book on a bookshelf. Occasionally O'Malley will issue a double-page spread laying out the floor plan of the restaurant, with tiny figures cooking food and going to the bathroom and wasting time on their phones. The accrual of details adds depth and history to the narrative, the way age and accomplishment adds character and complexity to a person in a way that the rawness of youth never can.
Bryan Lee O'Malley will be live onstage with super-fun rock band Tacocat and Stranger books editor Paul Constant at Town Hall on Saturday, July 19, at 7:30 p.m. as part of The Stranger's Verse Chapter Verse series.