Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley
reviewed by Andrew White
I don’t feel that I need to spend too much time discussing the strengths of Seconds, the new comic by Bryan Lee O’Malley (or Studio O’Malley, rather: Dustin Harbin on letters, Nathan Fairbairn on colors, and Jason Fischer on art assists). The book seems to have been generally well received by reviewers, and in some ways with good reason. The art is clean and dynamic, with ambitious backgrounds that give a strong sense of place (though I will admit I will prefer the airy backgrounds circa Scott Pilgrim Vol. 4 to the fully-rendered, grainy-texture-on-every-piece-of-wood approach seen here). The layouts are in places innovative and always well executed. A number of dense, dialogue-heavy scenes read clearly and smoothly, which is not an easy feat. The colors are very strong, with a palette dominated by oranges and blues that does a great deal to drive the tone of the work. The story is pleasant, nicely paced and well told. I liked it just fine overall.
However, Seconds also has a few key failings that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere in much depth. I’d like to address those here. I suppose we’re close enough to the book’s publication that I should note there are spoilers ahead. Apologies as well for the less than ideal image quality throughout. I’m pretty sure everything is still legible.
First, the real engine of Seconds is in many ways the narration. In some cases it is useful, moving things forward in a very plot-heavy work. There are also some nice moments when the narration undercuts what the reader sees or what main character Katie is willing to explicitly say. But the narration has some real problems as well. First, the prose itself isn’t the strongest. I mean, it’s not terrible, just very rote. It moves the story forward, as I’ve said, but doesn’t accomplish much in and of itself, if that makes any sense. In other words, if the narration was published as a short story (which would still convey perhaps 70% of the book’s plot, another troubling issue that we’ll get to in a moment), I’m not sure it would receive the kind of praise which Seconds has garnered.
More important to me, however, is that the narration is often overused. There are several instances when it is blatantly redundant to the images it accompanies, as in the following examples:
In each of these cases, the words add next to nothing, describing what the image already shows. Similarly, there are times when, while the narration isn’t as explicitly describing what the reader sees, it could in my mind be removed with little ill effect (especially given the clumsy prose). For instance:
These are some of the most obvious examples, but I feel confident that anyone who reads or rereads the work with this in mind will find several more instances of this issue. I’ll readily admit that, as an annoying ‘comics formalist,’ this might bother me more than some. Perhaps you could argue that, since this is a work that will reach a fairly wide audience, the text is necessary to guide along readers who might be less comics literate, less inclined to pick up on purely visual information. But O’Malley’s art is so strong, and his storytelling so clear, that I don’t find this argument particularly convincing – and the comic does have several nice moments driven just by the visuals. Furthermore, most readers of this book will have read Scott Pilgrim, which doesn’t suffer at all from this issue.
I’m frankly not at all sure what the thinking was behind the narration. My only guess is that, since O’Malley has indicated in interviews that he aimed for Seconds to be a ‘literary’ work, the narration was a way for him to strike a certain tone that he felt could not be reached by any other means. I don’t know.
Another notable weakness is the book’s sometimes clumsy use of metaphor. A few examples come to mind. First is the recurring use of a tree as a metaphor for branching decisions, the possible futures we leave behind as we move forward in our lives. This strikes me as very ham-fisted and obvious, particularly in a sequence around the middle of the book when the tree metaphor’s meaning is even more explicitly underlined. Similarly, Katie’s new restaurant, a place she has imbued with her dreams and aspirations, is located on Lucknow Street. Really? Finally, Katie’s misuse of the magical mushrooms is visualized first with the sudden, non sequitur appearance of skeletons and then with a full-blown apocalyptic wasteland. In other words, the book is somewhat lacking in subtlety. To be fair, this isn’t a universal problem; the unoriginal central conceit of magically revising the past is treated in a unique and inventive manner, for instance. Still, I think the lack of subtlety is an issue even outside the treatment of visual metaphors:
I guess this moment is supposed to be funny and self-deprecating, as is a similar panel a few pages earlier when Katie says, “I need to change, etc.” However, this is a work which maintains an overall tone of seriousness and sincerity despite a few moments of humor. As a result, these two moments come off as both a lazy cop-out and an unwillingness to let the readers come to a conclusion about the book’s message on their own terms.
Again, I enjoyed Seconds quite a bit on a page-to-page basis, for the level of craftsmanship employed if nothing else. However, structural weaknesses such as those I’ve discussed here kept the work as a whole from congealing for me in any real way.
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