The problem, you would think, with creating the single greatest slacker-nerd fantasy of a generation is how you follow it up. "Get a little older, and draw the ever-loving shit out of it" isn't a bad answer.
Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds, out this week, is one of the biggest-deal comics releases of the year, for a whole heap of good reasons. It's only his third full-length project, after Lost at Sea and the Scott Pilgrim series, and his first substantive work since wrapping up Pilgrim in 2010; in the interim, he's become an internet celebrity for being the guy who so squarely nailed the voice of the generation born 15 minutes before Lena Dunham's and giving it a heart instead of just sighing at it.
It's possible you know Scott Pilgrim as a totem of the video-game-reference comic-nerd naval-gazing tribal region of the internet, which is fair. But the reason it's so beloved is that it was one of the first real, mature comic series to put a certain sect of a certain generation on the page: These were the the friends you wished you had talking the way they'd talk if your imaginary friends were a little cooler and funnier than you'd imagined them. The references were just the background—though of course it helps that, given the nature of video games and comics, you're going to find more common ground between 35-year-old and 17-year-old readers there than by discussing, say, '80s rock. (I always thought another reason Scott Pilgrim caught on the way it did was that, as the hype was building leading up to Vol. 5 in early 2009, a lot of broke, jobless, screwup 24-or-so-year-olds fell in love with the titular broke, jobless, 24-year-old about to make good, but that might just be me projecting.)
Seconds isn't the treasure we all got with Pilgrim—generously, it's more like The Butterfly Effect recast as Grimmish children's fiction made for an audience of post-ironic twentysomethings—but it has classic O'Malley dialogue and at least a few classic O'Malley characters, and some drop-dead gorgeous cartooning.
We're with Katie, the 29-year-old, Crono-haired head chef of Seconds, the most popular restaurant in town. Katie's leaving. The plan, as it's first laid out to us, is that Katie and her business partner Arthur will open a new restaurant across town, and she's just playing out the string, pestering the staff while the renovation at her new place wraps up.
The restaurants serve as the backdrop for most of the book, and in these early chapters, O'Malley stretches out beyond the confines of the in-tight interiors he worked in for most of his other books. Characters are still in his quasi-chibi, rounded cartoon style, but now there are wide landscapes of the restaurant on the hill, dream-portraits of the new place once it's built, and big, sprawled-out establishing shots of the city over the river. This is a very pretty book when it remembers to be.
Things start moving when Katie distracts the new chef, inadvertently causing a halfway gruesome accident in the kitchen. That night, she dreams about a dresser drawer and a mushroom and a notepad. On the advice of a bleach-blonde thrift-chic house spirit (and the printed instructions), she writes down the mistake she made on the notepad, eats the mushroom, and goes to sleep. When she wakes up, the accident never happened, and she's the only one who remembers it. And we're off!
Well, we're kind of off. Truthfully, there isn't much forward thrust or deviation to Seconds. (You can definitely guess the final act from reading the previous paragraph.) We start getting a few clues as to why Katie might want to pump the brakes on the mushrooms; there are little unintended changes, like chandelier design, then increasingly bigger and more unintended consequences. We also meet Max, Katie's Big Bad Ex—a given for O'Malley books, it seems (Who hurt you, Bryan?)—and watch Katie rewrite and re-rewrite her recent and not-so-recent history. But because we're dealing with otherworld friends and otherworld Maxes, basically, it's hard to get much skin in the game—which is by far the book's biggest recurring problem.
The other problem is style and structure. O'Malley is best at the one-two punches, the call-and-shithead-response of an organizing cast making noise in the background, and the foreground characters playing it cool (or slapstick, or manic). His best gags are less about the dialogue than the relationships behind it. But Katie is alone. We're told right up front that most if not all of her friends have moved on, out of her restaurant and apparently out of her life. This works fine thematically—second chances sorta sell themselves to the girl with no friends and no life, when her only human contact seems to come from her boss, her contractor, and her side piece—but it means that once Katie starts stripping away her history and experience, there isn't all that much you're invested in her not fucking up.
There's this obnoxious axiom film students like to toss around, having read it in a Sidney Lumet memoir or something, that goes something like, "Well, we're all making the same movie." Basically, it means the cast, crew, and director are all on the same page. Somehow, even in some of the best-built scenes, O'Malley's characters don't all seem to be on board. When the room goes red (god bless colorist Nathan Fairbairn, who is always great, but here is responsible for a huge amount of the book's often perfect atmosphere) and a pissed off, otherworldly spirit dressed like a coked-out NYU sophomore at a Fashion Week mixer starts teleporting around, this is genuinely scary. (I got a few goosebumps!) But without a straight man to bounce off of, Katie's habit of whipping right to witty turn-on-a-dime dialogue and an indefatigable-for-now attitude stomps on the tension and lands more tone-deaf than punchy.
To his credit, O'Malley seems to sense this happening. Toward the back end of the book, he drops the pretense that he'll be able to cram a series' worth of ensemble-building into 300-odd illustrated pages, and trudges on to an ending that's more than a little predictable, but drawn so wonderfully that you forgive it.
So Seconds isn't perfect. There are plot holes to qualm over—the Reason Why This Is a Bad Thing to Do is never properly explained, with a few causes brought up and never really resolved—and it seems like O'Malley wasn't quite comfortable with the curtailed length. But you'd almost be ready to give it the benefit of the doubt in its predictability, that it's deconstructing how these stories play out—it's the journey, etc.—if so much of it weren't so... boring. Katie bends time and reality, and communes with spirits and magic mushrooms and witches, and we're dealing with stuff like, And then he walks in at JUST the wrong time? C'mon.
The shame is, O'Malley set out to and in parts succeeded in writing a much more personal book than Scott Pilgrim. A lot of the Katie/Max stuff touches on some of the best parts of that series—specifically, the mundane and hardest parts of adult relationships—but any conflict that pops up quickly boomerangs away. The same notes that land flush in a series like Pilgrim—a fully (mostly) fleshed-out imbecile 24-year-old ass we presume will grow out of it—just sort of thud flat here with a 29-year-old who's had plenty enough time to do that growing, and deals with none of the consequences of having not actually done so. If the lesson coming out of Scott Pilgrim was, Man, you really need to grow out of this, with Seconds, it's more like, Fuck it, you're grown.