I had to get a job, and it ended up being at a restaurant,” Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley tells me, speaking about a brief period when he was working as a food runner at a Toronto restaurant back in 2004. “The basement was kind of this mysterious, weird lair,” he says. And the owner was inscrutable, too: she rarely made appearances at the restaurant but remained a “woman that everyone was in awe of.” Of his job shuttling food between the kitchen and the customers, O’Malley says, “I was kind of invisible, but at the same time kind of seeing both worlds. I instantly knew that I was going to write something set in a restaurant one day.”
This restaurant experience served as the inspiration for O’Malley’s upcoming graphic novel, Seconds (Ballantine, July), his first book since the popular Scott Pilgrim comic book series. Scott Pilgrim was originally published in black and white in 2004 by Oni Press; it was rereleased in color in 2012 and became a New York Times bestselling series, and later was adapted as a film.
Seconds, then, is a bit of a departure from Scott Pilgrim. Unlike its predecessor, Seconds is a standalone book, and its first printing is in color. And while Scott Pilgrim featured a 20-something male slacker, Seconds focuses on a 29-year-old, type A female protagonist named Katie.
Katie is a restaurant owner who seems to have it all under control. That is, until a brush with an ex leads her to question the life choices she’s made—and to stop at nothing in a quest to reverse all the less-than-perfect elements of her life. She doesn’t resort to magical thinking; rather, she uses magic itself to explore the decisions she should have made. But when she goes too far, the power turns against her and reveals the shadow self that hides behind her confident persona.
Richly imagined and vibrantly drawn, Seconds is a funny, surprising, and enchanting read. While Seconds, like Scott Pilgrim, draws on anxieties about love and heartbreak and gives them a comical spin, O’Malley’s new offering is darker, less irreverent, and more sophisticated. Seconds isn’t the same pop culture feast as Scott Pilgrim, but it is just as delectable because of its characters, its fantasy elements, and its wisdom and wit about the wish for second chances.
“I didn’t expect Scott Pilgrim to be successful. I just made this weird comic to entertain my friends,” says O’Malley. In the series, a young Canadian slacker in an indie rock band starts dating 17-year-old Knives Chau. But Scott soon becomes infatuated with the mysterious new girl in town, Ramona Flowers. As he and Ramona spend more time together, he discovers that, in order to date her, he must defeat her seven evil exes in battle. Its a quirky and contemporary love story told using the visual vocabulary of video games, manga, and indie rock. Scott Pilgrim resonated with a whole generation of alt- and pop-culture fans who identified with its snarky, relatable characters.
In part, for the slacker indie rock world of Scott Pilgrim, O’Malley channeled his own life. He wrote in his afterword to Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life: “My life at the time became the basis for Scott’s cast of characters: the American girlfriend, the unforgettable ex, the gay roommate, the sister, the friends and band members.” But these characters weren’t direct analogues. Pilgrim may have worn some of the same clothing that O’Malley sported at the time, but the author insists that “he’s so unlike me in many ways.”
As fresh, hilarious, and wild as Scott Pilgrim was when it was first published in 2004, O’Malley says, “It barely sold the first year.” This was when he took the restaurant job in Toronto. Of the popularity of the series, he notes, “It was so gradual. There’s not, like, one moment. It just grew and grew. I got used to it incrementally.”
The tipping point for Scott Pilgrim came when the film adaptation was released. The 2010 movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World starred Michael Cera and was directed by Edgar Wright, who also directed the hit indie comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
“The adaptation was done by someone I respect, and he did do a good job.” O’Malley says. “It didn’t make a lot of money, but it’s beloved by its fan base. It could have been a bastardized version and made millions, but I like this version better.” On his blog, he did note one criticism of the movie, which, in part, reflected the ethos of his comic book series: “I think it sucks that Scott Pilgrim came out so white.” He wrote, “I am mixed (white + Korean).... I’ve sometimes joked that Scott Pilgrim is my fantasy of being a cute white indie rock boy (which, as an ostracized mixed-race weirdo, was something I occasionally wished for when I was younger).” He expressed that he had an “unexamined nonattitude towards race,” which the movie underscored with its dearth of characters of color—except for Knives Chau, played by the Cambodian-Canadian actress Ellen Wong.
As a result of Scott Pilgrim’s lack of diversity, O’Malley says that he chose to publish Seconds in color: he wanted to represent a wide variety of skin colors. He wrote on his blog, “I think about these things way, way more nowadays. I feel like I kind of rebel against whatever I’ve done previously. And so, both in format and in the scope of the story, I was trying to do something different.”
Seconds, he says, began with the setting. “I’ve been thinking about Seconds for years. I felt rootless. I was traveling a lot for the book [Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour (Oni Press, 2010)] and the movie, going to new towns, new countries.” He became obsessed not only with his previous idea of portraying a mysterious old restaurant but also with painting a mystical village. Though Seconds takes place in a fictional town, he says, “I threw in buildings from everywhere I’ve lived. And I’ve asked friends for their favorite buildings. It’s about places—or spaces—like buildings and old, aging structures.”
O’Malley also wanted to explore a new kind of character. As with Scott Pilgrim, Seconds is plot driven, with a fully formed, memorable, and sympathetic character at its core. In Seconds’s Katie, he created the anti–Scott Pilgrim: a keen entrepreneur on the brink of 30, whose outgoing nature belies her insecurities. Ambivalent toward her ex-boyfriend, Max; adversarial toward the mystical house spirit watching over the restaurant; and aided by her new friend Hazel, she must confront the consequences of the decisions she has made—however painful they may be.
O’Malley says, “I wanted to have a character who’s kind of, not just an extrovert, but someone who’s in charge and confident. I wanted to write a character like that, but who’s also an idiot, funny, and over-the-top in a bunch of ways. So it’s just this kind of comedy version of someone who’s got it together, but is all over the place at the same time.” His creative process has matured, too, and he called upon collaborators to lend a hand for Seconds. His friend the cartoonist Jason Fischer was his drawing assistant; another notable cartoonist, Dustin Harbin, was in charge of lettering; and colorist and comics writer Nathan Fairbairn worked on the book’s coloring. “Working with the assistants, working with Jason and my colorist who’s also doing Scott Pilgrim—that was great because I’d never really done that before,” he says. “Usually it’s just me, by myself.” He adds that working together so closely in his home studio in Los Angeles led to ideas for Seconds. As Fischer wrote in an email, “It enabled us to be more creative... often inspiring great ideas and designs.”
If Scott Pilgrim is concerned with the limitless possibilities of youth (bands, friendships, relationships), then Seconds is concerned with the limiting factors of adulthood (committed relationships, career frustration—even real estate choices). Seconds, then, shows a more sophisticated side of O’Malley. It features the same spot-on dialogue, quirky humor, and compelling characters that we’ve come to expect—but with an astute eye toward the regret that often comes with adulthood. O’Malley says, “I’m always exploring other people: trying to figure out myself, trying to figure out everyone.” So while his subject matter is more grown-up, his ability to bring life to the page hasn’t aged a bit.