Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds begins with a straightforward set of magical instructions: “1. Write your mistake. 2. Ingest one mushroom. 3. Go to sleep. 4. Wake anew.” The house sprite that offers them is more mysterious, but that doesn’t stop O’Malley’s protagonist, Katie, from snatching for a notebook. Although the 29-year-old chef is cooking at a successful restaurant, also called Seconds, she’s agonizing about opening an even better one, not to mention her winsome ex and a desultory affair. The first time she’s desperate enough to try this mushroom-based ritual, her motivations are relatively selfless. But the newfound ability to revise reality over and over again encourages Katie’s worst tendencies, making her manipulative and neurotic: Instead of repairing her life, she hungers to perfect it. As the narrative contortions dovetail with metaphysical ones—when did all those skeletons start working at Seconds?—her desire to fix the past threatens the integrity of causality itself.
Ten years ago, O’Malley published the first of six books in his Scott Pilgrim series, where the callow young man of the title fights for his aloof dream girl against an alliance of her “evil exes,” in a Toronto governed by the language, iconography, and logic of 16-bit video games. The director Edgar Wright adapted it into a movie that disappointed at the box office but constitutes a sizable fraction of all Tumblr content, and O’Malley seems to accept that outcome serenely. You can recognize the blithely witty banter of Scott Pilgrim in Seconds, but it’s a stand-alone graphic novel, indebted to the rounded, stylized figures of cartoonists like Rumiko Takahashi and the landscapes laid out in modern European comics, rather than the adventure manga his previous work suggested. It’s a book restless in scope yet quotidian in scale, an existential fable. O’Malley and I traded emails from his current home in Los Angeles.
Seconds might be the first book that quotes both Italo Calvino and Fleetwood Mac.
I’m really proud of the epigraphs. One from high culture, one from low culture, which is a tightrope I’m trying to walk throughout the book.
How did you end up going from an adventure story like Scott Pilgrim to this more conceptual, subjective mode, where your main character argues with her own narrator?
I had the basic idea for Seconds almost a decade ago. I thought about it a lot over the years and it evolved in different directions. When I was in the middle of the Scott Pilgrim series and it was slowly becoming more popular, though still not financially solvent, I had this real bratty instinct to turn around and do something super arty and dark. I felt dismissed by comics culture, stuck in between the artcomix world and the nerdcomix world, and I was cranky about it.
Then my books actually got popular and I realized that none of that mattered to me after all, so when I wrote Seconds I just tried to make it as fun as possible, while still conveying those darker adult themes.
A lot of the layouts here, such as that icily empty landscape Katie ends up in at one point, look markedly different from your other work, more akin to European comics. The last time I interviewed you, you mentioned being fixated on cartoonists like Kerascoët and Christophe Blain; did that help push Seconds in this direction? I’m still kind of obsessed with Beautiful Darkness, the Kerascoët book Drawn and Quarterly published earlier this year.
I still haven’t read Beautiful Darkness, but I did just spell “Kerascoët” out for Maclean’s magazine. [Kerascoët’s] Beauté was an obsession. Blain is one of my favorites, and the Donjon series was huge for me. I certainly made a conscious effort to go more Euro, less manga in this one, just to suit the vibe of the story.
I’m fascinated by the relationship between people and their spaces in the book, how disoriented or intoxicated Katie can get after a magical alteration to the most minor living arrangements. There’s a great two-page spread early on that shows the basement of Seconds as a cross-section, with all these characters caught up in their disparate routines, atomized yet interconnected. Is this something you’d been thinking about in a theoretical way?
Seconds is all about spaces, and I guess spaces are kind of like people, in that they can be haunting and alluring before we even really get to know them, and after prolonged exposure they can become mundane or oppressive. I’ve moved and traveled a lot in the past decade, or my whole life really. The places I’ve been, or passed through, or seen at a distance, have had as much an impact on my life as the people I’ve known. This is a roundabout way of saying I don’t understand the question.
How did you develop this narrative structure, sorting out the growing chaos of Katie’s latest revisions to reality? Italo Calvino belonged to the Oulipo, whose members sometimes determine such things via mathematical patterns, but that doesn’t seem like quite your style …
I don’t really have a metaphor for how I write, but it kinda feels like chipping away at a big dark object that I can’t really see. I have this idea in my mind of what it looks like, and what it means, but that idea is vague and theoretical, and the thing in my hands is big and heavy and alive. There’s no meaning or math encoded in what I do. There’s just things stuck in my head that I try to get onto paper, generally with brute force.
I knew before writing or drawing it that Chapter 5, about Max, would be 100 pages long. That’s right where it ended up—after editing I think it’s like 91 pages. I don’t know what that means. I guess I tried to make each chapter cover one aspect of Katie’s life as thoroughly as possible, and I knew Max was a big one.
“Can’t Go Back,” the last chapter heading, is another Fleetwood Mac reference, to bring us full circle.
Unlike some cartoonists, you tend to spend a lot of time thinking about fashion—what was the process of determining everyone’s looks in Seconds? I love that the house sprite Lis could be slouching against the wall of a Montreal loft party.
I like fashion so I jammed it into Seconds, obviously, with thin justifications—my editor actually made me take out a gratuitous shopping scene. Katie wears basic stuff but always looks put-together. Hazel is basically a fashion blogger, and she dresses Lis, so they both look unnecessarily cool. I spent a lot of time browsing Lookbook and Tumblr and figuring out everyone’s fashion parameters. I just think paying more attention to clothes makes characters feel more dimensional. It makes the world feel lived-in.
Can you tell me about the research you did on the restaurant industry? You worked in one years and years ago, so a lot of basic details were probably intuitive, but Seconds captures the more immaterial realities of that world too—Kate’s menus could be taken from any mobbed “rustic” restaurant in Toronto, at least until things start getting weird.
My friend Joel MacMillan worked at Kalendar in Toronto a decade ago and got me a job there. Now he has his own restaurant, Me & Mine, so he was a great sounding board for restaurant and food stuff. Another dabbling chef friend helped create a specific recipe for the one scene where she cooks rabbit. Aside from practical experience I did plenty of reading and also binge-watched the original U.K. version of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.
Seconds is about learning to bear regret. Having scrutinized all six volumes of Scott Pilgrim again recently for the reissued color editions, not to mention reaching 35 yourself, did you find your attitudes toward the past changing as you drew it?
I always say “I regret everything,” but I feel like as I get older, regret just becomes part of the fabric of life. Regret is air. You don’t even notice it anymore, you’re consumed in it. I routinely get paralyzed by the idea that everything I’ve ever done is idiotic. As a creator of content for young people, I get horrified by the shit we’re feeding them every day, including my own stuff. I want to keep trying to do better, though, which is pretty much the message all my books end with.
Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Ballantine Books.