Written by: Ike Beal
A critic generally has two worst-case scenarios: either the work is so boring, so dry and milk toast, that not only is it a trudge to sit through, but it’s neither good enough to breathlessly praise or bad enough to abuse- average is a nightmare. Then, there’s the masterpiece; the work of art so worthy of praise it blows all other peers out of the water effortlessly, excelling in every aspect. How does one do justice to perfection? Today, I deal with the latter.
Bryan Lee O’Malley is a big name in the graphic novels scene, having been responsible for the the six-part rebirth of indy comics, Scott Pilgrim; a work that sang with personality and carved its niche in comic’s history with a punk-rock attitude and style unique to O’Malley. When the series ended, it was difficult to see how one could improve on something so beloved and excellent. In 2014, O’Malley replied with Seconds, the best graphic novel I personally have ever read.
The slice-of-life genre is one well trodden; the last few years especially have given life to dozens of them. Seconds stands out, however, because of its unique style and presentation. Thick, soft line-art gives characters endless personality and expression, lots of characters utilize design short-hands to inform their personalities, but this is never done lazily- every character has some sort of depth, or an element that betrays their design and adds flavor to the narrative.
The color pallet is wonderful, contributing to the mood and running the gamut from warm, rustic browns and reds to the cool colors of winter that contrast and bleed into each other beautifully. Paneling captures movement, comedy, and full-page spreads let dramatic beats breathe easy. Backgrounds shine with detail and expression as tiny bits and pieces move independent of the plot and build a world that’s believable- one that seems to exist even after the book is finished and back on the shelf.
Pacing is well handled for the most part, character beats and big events happen enough to keep things interesting and keep characters reacting and interacting, breeding a wonderful balance of comedy, drama, and existential terror brewing under the floorboards. The fable-like presentation allows the lesson at the end to hit bullseye, the buildup to which is fantastic; a cacophony of insane imagery that builds to a somewhat rushed ending climax; which is strange, since there are times that the story goes without a plot-beat for a bit too long. Other than that, plotting is damn-near pitch perfect.
The shining gem of this story, though, is the protagonist, Katie. Katie is one of the most unique and fleshed-out protagonists I’ve seen in fiction; an eccentric to the end, Katie is relatable, adorable, and driven- pushing the plot forward with her many triumphs and failings as a person that doesn’t want to acknowledge they’re broken. A perfectionist by nature, Katie’s fledgling venture in starting her own restaurant brings with it dozens of headaches and hurdles she wishes she didn’t have to deal with, especially after a breakup with a long-time boyfriend. When presented with an out, Katie takes it, unknowingly making things worse. Her struggle is human, one can’t help but empathize.
While it has a couple dings in it, Seconds is the five-star meal of graphic novels; impactful and substantive, drenched in humanity, artistry, and passion. Seconds not only out-shines all of O’Malley’s previous works, but also shows his endless potential going forward.