Bryan Lee O’Malley’s ‘Seconds’ Mulls Life Choices, Parallel Universes

Once, years back, when I was living in D.C., I walked out of a movie theater, and instead of heading home, I decided on a whim to go stop by a bookstore. It was a bookstore that I rarely ever went to, one sorta out of my way — and so I took a train I rarely ride on. When I got to my stop, I literally — physically — bumped into an old friend of my sister’s while getting off the train. This occasionally can happen, sure, but in this case, she did not live in D.C. at the time. Yet in that moment, she not only happened to be in town, but apparently in the same metro station, and entering the same train car I was exiting. At the exact same time. Weird.

My mind was blown just thinking about the probability of this even happening and the variables that had to align: If I don’t go to a movie, or went at a different time; if I decided to go right home instead of making an errand; if I got on a different train five minutes earlier, or even got on a car one further down the track. Or what if I stopped to tie my shoe, and was delayed even 30 seconds — which would in turn exponentially extrapolate the timing, and this interaction simply never happened?

It’s like that movie Sliding Doors, where one seemingly micro event — Gwyneth Paltrow’s character racing to catch a subway in London — serves as the fulcrum point splitting the story into two different possible threads in her life: one where misses the train, the other where she catches that train.

I know it’s human nature to try to seek patterns in our lives that explain away random events where there are none — or to confuse coincidence for causality. Still, even now, my brain just spins and spins thinking about that day in D.C., let alone when facing a big turning point in my life. I think we’ve all had those moments where — whether we realize it or not at the time — one choice could lead us in a completely new direction. Especially when nothing seems to be going right, it’s easy to look back and wonder what life would be like had we done things differently.

It’s a notion that Bryan Lee O’Malley explores in his sweet and mind-bendingly superb new graphic novel, Seconds.

Most know O’Malley from his acclaimed and inventive bestselling Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series — or at very least the 2010 Edgar Wright-directed film based on those books, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. O’Malley’s books get a lot of praise for all of his meta-textual layering of video games and anime references and the countless in-jokes about indie rock and action movie tropes. And rightfully so. Yet ultimately, underneath those fun and geeky genre touchstones, those Scott Pilgrim books tell a coming of age story. Amid the plot’s backbone device of Scott battling the seven exes of his new girlfriend Ramona Flowers, it actually captures the feeling of that rocky transition in our 20’s from post-college life to adulthood. It was a story about indecision and rootlessness, about struggling to pay the bills and find real jobs, about maintaining friendships, addressing past baggage that we all carry around, and being brave enough to risk falling in love. It was wildly funny, deeply heartfelt and brilliantly odd.

Now, after those six installations, and a four-year gap, O’Malley is back with his most mature and stirring work yet. Like those earlier books, Seconds, picks at those same themes: accepting responsibility, trying new things and growing up, and facing regret. Only, it picks up the thread further down the line, where the consequences of the choices made in our 20’s catch up with us.

Seconds main character, Katie.
Seconds' main character, Katie.

At 29, story’s main character Katie is older than Scott Pilgrim was at the beginning of his story. She’s more firmly entrenched in the life she chose for herself: She’s an accomplished chef about to open her a new restaurant while transitioning out of another one, the titular Seconds. Four years in, the friends Katie started with are now gone, she feels old and disconnected with the new staff, and she’s anxious to begin a new chapter elsewhere. Except, everything is going impossibly wrong at once: there are construction delays; the owner of Seconds is eager for her to leave the restaurant and her apartment that sits atop it; she keeps running into her ex, and is having a secret fling with her former sous chef — with whom she has abusive, controlling arguments about his culinary choices now that he’s in charge.

It’s a real mess. For Katie, her life feels like it’s spinning out of control a little: Like many people approaching their thirties, she feels stuck, living with the consequences of her past decisions. She’s restless for change, but also afraid to make that leap into the unknown next step.

So when a particularly traumatic event occurs at the restaurant, Katie gains an ability to undo it — with the help of a mysterious fairy spirit who appears in her room.

Katie is told she can fix her past by:

1. Writing mistake in a notebook; 2. Eating a mushroom; 3. Falling asleep. Yup. Trippy.

Each time Katie ingests a mushroom, one single variable is changed, and she wakes up in a new reality that’s both familiar but somewhat different. Soon, she becomes obsessed with trying to manipulate events and bad decisions and behavior — saying the wrong thing to friends, all-night Netflix binge-watching, getting drunk, making out with chefs — and trying to fashion the perfect life.

Through a series of inventive illustration techniques, O’Malley presents a series of flashback panels that recap the day up until the point where that one variable is manipulated, and seeing how it affects the story we’ve just read and are familiar with thus far. The way the book describes it, our life is one giant tree, and each branch, each twig can represent one single path our life may go in an infinite array of tangents and decisions. It’s a fantastic way of depicting how one seemingly minute detail can affect an entire string of events.

In fact, all throughout the book, O’Malley’s crisp anime and cute cartoon-influenced linework showcases his ability to establish character via facial expressions and body language. And while O’Malley’s always had an eye for detail when it comes to fashion, with Seconds, the clothing his characters wear and the bright colors (courtesy of colorist Nathan Fairbairn) just pop off the page, allowing you to immediately tell know exactly who each person is. Elsewhere, his sense for design shines through with meticulous illustrations that map out the world Katie and her friends inhabit, including this diagram of the restaurant.

It’s one of those things that sequential storytelling and comics can do that movies and television often cannot, outside of, say, a Wes Anderson film.

And while Seconds begins as a story that feels relatively grounded at the beginning, as the story builds steam, the threads of Katie’s decisions begin to swirl around themselves, overlapping and extrapolating in a tapestry of parallel universes. And as darker influences begin to seep into Katie’s continually retrofitted realities, those universes get weirder and weirder — giving O’Malley an opportunity to play. I don’t want to spoil anything, but late in the story, there’s some animated Ray Harryhausen-like skeletons that serve as waiters and play in a band. I mean, c’mon. Skeleton waiters.

Part Groundhog Day, part Inception, part Sliding Doors, Seconds is a fantastical, existential tale. It’s a very relatable romantic comedy about friendship and love, and it mulls over big ideas like fate and choice, chance and destiny, and those turning point moments we face in our lives each day.

When I was first reading those Scott Pilgrim books, I was maybe roughly the same age — or close enough — to Scott and his friends, going through similar things in my 20s, most likely the way Bryan Lee O’Malley was in his own life. Now, with Seconds, O’Malley’s a little older and wiser, his character is a little older, and I, myself, am a little older, too. So while this book is clearly playing with heightened, magical ideas, it’s also dealing with themes I have and am experiencing.

In those moments of reflection, it’s easy to to wonder: “What if we could go back in time and toggle a variable in another direction? What if we could say the right thing instead of the wrong thing, speak up when it mattered most, or keep our mouths shut instead? How would life be different? Better, worse, or about the same?” As Katie discovers through her adventures, there’s no true perfect life. But by taking agency over your own decisions, it’s never too late to change your outlook and reinvent yourself. That’s a message everyone should keep close to heart. Even if you run out of mushrooms to eat.