A strong, self-absorbed female protagonist pushes the boundaries of spacetime
Leigh Alexander talks to Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan O'Malley about his new book, Seconds, and moving on to a new character--one for whom the imagined burdens of middle age loom large.
"The more I speak to cartoonists who are beyond the age of 30, we're all falling apart," Bryan Lee O'Malley tells me on Skype.
Katie, the protagonist of O'Malley's latest graphic novel, is 29. And also falling apart, albeit in a different way: Having had her first major "hit" with a restaurant called Seconds (also the title of the book, of course), Katie's now in a rut. Her second restaurant, the venue of her dreams, is struggling to launch, mired in repairs and lengthy contractor negotiations, and in the wake of a breakup, she's running out of patience, desperately in need of a new success to follow the comfortable first.
In one panel, a drunk Katie wonders if the world ends when she turns 30. It seems like a sincere line of inquiry, despite everything.
O'Malley meant to put out Seconds a year ago, but was delayed by an injury he sustained in 2012, the sort particular to comics folk who live their lives hunched over desks and drawings. "Honestly, I was already pushing the deadline," he says. "After I injured myself I ended up not really being able to draw for, like, six months, and it was really frustrating to have to sit there and not touch it. There were years of accumulated stress on my body from doing this -- bad posture, stuff like that."
O'Malley and I are pals and I have been threatening to psychoanalyze him via Seconds. Not that it seems hard to do, given the premise, and given months and months of following his Instagram feed where hardly a single food picture gets posted without a fan or friend commenting "bread makes you fat," a well-trod Scott Pilgrim reference.
Seconds begins with Katie fatigued of the well-oiled machine, desirous of more ownership and a new challenge. I'm pretty good at this psychoanalysis thing, right?
"Yeah," O'Malley humors me. "It's... yeah, that's in there. It's pretty on the nose. I thought that was a fun thing to have as the basis of this story. I have to explore myself; that's all I can do."
Truthfully, though, he's been nursing the idea for Seconds since finishing work on the first Scott Pilgrim book almost ten years ago. "At times I wanted to take a break from Scott Pilgrim and do this book, but I don't think I was ready," he says. "By the time I got to the point in my life where I was ready to do it, it grew into what it is: I couldn't have done [Seconds] without having done Scott Pilgrim, and it's the logical next step.... in Scott Pilgrim everyone is kind of just starting out, and has their little jobs, but [Katie] has had success, and I wanted to explore that."
Seconds is certainly in many ways a more mature and nuanced book than the Scott Pilgrim series, which overtly borrows video games' heroic vocabulary to tell the story of a self-absorbed slacker winning the heart of an idealized, distant woman by defeating her exes. Katie's painful, unresolved relationship with her ex, Max, is like the dark drumbeat that sounds out a larger fantasy tale: Nothing's going quite right for Katie, but when a fey house spirit leads her to a cache of magic mushrooms growing beneath Seconds, she finds out it's possible to rewrite the past, undo bad decisions -- reload prior saves, if you will -- to try to arrive at the ideal outcome. Can Katie repair her broken history and launch her brand-new restaurant as she dreamed? Or does erasing mistakes instead of learning from them have its own set of consequences?
"The only way I know how to process things is to start writing about them," says O'Malley.
As the story of a small homegrown business and the band of friends that make it work, Seconds has a unique sincerity. It's also refreshing in that it's the story of a spunky, unapologetic young woman entrepreneur, one which hinges in particular on Katie's friendship with her shy employee Hazel. Together Hazel and Katie learn about Seconds' fashionable resident house spirit, Lis, and her role in the mushroom-centric time manipulation magic upon which Katie has greedily stumbled.
"Right after the first Scott Pilgrim I got a job in a restaurant," O'Malley recalls. "I was a food runner, and I only worked there for about four or five months, from kind of late summer to the holidays one year, and... it's not a high-stakes kind of job, but it was interesting to be in that world, and shuttle back and forth between the kitchen and the serving area, and to see all aspects of the restaurant, and to be nobody."
"It suited me," says O'Malley, who is a cautious speaker, fairly reserved in person. "To just be an observer, and be moving things from one place to another. The restaurant itself was this old Toronto restaurant called Kalendar, and the basement of it looks a lot like the basement I drew in Seconds: Checkerboard floor, a mazelike feeling. It stuck with me as a place, and as a metaphor, and I always felt I was going to do a story set in a restaurant."
Where did you get the thing about the house spirits, then, I ask.
"You really don't know?" He says to me skeptically. I can tell from his tone that we're talking about video games, now, which is how we became acquainted.
He means Sierra On-Line's Quest for Glory 4, which I haven't played. "They're adventure games, but with RPG elements," he says. "From what I remember, it was very convoluted... your hero has gone into this Transylvania world, and it's set in this sort of Russian folklore setting. The house spirits were in it, and there's a novel I read around the same time called Rusalka by CJ Cherry, which went into the same kind of lore. I couldn't find much actual information, so I ended up kind of making the rest of it up."
The result is that Seconds nails that same blend of the inventive and the familiar that made Scott Pilgrim such an inviting work. It also prickles the reader with the same sense of watching a car wreck -- although Katie is much more likeable than Scott, you're watching a troubled and periodically-immature person make choices you tend to think are destructive.
"Both Seconds and Scott Pilgrim are about people who are very self-absorbed," O'Malley admits. "We all are, I think. This is about the damage that can do when left unchecked."
Is it a kind of personal inventory, I ask. "Yes and no," he replies. "Katie's not like me, in many ways. I wanted to make someone who was more outgoing and crazy than me, but then, I can explore myself through that too. All these books are about me... it's hard to be specific, but yeah, certainly in the process I would realize very late in the game that certain characters are reflecting certain people in my life, or that things have a direct correlation in my life that aren't intentional."
"Just trying to write fiction, my life leaks in," he adds. "It's a complicated process for me. I feel like I never know what i'm doing, and I'm fumbling in the dark all the time. Every time I do an interview, someone points out something about the book, or about me, that I didn't expect."
Is that weird, I ask.
"No, I kind of like it," he says. "I think it's great. I wish I could even get more of it. I wish I could just hand my book to a psychologist and have them read it and tell me all about myself."
We talk about Katie's relationship with Max and how it ultimately resolves, which I won't spoil, because I love Seconds and I hope everyone reading this will buy it. Seconds is for everyone on the terrifying, bleak precipice of a late-twenties early-thirties crisis, for everyone who even occasionally sits up late at night, gripped by second thoughts, wondering about the nature of adulthood itself and did I do something wrong. Or did I do everything right? Everything?
The book's ending "was my worldview at the time when I was writing it, and what I was hoping for," he says.
Seconds seems unique to me among popular comic books, not just for its female lead and its focus on friendships among young women, but because of the diversity of its cast, the refusal of O'Malley's drawings to conform to any particular 'beauty standard'.
"In the restaurant where I worked everyone was really diverse, but that's something I didn't think about until later," he reflects. "Going through the Scott Pilgrim experience and meeting more and more fans, I... became aware of a certain lack in Scott Pilgrim that was born out of me being 23, 24 years old and the people I knew in my immediate sphere. But I started to feel responsible towards the fans, and the world."
"It felt right for the story to have this female lead," he continues. "And I don't know how good of a job I did, but... I like drawing girls. Not just because 'they're sexy', but I'm interested, and curious, and trying to learn more about people, and that's what drives me."
"It's a little risky [to have unlikeable protagonists]," he acknowledges. "I definitely get feedback that people hate my characters and can't identify with them. I feel like people are not being honest with themselves if that's the case. Daniel Clowes goes much further than I do, even, in terms of his ability to tap into that 'embarrassing horibleness'. I wanted to make adult stress cute, and appealing and energetic."
The fanbase that became acquainted with O'Malley's work through Scott Pilgrim is older now, too, and he hopes they can join him through this next arc of storytelling, even if it's less youthful-action, more 'cute adult stress'.
"I think when I started out, I had a chip on my shoulder about proving I could do 'more' than Scott Pilgrim, something more 'serious-minded' or ambitious," he says. "But then as I wrote it and started drawing it, I think I came to terms, more or less, with Scott Pilgrim existing and being a part of my life forever from now on. I want my teen and 20-something fans to get something out of Seconds, even if they're not quite at Katie's point in life."
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