Friday, 14 August 2015

The Fourth Rule Of Book Club Is: Only Two Guys To A Book

Not the biggest booked we've ever done for the book club, but still a big book
Monday 3rd August was the latest Forbidden Planet Book Club meeting, and this time round one of our newer members was asked to select a book. This latest book was Seconds, by Bryan Lee O'Malley - the man behind the Scott Pilgrim series, though this time with a few extra hands doing colouring and other tasks.

I suspect even if you haven't read the six part manga-a-like Scott Pilgrim comics you are almost certainly familiar with the film a few years ago, which made a fairly big splash in nerd circles but seemed to do poor business at the box office.  (Turns out a film that starts with the intro sound effect from The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past is just a bit too niche)

I was a little nervous going into this book, because while I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim for the most part I knew nothing about this latest book.  A few people at the club were champing at the bit to read it…. But then they had been similarly excited about The Sculptor and I found that to be a bit of a waste of time.  I have a bit of a contrary streak in me, it must be said: if everyone is buzzing too much about something I can't help but gaze at it a little sceptically.  (A prime example being my opinion on Neil Gaiman which isn't quite as reverential as everyone else.)

However, these concerns were all for naught because I would have to say that Seconds is very good - in fact, possibly better than Scott Pilgrim as an artistic unit.

The red section of the cover is actually a jacket - the "real" cover is a starry sky with a red tree, imagery used within the book.

The premise of Seconds is that Katie, an almost-thirty chef, is feeling a bit stuck in a rut with her life.  She opened a restaurant with her friends when they were young and it does a roaring trade, but now they've almost all left and she feels somewhat distant from the whole thing.  Her last real relationship broke down and she clearly hasn't recovered from it.  She's seeking to open a second restaurant and make a clean break, but things aren't going to plan.

John though the comparison to O'Malley's career was pretty strong - the nervousness of doing the Second Book that can never live up to the huge storm around your first.  Certainly, while I didn't feel this was too heavy in the next, naming your second book Seconds does seem to be making a certain sort of statement!

The crux of the story

In the middle of this personal chaos she muddles into some supernatural business involving the ability to consume a magic mushroom, make a wish that your life was different and reawaken the next day to find that the change was made. This power is used at first for a clearly noble cause - to keep someone from serious harm - but as time goes on the changes become more and more petty and personal.  Inevitably the changes have unintended consequences and using magic turns out to have a cost, one that Katie must deal with to appease the spirit from whom she first received the magic mushrooms as well as to restore her life to normality.

Katie works out the practical applications of the reality revision mushrooms

There's a lot of obvious comparison to Scott Pilgrim in both look and feel.  The art style retains a highly cartoony Japanese feel, with Katie resembling Astro Boy with a red wig on.  The food is the only thing treated to a more photo-realistic appearance - everything else is flat, yet I sould still call it characterful and colourful. 

The are was the main problem Gary had with it, because as Sister Superior predicted the whole thing was just too cutesy for a grizzled Crossed fans who likes comics were people join the Avengers.  The story might have a lot of real world soap opera elements, but the look might be just a bit too kawaii for some.

This double page spread is probably my favourite piece of art in the whole book

The art's simplicity hides a certain craftsmanship, though.  Characters appear in a variety of outfits throughout the piece and a variety of facial expressions yet are clearly recognizable as who they are - and those outfits definitely set the tone for the age and worldview of those characters.  The women avoid the Escher Girls style "boobs and butt" pose and appear as normal people, albeit ones who have a uterus, throughout.  Hazel, a timid waitress at the restaurant who Katie befriends, is clearly very attractive but the art at no point portrays her for cheap thrills.  Even when Katie turns up in (what the story acknowledges is) an inappropriately sexy outfit, the feel is that the story is being served rather than the fans.

The closest the book gets to cheesecake

The writing retains the humour of Scott Pilgrim, though with less of a focus on nerdy trivia and more just an irreverence.  A mocking narrator regularly interjects and Katie is aware of their words - her conscience, perhaps?.  The narration boxes and Katie argue about the facts she tries to keep from herself and in doing so tells us a lot about Katie and who she is, but without ever feeling too "writer-y" a meta-textual idea.

Much as the art treats the women well, so does the writing.  Bryan Lee O'Malley does a great job of portraying women as characters who are interesting and nuanced - Katie, like Scott Pilgrim before her, might actually be a bit of an arsehole but the book lets us come to that conclusion ourselves as the story drags on.  When a reality-changing hop sees Katie find out her married, her reaction is a totally understandable shock - no cheap "all girls want to get married" jokes follow. The  book more than easily passes the Bechdel test, if you're the kind of person that matters to, as Hazel and Katie spend quite a bit talking about the magical spirit that haunts Seconds.

Compared to Scott Pilgrim, this story feels a lot better structured.  Scott Pilgrim has a lot of fun moments, especially in the first book or two,  but its full six book length is very poorly paced and there's large chunks of some books which are a bit spotty.  A recipe for vegetarian food in the middle of one book springs to mind, and the second-last Evil Exes is totally forgetable.  The film's abridging of the plot is, for the most part, an improvement.  In contrast, Seconds feels much more a complete unit and any apparently digressions somehow feel more relevant.  Even Katie buying a burger as comfort food is a plot relevant event.

I can't be the only person who questioned this section

If there's a weakness shared with Scott Pilgrim, it might be the ending.  Like Scott Pilgrim the ending gets increasingly surreal, and Neil at the book club felt it kinda let down the first half of the book with it's more intimate ideas gets somewhat eclipsed that the more fantastical "universe collapsing on itself/vengeful house spirit" conclusion .  Certainly, the "skeletons work at the restaurant now" idea near the end of the book is maybe a bit too much of a non-sequitur for some people.

I wish I could say "this makes more sense in context" but it doesn't

My problem with the ending is a bit more specific to the last ten pages or so though.  A major part of the book is Katie's relationship with her ex-boyfriend and her attempts to use her reality-editing mushrooms first to restore their relationship then to paper over the cracks that show almost immediately.  Katie spends a lot of the book living in the past and finally accepts that at the end.... where she is showing having a heart to heart with her ex who, um, says he wish they'd never broken up.  So they get back together.  Obviously.

My big obstacle

This rather seemed to run counter to what had happened in the preceeding 19/20ths of the book.  Now, this is partly that I get frustrated with ficiton that says "getting back together with your ex is not only a great idea, it's your destiny".  That aside, it's almost the core of the book the attempts by Katie to restore her boyfriend to her fail time and again.  Neil said it almost felt like the universe was telling her Katie couldn't be with this guy - that the relationship just wasn't going to work, that every leak she plugged in the S.S. Boyfriend just caused another to spring up elsewhere.  Despite this, Bryan Lee O'Malley writes them getting back together as the end as a wonderful moment, when instead it felt like it undermined any attempt by her to move on.

Katie's first dabbling in the magic

Still, I would say overall the book was enjoyable.  There are some broad similarities with the Sculptor - a hardback, long book by a comic writer of some note who hasn't had a new piece fiction out in a bit, who gives us a story of a normal person who acquires magical powers but whose attempts to use them are limited by the rules of magic and their complicated relationship with a member of the opposite sex.   These comparisons are perhaps only superficial but the pieces feel like they have more in common than, say, Pride of Baghdad had with Beautiful Darkness or TEOTFW had with The Mystery Play.

In that comparison, I think Seconds comes out superior in almost every metric and definitely when it comes to writing.  Seconds has a much tighter focus, the magical and romance plots integrating as the central crux of the book, whereas The Sculptor felt like it's magic plot just stopped for half the book.

Even fairly cliched ideas come across better - I was negative of the section in The Sculptor when Meg is mentioned as being bisexual as feeling very clunky and forced, but a similar section in Seconds in which Hazel says she is unsure about her sexuality feels much more natural.

"I came out, back in volume 5.  You seemed busy, so I didn't mention it"

Anyway, the next meeting isn't until September.  More George comic rambling will follow then!  Until then, here's some slightly more exploitative (but a bit funny) art from Aaron Ancheta who worked with Bryan Lee O'Malley on Scott Pilgrim.

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