Women on the Verge
In his new book, Seconds, graphic novelist Bryan Lee O’Malley tackles the latest pop culture archetype: the successful, single hapless heroine
At a moment of unprecedented female success, when women run mega-companies like Facebook, Yahoo and GM, the funhouse mirror of pop culture is reflecting a new image: the intelligent, talented, capable, well-respected spaz. Liz Lemon was one of the first. She blerged her way through seven seasons of discombobulated bossdom on 30 Rock. The lovably delusional Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation soon followed, along with the accident-prone, man-crazy ob-gyn Mindy Lahiri of The Mindy Project, and the narcissistic, OCD-twitching Hannah Horvath of Girls. Even Mad Men’s Peggy Olson, who shatters glass ceilings in plaid pants, seems to have become a 21st-century punchline of pratfalls and gloomy masturbation.
If TV is any indicator, the predominant tension has shifted from woman versus oppressive patriarchy to woman versus her oppressive, choice-addled mind. These characters tend to be single 30-somethings who fling themselves on their office floors in fits of work-life angst, and stress-eat when confronted with decisions about men, children and work. To real-life members of that demographic, the hapless heroine is a highly relatable avatar. To everyone else, she’s just a little less threatening for all her quirks.
The latest entrant into the canon comes, unexpectedly, from Bryan Lee O’Malley, the 35-year-old graphic novelist behind the smash-hit, six-volume Scott Pilgrim series, which sold a million copies and inspired a big-budget movie with Michael Cera. Seconds, his first book since wrapping Scott Pilgrim in 2010, is an exuberantly strange and compelling new comic, delivering one of the funniest and most thoughtful takes on the type. Where Scott Pilgrim reads like wish fulfillment for geeky, post-adolescent hipsters, starring a soft-bodied slacker who pummels his dream girl’s evil exes with superpower fighting skills, Seconds offers no such release. It burrows deep into the psyche of a 29-year-old woman whose attempts to transcend reality, à la Scott Pilgrim, are foiled.
The protagonist is Katie, a control-freak chef who works at a popular restaurant called Seconds in a stylized fairy-tale town. (Fans of Scott Pilgrim’s dazzlingly warped Toronto won’t find any resemblance to the city.) Four years in, she’s outgrown the place. The bearded 20-something staff are all “sullen babies,” as she calls them, and she’s in the process of opening a new restaurant nearby: a room of one’s own–type dream for the foodie era.
Katie follows in the tradition of the angsty and listless pre-adults O’Malley sketched so incisively in Scott Pilgrim: stuck at an in-between moment, eager to burst out on her own, but comically immature. Drawn in a Japanese manga style, she’s adorably curvy with saucer-size eyes and an outsized head full of Sonic the Hedgehog spikes. Like Sonic, she vibrates with cocky, impatient energy. Speed lines trail her as she yells at the staff, becoming a pint-size Gordon Ramsay, and as she cusses out the construction workers who can’t finish her new restaurant fast enough. She even barrels through the comic’s tissue-thin fourth wall. When the narrator says “she was sleeping too little, worrying too much, feeling old,” Katie shoots back sarcastically, “She was in her 20s and young and totally great.”
Katie could easily have descended into another Cathy cartoon. She melts like a candle when she sees her ex-boyfriend, and makes 147 urgent trips to the bathroom after devouring a burger with extra onions and hot sauce. But Seconds is more self-aware than its cultural cohorts. Beneath her bluster, Katie is lonely and tortured by the idea of loss—loss of youth, of love, of control, of perfection. She discovers an antidote to her worries when a mysterious, nymph-like house spirit gives her magic mushrooms that allow her to go back in time and fix her mistakes. She pops one, falls asleep, dreams the revision and wakes up in a redrafted reality.
Katie realizes she can use the supernatural fungi to win back her ex-boyfriend, a chef who left after she shut him out of her new restaurant. She goes back in time and makes him a partner. But that do-over, as in any good time-travel farce, sparks a chain reaction of unintended consequences, begetting a handful of other foiled attempts to get it right. Eventually, she wakes up married, with her husband running both restaurants while she stifles her bossy opinions to keep him happy. As the self-defeating corrections unfold, she has apocalyptic visions. Shadows swallow up her restaurant, Katie crumbles into ruin, and the visions eventually give way to a page of solid black panels, creating the uncanny sense that readers are inside her paralyzed mind.
The end-times motif is hilarious in juxtaposition to the mundane restaurant world, but it also taps into the anxiety—with its apparently catastrophic stakes—of women on the cusp of a career, marriage or both. Katie loses the guy to keep her career, then loses her career to keep the guy. With every doomed fix, she edges closer to losing both and ending up alone—a pervasive fear for these plucky characters. For those in this particular phase of life, O’Malley offers an arena to debate the ever-pressing question: “Can women really have it all?”
On TV, the answer seems to be an overwhelming yes. Liz Lemon marries a Ken doll look-alike, adopts twins and starts a new show. Leslie Knope weds her own Ken and accepts a promotion in the same season she discovers she’s pregnant with triplets. Mindy Lahiri finally snags her hunky doctor boyfriend and announces her intention to have nine girls (one child isn’t enough of a challenge for these modern superwomen). Even Cathy, the Mitochondrial Eve of single spazdom, winds up married with a baby on the way when her comic concludes. For as much as this trifecta of career, marriage and motherhood reflects female empowerment, it’s also presented as a cure-all for the characters’ anxiety, just as the mushrooms might’ve been for Katie.
But O’Malley doesn’t let her off quite so easily. The end of his novel is more nuanced than its TV counterparts. She gets the guy and her hit new restaurant, and they cruise off in a convertible into a rom-com sunset, Katie’s hedgehog spikes blowing in the wind. With his signature self-reflexivity, O’Malley deflates the fairy tale. Katie interrupts the narrator’s tidy wrap-up, snarking, “Oh, stop. We get it.” She still talks to herself and throws temper tantrums, plus her restaurant opens late and way over budget. She can have it all, but none of it will be perfect. Accepting that fact is the real triumph. O’Malley’s modern working woman lives happily, imperfectly ever after.
By Bryan Lee O’Malley