By Will Wellington
Last week, The Beguiling and Bryan Lee O’Malley celebrated the release of O’Malley’s new standalone graphic novel, Seconds, with an event at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Sequential dispatched Summer Intern Will Wellington to report on the occasion.
You are about to begin reading Bryan Lee O’Malley’s new graphic novel, Seconds. You demonstrate no particular reverence for this activity. You perform none of the preparatory rituals that you might if you were about to read another volume. You do not close the door or turn off your phone. Evidently, the task at hand requires neither silence nor solitude. In fact, you welcome distraction. Find a crowded café. Order a drink. Turn up the music. After all, it is only as an assignment that you read this book, only as a form of research. You occupy the position of Summer Intern for a small Canadian comics blog and you have volunteered to cover the Seconds launch party hosted by The Beguiling at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto. These pages contain nothing more than contextual material to inform your treatment of the story, grist for the journalist’s mill. You are hardly going to read Seconds at all. You will instead excavate these pages for your own purposes, refining what veins of significance you find into twenty-four-carat comics coverage.
Still, you confess to experiencing a minor thrill at the prospect of cracking the book’s spine for the first time. Despite your sophisticated, efficient, results-oriented approach to reading, which you expect to bear fruit almost immediately, you feel a faint shiver of anticipation, as if this book might possess the magic that all books did when you were young. Go ahead, then. Indulge. Open the book. Test the heft of the pages and appreciate their virgin sheen. Inhale the aroma of clean paper. Linger for but a moment over the title page and then flip, not with haste, but with determination, to the story itself.
You halt, shocked into stasis by an unforeseen obstruction. What is this barrier standing between you and the text you intend, indeed crave, to consume and exploit? A single page confronts you, foists upon you two passages, excerpts, epigraphs, which squat like gnomic, poker-faced sumo wrestlers on a plane of pure white. The second interests you not. In fact, only moments after glancing at it, you realize you cannot remember a word of it or its author. Evidently, it was of no importance. The first, however, catches you in its embrace, encircles you, clasps you tight. The words themselves carry no particular significance or none that you can immediately parse. Rather, it is the name to which they are pinned that captures your fancy: Italo Calvino. You think of this Calvino with affection, as if fondly recalling the memory of an old friend. Where have you heard his name? Perhaps in a passing remark made by a local literary figure. What do you know of him? Absolutely nothing. Not his nationality. Not his age or the nature of his work. Only that he is, in some sense, important. Historically. Literarily. And, now, as part of the essential contextual research for your piece on Seconds. “I must read this Calvino,” you think. “Whatever I find, I am sure it will prove instrumental to my dissection—yes, dissection is not too strong a word—of Seconds.” You purchase his book If on a winter’s night a traveler. You sit down. Relax. Concentrate. Let the world around you fade.
Stop. Rein in this imprudent restlessness. It appears your appetite for distraction knows no bounds. Remember your assignment. Read Seconds. Cobble the torrent of unschooled responses within you into critical insights both intuitive and novel. Achieve your goals. Blossom as an individual. You are, after all, the Sequential Summer Intern. A writer. A journalist. A critic. No more dilly-dallying. No more procrastination. The task entrusted to you is both monumental and minute, calling for immense strength and exacting precision. You had best confront it.
You are about to begin reading Bryan Lee O’Malley’s new graphic novel, Seconds. But now the immensity of the task you are contracted to achieve clouds the illustrations and wraps the text in an intimidating, translucent shroud, through which you make out signs recognizable and familiar only by enormous effort. Your eyes glide over the page as skaters glide across a frozen pond. You sense that much life teems below the frigid surface, but it feels so slippery and so cold. Zipping across the panels, you quickly finish the book without comprehending a single page. You still have not really begun reading Bryan Lee O’Malley’s new book. Frustrated, you put it aside. Evidently, some fatal flaw exists in it, preventing the ordinarily effortless transmission between reader and read.
It is as if the book were an exclusive restaurant, which you enter, thinking both that you will remain aloof from its enchantments and that you will permit yourself a small measure of abandon, only to find that the restaurant is full and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Chastened and discouraged, you remember another moment not at all like this one, when, one night last summer, you entered Lee’s Palace for the first time. The bouncer checked your bag and ID. You squeezed past the crowd and through a long corridor, a dark canal from which you emerged, reborn, into a new world. “I am in Scott Pilgrim,” you thought. The sound of We Are Scientists rolled over you, and you thought, “I am in Scott Pilgrim.” It is this, perhaps, that you are missing now. This sense that you do, or could, inhabit the story, that its world and yours blur in sudden, revelatory moments, like the one you experienced that night at Lee’s Palace. You try to live in Seconds as in a house, as in a city, but you do not or cannot. “Mr. O’Malley has lost something in this new book,” you think, already composing the opening sentences of your article. “He left his city behind and in doing so abandoned his magic.” You recognize, however, with a sinking sensation, that perhaps this explanation only attracts you because it allows you to project your own inabilities onto the author. Perhaps Seconds is a remarkable and mature achievement that you cannot appreciate because of your stunted emotional development. Or maybe you are now too old and out of touch to get the eternally youthful Bryan Lee O’Malley.
You shelve these dreary thoughts and you shelve Seconds for the time being. You board a bus to Toronto. Now, you may put these unpleasant deliberations behind you, as the real work begins. Your destination is, first, The Beguiling, where you hope to speak to the manager, Christopher Butcher, a former roommate of Bryan Lee O’Malley. Or the owner, Peter Birkemoe. Really, you will settle for just about anyone with anything to say about Mr. O’Malley or his work. Your skills as a writer will enable you to forge whatever raw material you unearth into something recognizable of at least moderate value. You comfort yourself by reflecting, leisurely, on past triumphs. You consider preparing an itemized plan or developing some questions, but decide against it, banking instead on your wit and charisma. As the bus winds between high rises and approaches downtown, Toronto settles upon you like a thin, cool, comforting blanket. You disembark and inhale the air of the city, to which you feel an abstract connection. Settling yourself on the subway, it occurs to you that although your current residence in Guelph may suggest to some that you are a mere provincial, practically a bumpkin, you have the soul of a cosmopolitan urbanite. You look at your fellow subway travelers of so many different sizes, shapes, colours, types, tones, and textures, and know that your hearts beat as one.
You soon stand before The Beguiling, purveyor of comics and art. “Mecca,” you think, “I have come.” You prepare yourself for an imminent blast of euphoric epiphany and enter. Nothing. You poke around. To your dismay, you discover that The Beguiling is simply a comic book store. Perhaps an exceptional one, but you can’t really tell. Instead of provoking a spiritual shift within you, it dares you to acknowledge your own ignorance. The shelves bursting with volumes of all varieties remind you how little you know about comics, how little indeed you actually read comics. Now is the time for you to get to work. What is wrong? Suddenly, you appear hesitant, timid, withdrawn. Your skin flushes. Are you claustrophobic? No, your throat is simply parched. That is all that is wrong. If only you could have a glass of water, all would be right once more. And yet your palms, clutched about your digital voice recorder, seep perspiration. How are your hands so wet while your throat is so dry?
There he is. You recognize him immediately. Peter, the owner. The man whom you must interview—nay, interrogate—to extract the truth about Bryan Lee O’Malley. This is it. You hover by the counter and he glances at you, but at the last second you swerve and duck between the shelves. Why did you do that? Engage his attention now, while there are no customers. You decide you will look at one book and then conduct your interview. Indeed, this seems a reasonable and commendable compromise. You pull a comic by Joe Matt from the shelves and begin to read, laughing nervously. You read page after page. Finally, you steel yourself to perform your duty as Sequential Summer Intern, swelling with purpose, and glance at your phone for the time. Eight o’clock! My God! Have you really been reading for an hour? Now you have only half an hour to conduct your interview before you must find your way to the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema for the event. Cursing silently, you turn to the counter, thinking that you will at least collect a soundbite, but just then a tide of customers floods the store. Peter is busy. You must wait even longer.
Finally, he is available. You plant yourself squarely before the counter. He looks at you. “My name is Will Wellington,” you declare. But why did you declare it in that manner? And why are you now adopting a folksy, ingratiating tone that bespeaks your provinciality, your fraudulence? It is impossible after that introduction that this man carries a shred of respect for you, but you press on, reaching desperately for your credentials, the title that will grant you access to the hearts and minds of the Toronto comics elite. “I’m the Sequential Summer Intern,” you blurt.
Peter thinks about this for a moment and all is lost. You shatter, you man of glass, cracked by a half-second’s hesitation. But had you really expected that it would be so easy? That at the name “Sequential” knowing looks would be exchanged, concealed doors slid open to reveal, in a tangled wreathe of cool mist, men in slick suits and women in sequin cocktail dresses and Bryan Lee O’Malley himself welcoming you with a glass of champagne in one outstretched hand and a tender expression reserved only for dear acquaintances? Peter shakes your hand. You exchange a few pleasantries, reeling all the while, and then, when the time comes to cast your line and ask your question, any question, you freeze, staring vacantly past him at the wall. You are a tall building tipping slowly in the early moments of collapse. In a moment, you will sprawl on the floor and someone will shout, “Jenga!” Your blush intensely. You turn away. This turning proceeds in slow motion. You turn, and turn, and turn. As you turn, you contemplate destiny. Your life flashes before your clouded vision. You black out momentarily and then find yourself once again burying your nose in a comic by Joe Matt. “There is still time,” you think, reading furiously without absorbing anything, but of course there is no time. If and only if you act immediately, then maybe. But you dart your head out from behind the shelf and Peter is nowhere to be seen, having vanished into some antechamber or perhaps left for the event. Finally, you concede defeat. You blew it. Heave a sigh. Shrug your shoulders. Strangely relieved to have failed in this manner, you stumble out into the sunshine.
Although you have only a little time to kill, you begin to walk briskly East on Bloor, past Honest Ed’s, past the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, past Lee’s Palace. You think something vague about getting a tea or hot chocolate to calm your nerves. You pass a number of coffee shops, but enter none. You walk one block, two blocks, three blocks, four. What are you doing? Where are you going? You realize you don’t know. You thought that if you walked purposefully a purpose would present itself, but it has not. Now you are just walking, blindly, mechanically. Pick a coffee shop, for God’s sake! You wonder if you will ever be able to stop walking or if you will simply walk until you die.
You reverse direction and arrive at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema where an inconceivably long line wraps around the block. How did you fail to notice it when you passed by just minutes ago? Now, as you clutch your complimentary ticket at the end of the line, the time is right to get an interview with a few rabid fans, but everyone seems to be occupied. They are all playing Nintendo 3DS. You wish you brought your Nintendo 3DS. Unfortunately, you have nothing but a yellow legal pad from Staples on which you begin to scribble, only to find that all but one of your pens have run dry.
You seat yourself near the back of the cinema as an expression of your shame and a last ditch effort to secure a bit of critical distance. You consider ordering a beer. Perhaps that is your problem. You are too wound up. Too stiff. Too sober. You need to relax. You start to fixate on the possibility of ordering a beer. Perhaps, like an enchanted mushroom, it will allow you to erase, or at least redress, your mistakes. After much deliberation, you order a beer from the concession stand, hoping that it will awaken the wit that has been lying dormant within you all day. You drink your beer. Immediately, this proves to have been a mistake. The drink exacerbates your imbalance and blunts your fine motor skills. Your hand moves the pen across the page at an unbearable crawl. Your thoughts and feelings stall and nudge one another like bewildered cattle. And suddenly, without much fanfare, Bryan Lee O’Malley is on stage. There he is. In the flesh. He is human. He speaks like you speak and dresses unremarkably.
You do not recognize him. This cannot be him. Who is this man? Where is Bryan Lee O’Malley? Where is that vague and formless entity that lurks behind the panels of Scott Pilgrim and Lost at Sea?
Well, what now? Aren’t you going to write something to document this experience? What kind of intern are you? You clumsily scrawl incomprehensible fragments of this man’s speech. The gloom of the theatre conceals your legal pad so that for all you know you may simply be writing one line upon another and nothing you put down will be legible when the lights rise. You are making a hash of this.
There stands this man, this O’Malley, who is nothing like Scott Pilgrim, nothing like Katie Clay. He has no superpowers, no cauldron of magic mushrooms. What a disappointment! And yet, as you dribble your invisible notes on your invisible notepad and you reflect on your day, your failures, your shame, your pretensions and denials, your own habit of talking to yourself, you think, abruptly, forcefully, shockingly, “I am in Seconds.” “I am in Seconds,” you think, and perhaps it is only that the beer is making you sentimental, but the world of Bryan Lee O’Malley—where the enemy is always yourself, where triumph means facing your failures and fears—extends to envelop and cradle you as it did once before.
On the bus later that night, you open that thick, brightly-coloured volume again, pause to reread the passage from Italo Calvino, and then: Dispel every other thought. Concentrate. Relax. You are about to begin reading Bryan Lee O’Malley’s new graphic novel, Seconds.
:: When not busy being Sequential’s Summer Intern Will Wellington scoops ice cream, writes plays, & skulks around Guelph. ::