Film

‘Seconds’ Gives Comic Books The Strong Female Lead Character You’ve Been Waiting For

We need more protagonists who aren't straight young white dudes.

Someone should make a movie out of Seconds. Not because it’s Bryan Lee O’Malley’s follow-up graphic novel to his Scott Pilgrim series, which was afforded its own big screen rendition, and not because it’s very good, though it is both of those things. It deserves a movie because it has at its centre a funny, complex, compelling female lead, and while that’s becoming an increasingly present commodity in the realm of comics (certainly now that Thor is one too), in cinema, not so much.

While reading Seconds, my film-attuned lizard brain couldn’t help but try to cast an actress in the part of perpetually-dissatisfied 29-year-old chef Katie, whose shock of messy red hair hides a finicky compulsion for perfection in her food, her relationships, and her universe: Brie Larson? Emma Stone? Natasha Lyonne? A parallel universe Jenny Lewis, before she gave up acting to be in Rilo Kiley? Australia’s own Sarah Snook? (Actually, call off the search; that last one would be a cinch.)

katie

How wonderful it would be to see any of them play Katie; a woman who gets all the best lines, is both protagonist and antagonist, has a key role in the final “battle” and passes both the Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori Test (the latter invented when people were trying to convince themselves that Pacific Rim was somehow important when it was just fine). And yet, even if it never gets a live-action retelling, Seconds is undeniably worthwhile; a weirdly poignant, anime-inspired parable about pushing the cusp of adulthood further and further away.

The Importance Of Characters That Look Like Us

The title is taken from Katie’s first restaurant, which, despite having the reputation of being the best in town, isn’t truly hers. About to move on to bigger and better things – once her new eatery across town, Katie‘s, is finished – she continues to haunt her old stomping ground, taking credit, sleeping with her replacement cook, and indirectly causing shy, superstitious, raven-haired waitress Hazel to suffer a horrible oil burn (there’s a great role for someone there too).

That’s when Katie first meets the building’s mystical, irascible ‘house spirit’ and is offered the opportunity to go back in time to fix her blunder. All she’s got to do is write down her mistake, eat the spirit’s special mushroom, go to sleep, and “wake anew”. It works a treat — but when Katie uncovers a whole slew of mushrooms beneath the floorboards, she breaks the spirit’s ‘one and done’ rule to rectify all her regrets, no matter how minor, or massive.

When I was a 19-year-old reading the Scott Pilgrim comics, I found myself intensely drawn in by its protagonist, a perpetual fuck-up whose entire emotional journey was to learn how not to be such a jerk all the time. It’s closest comparison, oddly, is the dearly departed HBO show Enlightened, in which Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe tried to convince herself that she could be a positive “agent of change” in the world and in her family’s life, despite all those selfish internal impulses pushing her in the opposite direction.

Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World adaptation is actually pretty impressive, though it’s not a patch on the comic series, mostly because it reduces its strongest female character, Kim Pine, to an afterthought. Poor Alison Pill plays Pine in the flick, and if only they had kept her character as central in the film, we’d all be remembering her for that role, rather than simply for being the worst thing about The Newsroom. I mean, think about that. The worst thing in veritable ‘bad thing’ factory The Newsroom.

O’Malley course-corrects with Seconds by putting the engaging ‘Kim Pine’ type front and centre. In short, O’Malley gives us a female Scott Pilgrim. But what does it mean, ‘a female Scott Pilgrim’? It’s almost an unfair thing to say of Katie, this other, whole entity. It’s not like Scott Pilgrim was necessarily the bastion of fully-rounded characterisation, for all women to wish they could have as richly-drawn a counterpart.

A Matter Of The Medium

That said, the epic imbalance between male and female characters for people to identify with and idolise can’t be denied. Nor can I deny that the experience of being a guy in my late teens reading the story of Scott Pilgrim might have been more profound for me than, say, my own girlfriend (regardless of the fact that, as I near the tail-end of my twenties, I recognise more of myself in Katie than I do in Scott). The importance of seeing yourself on-screen, on the page, as the hero, is something I as a straight white male am acutely familiar with, and that is not the case for many — too many — others.

American actress Keri Russell is a perfect example of how cinema is lagging behind other mediums in the Bechdel stakes. On television, Russell does all kinds of fascinating, Soviet double-agent kinds of things. In cinema, she is only allowed to spur Jason Clarke on to become a hero and babysit his kid while he goes to aid the ape rebellion. Even some of the year’s most acclaimed features — The Lego Movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Boyhood — relegate the girls to cheering on the sidelines while the boys discover their true potential.

A recent Inside Amy Schumer sketch saw Amy play her boyfriend’s Call of Duty-esque videogame, select the female character, and discover how she’s not even allowed to leave the army barracks — to say nothing of her avatar then being raped by a superior and encouraged not to report it. That brilliant vignette speaks to the larger issue, and one that Seconds addresses head on. So often, women aren’t allowed to play the game.

Casting Call: Put Women Front And Centre

In Seconds, Katie creates, discovers, and unravels the game; she gets to fight, learn, evolve. She gets to play. She’s imperfect, sure. That’s more than can be said of any of the female characters in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, one of whom is a mute ape played by Judy Greer, the patron saint of wasted female talent. Once upon a time she could have played Katie too. She could have done a lot of things, had someone, somewhere, given her the chance.

Seconds ain’t perfect. The ending is a little awkward, relying on Katie finding bliss with her one-dimensionally drawn ex-boyfriend (the irony!) after spending so much time insisting that she isn’t necessarily looking for an equal at this time in her life, but rather, to make herself and her career a priority. However, for much of its 336 pages, the beautifully-illustrated, all-colour Seconds is a ravishing meal with something real to say. Seconds has not received the rapturous reception Scott Pilgrim did, though that first comic, ten years old next month, also took its time to build a rapturous following, and here’s hoping O’Malley won’t have to wait as long for his latest effort. With any luck, Larson or Stone or Snook won’t have to wait long for their call either.

Seconds is now available wherever they sell comics.

Simon Miraudo is Quickflix’s AFCA award-winning news editor and film critic. He is also co-host of The Podcasting Couch and tweets @simonmiraudo