A COMICA FESTIVAL TIE-IN!
What if the fictional soap opera worlds that are beamed into our homes several times a week were anything but? What would happen if, instead, they all actually existed in a multiverse of other artificially grown Earths and the denizens of each were being secretly filmed for our everyday entertainment? And if that were the case then wouldn’t you also need some form of administrative operation to maintain the day-to-day programming needs, the recording logistics, and also to police the security of these alternative realities?
That’s the basic premise of Thunder Brother: Soap Division, the ongoing self-published series from UK small press mainstay Paul B. Rainey, creator of the acclaimed There’s No Time Like the Present, soon to be published in a collected edition from Escape Books. Keen observers may already be thinking of films like The Truman Show as being obvious parallels but Rainey is far too inventive a writer to ever be accused of mere pop cultural rehash. Thunder Brother: Soap Division is more a voyage of discovery for the reader through their on-page proxy Sally Timmins – a thirteen-year-old soap opera enthusiast who finds herself in the employ of Soap Division as a kind of apprentice to their titular operative Thunder Brother – as she and we together begin to learn the mysteries of these parallel Earths and their inhabitants.
Thunder Brother’s main role seems to be as a kind of pan-dimensional troubleshooter ensuring that there is no unwanted influence from the real world into the lives of the “fictional” ones. In this regard he has the ability to travel via Soap Division’s technology to the other worlds, removing contamination that may have seeped in from the real Earth and extracting residents of those worlds temporarily if they have been affected by it. As the storyline develops it becomes clear there is an outside force with an ulterior motive determined to disrupt Soap Division’s work. But who is the Library King, what is his connection to Thunder Brother and his colleagues, and why is he so determined to cause such consternation within the various soap-themed realms?
The first obvious observation about the six issues of this series is that they’re unlikely to travel that well outside of the UK. They’re replete with in-jokes that those without at least a passing knowledge of EastEnders, Coronation Street and Hollyoaks will fail to fully appreciate, from obvious analogues of characters like the Mitchell Brothers and Curly Watts to more continuity-conscious jibes at things like Eastenders’ Ian Beale’s notorious short-lived moustache. But if you are cognizant of some of the more iconic characters from popular British serial drama then Thunder Brother: Soap Division is an entertainingly playful fusion of DC multiversal chaos and contemporary kitchen sink drama.
Rainey is well aware of all the metafictional opportunities he can exploit here and goes to work on them with gusto. Imagine discovering a TV guide from another reality in your local newsagent and suddenly realising that your every problem exists only to entertain an unseen audience for example? Or consider what would happen if a group of foul-mouthed students suddenly arrived in a world similar to Eastenders – the only place in all of London where no one has ever heard of the word “f*ck” – and discovered that swearing was a superpower there? And if the characters on our TV screens are actually living on another duplicate planet then just who are the actors who play them in our reality…?
To a certain extent the audience is perhaps expected to accept a certain amount of dramatic license as far as the foundational reason of Rainey’s world is concerned. Yet despite having to turn a blind eye to occasional moments of strained internal logic there’s something rather clever and appealing about the meta elements of Thunder Brother: Soap Division’s fictional reality. This is in no small part due to his use of Sally as our entry point into the mysteries of the comic. Rainey has a good ear for realistic teenage dialogue and ably pulls the reader into her sense of captivated awe and wide-eyed wonder as she uncovers the inner workings of Soap Division. Conversely, the enigmatic Thunder Brother remains an intriguing mystery…
Rainey’s art is crisp and clear throughout with a concentration on accessible storytelling rather than ostentatious visual tricks. Most issues provide a complete tale within the Thunder Brother universe but there are also a number of unrelated back-up stories in the book which act as mini-pilots for concepts or like running gag sketches. Of those it’s Ghost Zombie that has probably the most promise with its bizarre sitcom style set-up of a ghost sharing his home with his zombie body. But the Doctor Who-themed daytime TV confessional show Doctor Kyle makes for some amusing pop cultural references and the Rainey/ILYA Graphic Sonnets collaboration in #5 will whet your appetite for seeing more of Shakespeare’s verse in comics form. We can only hope that ILYA’s plans for this project eventually come to fruition.
While it does perhaps re-engage with certain elements from similar hybrid reality TV/sci-fi combinations Thunder Brother: Soap Division retains its own identity and remains an absorbing read because of three main factors: an appealing and sympathetic protagonist, Rainey’s gradual reality-building as the mysteries of his universe are slowly revealed, and those constant soap opera in-joke nods to the audience. In Thunder Brother: Soap Division Paul B. Rainey shows himself to be a true craftsman of the comics narrative, affectionately sending up the history of the genre he is satirising to sly effect but always doing so with a knowing and amiable wink at the reader.
Paul B. Rainey will be discussing There’s No Time Like the Present on the Cult Comics Comica Conversation panel (in association with Broken Frontier) on November 7th. For booking details visit the Comica site here.
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