Many people who have been around the UK small press scene for decades rather than years have a version of the same anecdote; of how when they first discovered small press sections in comic shops the offering was 80% Paul B. Rainey comics. A prolific cartoonist, with an astonishing back catalogue of work, Rainey is arguably best known for his long-running self-published comic There’s No Time Like the Present, collected by Escape Books in 2016. This year Why Don’t You Love Me?, originally serialised in the digital comics package Aces Weekly and collected by Drawn & Quarterly, has propelled the artist onto a far wider international stage and been met with widespread acclaim. It’s about time. But more on that later…
Why Don’t You Love Me? introduces us to a ready-made mystery full of maudlin domesticity and existential gloom. Claire and Mark are a married couple with two kids, Sally and Charley… or is it Tommy? Claire spends her days drinking and sleeping on the couch while Mark struggles to get the children to school and to avoid going back to his IT job which it appears he knows absolutely nothing about. The pair are indifferent and ill at ease with their existences, with an underlying tension suggesting that things just shouldn’t be like this. Are they simply suffering from the ennui of modern living or is there something more profoundly strange gnawing away at the edges of their reality?
The first thing to note about Why Don’t You Love Me? is that it’s a very difficult book to review given its entire premise depends upon the reader having the narrative rug pulled swiftly and dexterously from under their feet on not just one occasion but multiple times. Initially we accept the weird internal logic of each strip (each landscape, 11-panel page is a discrete entity in itself) and much of the humour/drama comes from the reader unquestioningly embracing the off-centre stet-up of the comics. When those twists do come, though, they immediately invite us to stop reading and go back to observe events again within the different context that has been revealed.
For the committed Rainey fan there are faint echoes of past work here, particularly if you remember his Thunder Brother: Soap Division series. Given the long establishing build-up the reader could be forgiven for imagining eventual explanations will be disappointing and anti-climactic. But that simply isn’t the case. Rainey pulls off the ultimate moment(s) of clarity with elan, in the process explaining why Why Don’t You Love Me?, a graphic novel that feels nihilistic and misanthropic for much of its page count is actually replete with sheer humanity, albeit through a dark and bleak presentational filter.
As ever from a Rainey offering the pacing here is outstanding, whether that be in the approach to a punchline (of sorts) in each individual strip or the overarching structure of the story. His cartooning is stripped back to the essentials to ensure our focus and connection is on/with the emotional interactions of the characters, and his use of light and shadow highly atmospheric throughout.
While Why Don’t You Love Me? has received hugely positive reviews this year the one sobering aspect to its success is that this is exactly the kind of work Rainey has been producing for the UK indie market for decades now. We can only hope it’s the springboard for further publisher interest in this unique voice in British comics. Those wanting to know more about Rainey’s practice can read him talking more about his comics in this interview here at BF earlier this year.
Paul B. Rainey • Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95
Review by Andy Oliver