This debut graphic novel by cartoonist Paul B. Rainey, winner of The Guardian’s Short Story Prize, is not for the faint of heart, the broken-hearted or deeply depressed reader. Why Don’t You Love Me? (Drawn & Quarterly) is a comic-tragedy about marriage, divorce, alcoholism, depression and loss, a terrifying yet hilarious alternate reality where a suburban couple struggles to stay together and ends up neglecting themselves, each other, as well as their increasingly troubled children. And then comes the twist.
The end makes the unrelenting despair of the first half worth reading. An unexpected sci-fi turn moves Why Don’t You Love Me? from a simple story about suburban dissatisfaction to another realm. That’s it for the any spoilers. Movingly insightful and brave, Rainey’s writing is engrossing. The drawing style suits the story, but don’t be misled by its matter-of-fact sketchiness. There’s a lot to digest and a lot to look forward to.
I asked Rainey to talk a bit about the book and its relation to his life, without giving anything away.
How long have you been working on Why Don’t You Love Me?
I think I started drawing it late 2014 or early 2015, and I finished January 2021. Because I found it quite an intense story to tell, I took short breaks from it every now and then to draw fun things like strips for Viz. So, that’s six years in the main.
It truly represents an aspect of our collective psyche and mania. Is this autobiography, observation or something else, perhaps darker?
I suppose Why Don’t You Love Me? is more observational than biographical. For example, the social networking that takes place between parents at the school gate is something I’ve observed more than experienced. The conceit that the story fell out of probably works partly because I was willing to utilize emotions I’ve felt even if I haven’t necessarily shared the experiences that triggered them in the characters.
What is your message? Is it cautionary? Is it wish-fulfillment? Is it you saying “don’t go down that rabbit hole”?
I would rather not say, at least not until more people have had a chance to read the book, and I’ve had more time to decide what my answer is.
There is a decided cinematic quality to this (e.g., Revolutionary Road). What indeed is your inspiration?
In the day job I had in 2008, my role had changed into something especially boring. I was taken to a room, sat in a chair and told to stare at a big monitor on the wall. If any of the processes registering on the screen spiked, I was to phone a number and let someone know. Obviously, this was very boring, and I filled my time daydreaming about how I wanted to draw a daily comic strip. I had been reading a lot of Peanuts collections around then. My idea was to tell the story of Charlie Brown’s parents going through a difficult divorce. I thought if I could pull it off, it might explain why Schulz made Charlie Brown the way he did.
Of course, because of having to earn a living staring intensely at a screen on the wall, I didn’t have time to draw a daily strip, but I thought I could manage a Sunday episode. When, eventually, I was moved out of that room to a more satisfying role, I realized I couldn’t really tell the story I originally intended to because it would have meant me harvesting the experiences of close friends for it. But there was a lot of format stuff, narrative ideas I had during that period that I held onto until starting Why Don’t You Love Me?
Do you ever say to yourself, “I’m going to resolve all this”? After all, you are living the strip every day. It must take its toll?
With Why Don’t You Love Me?, I wrote and drew a page at a time, not always knowing what I was going to do next. It felt like seat-of-your-pants writing. Especially as I had decided at the beginning it was going to be 210 pages long. I like to set myself new boundaries, new ways of working whenever I begin a new project. Anyway, it feels like that method really worked for it. Of course, it helps knowing the characters and understanding what’s going on from the beginning, even if I’m not telling the reader.
Do you do other stories or serials or art that is not the strip?
I’ve written, drawn and self-published my own comics for, well, decades. Just recently, I made comics called A New Canon, Gripe Night, Journey Into Indignity and Starman. I’m a semi-regular contributor to Viz Comic. And I won the Observer/Jonathan Cape/Comica Graphic Short Story Prize in 2020 with my strip Similar To, But Not, the story of my chance encounter with Madonna in my local pub in 1985.
All these things happened alongside me working on Why Don’t You Love Me? Just before the pandemic, I started reading short stories I write out at local open mic nights and enjoy that very much.
How much longer will you pursue this theme?
For as long as I can find someone who will publish it.