A chat with the idiosyncratic talent.
Graham Kibble-White meets Paul B. Rainey, the idiosyncratic, articulate talent behind There’s No Time Like The Present
This year Paul B. Rainey turns 50. “I’m part-time in my current job,” he tells Comic Heroes. “It’s Monday till Wednesday lunchtime – then that’s it, it’s over.” The rest of the week he’s dedicating to creating comics. After a fashion. “I find I get up on a Thursday and I go, ‘I’ll just potter a bit. I’ll see who’s on The Wright Stuff...’ I don’t really get going until the afternoon.”
That work-work balance (“real” work vs comics) is indicative of many creators, it’s just that few of them will admit to the day-job, propagating the myth there’s money in the industry. “Well, there is,” reasons Rainey. “But Mark Millar’s got it all.”
After school, Rainey failed to get into art college (“The night before my interview, I realised I didn’t have a portfolio, so I borrowed my sister’s
Smash Hits and did all these pencil drawings of Howard Jones”), and he has worked in an insurer’s office, behind the till at Forbidden Planet, as a porter in a department store, in a photographic studio, at the Abbey National (two stints: first time around, he engineered his own firing – which is another story), and currently he’s in that equitable arrangement with the Open University.
None of this diminishes Rainey’s achievements. He’s been on the comics scene for 25 years, with his own quirky releases (from slice of life to hard sci-fi), a continuing body of work that includes his graphic novel There’s No Time Like The
Present, and his current ongoing strip in Aces Weekly, Why Don’t You Love Me? “This will sound a bit pretentious, but one of the things about being a man is you need to have a sense of humour regarding your expectations. As a kid, you’re saying, ‘I’m going to be a successful comic writer.’ And the reality is, life is not what you thought it was. But you need to find that funny. If you feel inferior and inadequate because of it, that results in arsehole behaviour.” Does this mean he’s accepted there’s no point giving himself a hard time about the fact his comics haven’t led to Hollywood options? “Oh no. I still get livid about it. Sometimes I pace the flat, ranting at the
walls. But... I’m still a comic creator. It’s just not my living. That doesn’t invalidate it.” A pause, and then: “Although I do often think, if I hadn’t discovered comics I might have had a successful career somewhere else.”
Paul B. Rainey (he embraced the inclusion of his middle initial when the “pea brain” possibilities were pointed out to him) entered British fandom in the 1980s, reading zines and attending conventions. Taking inspiration from Dave Sim’s epic achievement in selfpublishing, Cerebus, he launched his own title in 1995, superhero satire Memory
Man. “My friend knew a printer and I got 200 copies done for £200.”
All started well when Diamond Distributors agreed to carry the title. “I was convinced I was going to make a living out of it,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I just need to sell X-amount saying, ‘We don’t want to carry it anymore’. I was devastated.”
Although Rainey gave up on his hopes for a comic career, he continued to be a fan and took notice in 2001, when Phil Hall (“He used to be the assistant editor of
Comics International”) put together PDF magazine Borderline “with people he’d met on message boards”. Another failed, if valiant, attempt to monetise independent comics, it nonetheless brought Rainey back into the fold. “I drew strips for it, taking the piss out of mainstream comics and creators. It was a bit mean-spirited if I’m truthful, and I’m not proud of a lot of that stuff. But I thought, ‘I’m never going to make it, so I don’t have to be nice.’”
What’s more, “the characters who went on to be in There’s No Time Like The Present made their formative appearances there,
of copies’, and I’d calculated that was something like 2,000. Brilliant! What I got were orders of 150 at the most. And then, as you know, in the direct comics market, sales tail off for each subsequent issue. By the end, it was about 110, but because of the way printing worked I had to get at least 500 done for the unit price. I was haemorrhaging money, so I decided to stop and learn from my experience. Hopefully.” His next venture, anthology title Love Bomb, debuted in 1997 and felt of a piece with indie darlings Eightball and Hate. “The orders were just under 400. But issue 2’s dropped, and I was still out of pocket. Then I got contacted by Diamond I’m a comic creator. It’s just not my living. That doesn’t invalidate it
because I came up with this story about comic readers who were in their 80s. At that time, we were all in our 30s and I felt it was absurd we were still into this stuff. This was my attempt at satire.”
Even though Borderline ceased publication in 2004, it reinvigorated Rainey, who realised that despite resistance to paying for material on the web, it was an effective way to get his stuff out there. “That’s where my modern era of work started,” he says.
“I had a regular job, 35 hours a week, so the pragmatic reality was, I could commit to drawing one panel a day.” Which is what he did, publishing online, documenting different aspects of his life. It seemed to work. “I realised people remembered Memory Man, and I was considered part of a small press scene. There was a lot of goodwill and support, which was lovely.
“Over a period of a year or so, I started to see the stats going up. That was cool. Then I compiled a lot of panels together into a 16-page zine – completely self-assembled – and went to events and sold more of them than I was expecting. Whereas with Memory Man I was thinking I was going to be quitting my day job, with this I was just seeing how it went. I’ve taken that approach ever since, and I’ve rarely been disappointed.”
In 2009, Rainey turned this work into the 112-page Book Of Lists, a funny and delightfully blunt series of snapshots, in which he grouped similar-themed panels
to produce one or two-page strips under headings such as Disappointments,
Inappropriate Things I’ve Said and Note to Self – Stop Acting Gay. “I’m fortunate Milton Keynes has a pretty good arts association called Arts Gateway MK, who gave me funding to publish the book. So, I had 100 copies printed, and then when they sold, I did another 100.”
Aside from discovering a publishing model that worked, Rainey was coming into his own creatively. Book Of Lists is infused with a very singular, very British voice: neurotic, wringing drama out of trivialities, caustic but not unkind – and accessible. Enthused, he took a year’s sabbatical and embarked on his biggest work to date. There’s No Time Like The Present is an intense work that reads like it’s from the pressure cooker of Rainey’s creative life. “It’s an amalgamation of things I’ve been thinking about for years. The advantage of a day job and not having time to draw is I don’t get the opportunity to execute all
They will never be happy, never achieve anything. That is their life
the ideas I have. It means I don’t hoard them when I do get the chance.”
One element of the story is the fractious friendship shared by three comic fans. “For a long time, I had an idea for a strip about a group of nerds, which I guess is like The Big Bang Theory, but it predates that.” There’s also a time-travel strand, tourists travelling via receivers and transmitters until legislation is brought in to shut down the practice, an echo, admits Rainey, of the UK’s then simmering uncertainties about Europe. Accompanying that new technology is the “ultranet”, wherein it’s possible to access information from the future. Rainey’s characters use it in a brilliantly facile fashion – to download upcoming episodes of Emmerdale and Doctor Who.
50 years later...
But the most arresting, and disruptive, aspect of the narrative is the way it jumps forward half-a-century partway through the book, rejoining the trio in their final years. “That was so exciting to me, because when I was drawing it and selfpublishing (it was originally serialised over 13 issues), I knew this was going to happen, and I thought, ‘It’s going to blow everyone’s minds!’” says Paul, before deadpanning, “although It didn’t seem to at the time.”
In depicting the three in their dotage, squabbling over inconsequentialities, Rainey says, “I wanted to tell the reader, ‘They’re never going to be happy – they will not achieve anything. That is their life’.” A death among them leads to a coda, which involves resurrection and a hard-sci-fi jaunt across the far-future, all inspired, says Rainey, “by either something I’d heard late night on Radio 4, or read in the Guardian, about science proving the existence of God.
“All of these things had been separate ideas, which somehow I melded into a single narrative”.
Having completed his run, Rainey hoped to approach a publisher about collecting it as a graphic novel. “But I didn’t know how, so I contacted a handful of people who’d had stuff published, looking for advice.” One of those was Paul Gravett, founder of Escape magazine, who told him he’d love to run it in the Escape Books range. “I just went, ‘Yeah, all right then’,” laughs Rainey.
For the collected version, released in 2015, he was asked to add grey tones to the art, and there was also a discussion about removing one character’s use of the c-word (ultimately it stayed in). The finished volume, designed by Peter Stanbury, is beautiful; surely a validation of everything Rainey had hoped to achieve creatively? “There was about three years between me signing the contract with Escape and them publishing the book, and I’ve no doubt the process deadened the emotional response for me when I eventually saw the result. It was a good job too, given that I was overwhelmed. Without that, I think my heart would have burst. But I don’t want it to be my only book”.
His next serial, Thunder Brother: Soap Division, was a wildly imaginative and amusing fantasy in which soap operas play out for real in alternative universes, but represented something of a cul-de-sac, and fittingly the series stalled at issue 6 with a cliff-hanger set in a parody of Brookside Close. Rainey reckons, “I lived with the idea for too long, and it kind of passed its striking point. If I was doing it in the 1990s, it might have had a cultural relevance. But not now.”
While working on his own projects, Rainey had also been submitting cartoons to Viz comic. For a very long time. “Around 2013, after 27 years of sending them stuff, they went, ‘Yeah, we’ll have this’. I then had a run of about 12 months where I had something in pretty much every issue. I’ve not been so lucky the last couple of years...”
His breakthrough was 14-Year-Old Stand-Up Comedian, a nuanced observational strip that seems unlike usual Viz fare. Rainey agrees. “I’ve found that when I’ve consciously tried to do
Viz- type strips, they’re the ones they tend to reject. They respond more positively to the ones where I’m amusing myself.” Some of his Viz work – plus other short strips – can be found in his selfpublished Pope Francis Goes To The Dentist and Tales to Diminish.
But right now, he’s spending the latter half of every week on Why Don’t You Love Me?, serialised in the digital anthology Aces Weekly. “It’s going to run for 210 pages,” says Rainey, who hopes it will also appear in book form. Describing it as the “antidote to Peanuts”, he tells it from an adult’s point of view, children’s heads occasionally jutting into the bottom of panels. The plot follows Mark and Claire, who are uninterested in the business of being parents to Charley and Sally, and unengaged by each other too. It’s styled like a Sunday newspaper strip, and Rainey says he’s been told not to use any “category A” swearwords. “I’m okay with that, it becomes a challenge – I’ve just got to find a more creative way to express that this character wants the room to himself so he can masturbate.”
Not bad people, really
“Also, because it’s about negligent parents – or it seems to be – I felt the language restriction was helpful. I don’t think adults would normally swear in front of kids, unless they’re utterly obnoxious and cruel. I wanted these two to kind of be like, ‘That could be me or one of my friends’. They’re not bad people... It’s supposed to be ambiguous.”
“The thing is, when you’re a kid, you think all adults are part of some conspiracy. As an adult, you realise that no-one has any idea what they’re doing, particularly how to manage kids. That’s all it is. It’s the idea that if I became a parent, I would find it a bloody nightmare. I would enjoy it, and it would probably be the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done... but I’d want the evenings free.”
Just as in There’s No Time..., Rainey promises there will be a huge break in the narrative partway through. “It’s going to be pretty bleak, but it’s not joyless. Life is full of humour. There are things these characters could do to improve their situation, if they chose to behave differently. They are a bit narcissistic and self-absorbed. Not everything is beyond their control. I dunno... I’m rambling. You can tell I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”
Maybe it’s that depth of thought that means, despite its esoteric concepts, Rainey’s work has always been accessible, an easy read. “Comics used to have mass appeal, and I think it would be great if I could do something in that spirit,” he explains. But that’s not his sole inspiration – he also cites the episodes of Coronation Street he would watch as a kid. “When someone left the soap back then, they moved out of the street, and it was an indication they’d been successful in some way, because living there meant failure. When Elsie Tanner went off with her American boyfriend, that was her happy ending. The rest of us? We were trapped in Weatherfield, not being able to pay our bills and with people saying mean things behind our backs.”
Trapped, but in some cases cheerfully so. “My boss at the Open University, who has approved my (I think it’s) ‘agile working’, has said, ‘Yes, you should concentrate on your comics; brilliant’,” chuckles Rainey. “But I don’t expect to make any money. I’ll be back full time next year.”
It’s pretty bleak, but it’s not joyless. Life is full of humour
This page: Mr. Hur is sometimes known in France as “the Korean Tezuka”, thanks in part to his Hammer Boy, translated soon after it appeared in 1990.
The man himself. Paul B. Rainey, as photographed by Graham Kibble-White.
There’s No Time... was a real labour of love, taking seven years to complete. Love Bomb was an anthology set in the world of Memory Man but not featuring him.
... Time travel exists. And yet, it doesn’t seem to have solved real-life problems...
There’s No Time features ordinary characters in an everyday world, with just one difference...
Bad parenting with a quirky, off-kilter and very British perspective.
Just as you suspected, all the soaps take place on specially constructed parallel worlds. Actually, Book Of Lists was a collection of Rainey’s online “diary” strips. Rainey calls his ’90s book
Memory Man his “postmodern superhero comic”.
Like much of Rainey’s work, a bit absurdist but thoroughly grounded in the ordinary. Rainey plays an amazing number of variations on the theme of teeth and the Pope.