by Paul B Rainey
I used to read Paul Rainey’s Memory Man comic way, way back in the day when we ran a thriving small press section at Nostalgia & Comics. It sat well with the other great self published books of the day – this was around the time Paul Grist’s Kane, Gary Spencer Millidge’s Strangehaven and many more great British self published works that were coming through. Memory Man was an excellent, off kilter superhero strip that showed great promise but rather stalled after a few issues.
Now, many years later Paul Rainey is still making his comics, and still provides a slightly off-kilter look at the world. There’s No Time Like The Present is his ongoing Graphic Novel, collected into comic form every time he gets 24 pages done, that will run a finite number of issues (12? 14? Maybe more).
We join the story with Cliff; a 30 something sci-fi obsessive who lives as a lodger with Kelly, who has a bit of a thing for dairy products and Emmerdale, hates her job, is desperate to leave and fears she’s never going to manage it. Cliff’s best friend is another 30 something sci-fi collector called Barry, who’s just not that nice a person, spends his time living with his mom and dad, spends all their money on junk from the sci-fi shop which he’s convinced his mom and dad is going to make him a fortune. And then there’s the downloading of future TV shows….
(Cliff and Kelly, she loves dairy, he has a thing for Dr Who and her. From There’s No Time Like The Present #1)
You see, it starts as a slice of life look at a group of mates with an unhealthy interest in Science Fiction shows and a collectors mentality (and we all know what that’s like, don’t we?) But very early on Rainey throws a curveball into the story with the fact that one of the gang is getting future episodes of movies and TV shows from the Ultraweb. Such a simple thing, thrown into the plot without fanfare, but it’s to prove the backbone of the story. Because with the Ultranet and time travel being relatively common place, it’s not just Barry’s porn and sci-fi that gets downloaded. Everything suddenly loses it’s mystery and life changes forever; after all, if you suddenly found out, just like Kelly does, that you’re due to spend the next 40 years in a job you despise, wouldn’t you feel a little deflated and lacking in ambition?
Like one of the characters says later in the series:
“I do remember feelin’ as if I could put everyfin’ off ’till tomorrah. Like I would one day achieve everyfin’ I wanted to. Then, course, one day we all switched on our tellies and found out that this weren’t the case no more. Just like that.”
(The small scale impact of time travel: future downloads. Barry and Cliff from There’s No Time Like The Present.)
That’s just the first four and a half issues done with. Slice of life meets a bit of time travel and future knowledge. Cliff and his mates living their lives against a backdrop of ennui and a general worldwide feeling of what’s the point? Cliff tries to get together with Kelly, Kelly suffers endless humiliation, desperation and depression at work and Barry visits a prostitute with his dad’s business development money. Each episode is played out with a realistic, naturalistic tone, as each character’s life slowly and rather painfully develops in front of us.
But then Rainey pulls another master-stroke. Just as you think you know where it’s going, with Cliff taking part in an anti-time-travel demonstration, Rainey switches the entire thing 50 years into the future. We’re in the day care centre with Cliff, Barry and their elderly friends sitting and watching old sci-fi. The more things change….
From here you expect Rainey to jump to and fro, visiting Cliff et al in present and future, young and old. Except he doesn’t – that would be too easy, too obvious. Instead we’re with the old guys all the way, learning little bits about their lives through conversations in between episodes of crappy sci-fi. We learn that Barry’s been visiting prostitutes regularly since that first time and his “lady” of the last 12 years is retiring; an event everyone fears will send Barry a little crazy, we learn Kelly disappeared shortly after the events of issue 4, just after Cliff presented her with a real milkfloat as a present. But even with all of this time travel and jumps between timeframes, Rainey always grounds the work solidly with his characters. The amazing things occur off panel, affecting our cast tangentially. There’s an ongoing movement of retrograding taking place, de-unifying the time junctions, which is leaving some time tourists, including one of the nicer workers at the day care centre stranded out of time with little hope of getting back.
And through all of this, as it twists and turns, looking at the characters young and old, you get the feeling that Rainey has it all under control, that it’s all fitting into a bigger picture, that it’s all connected somehow. Little things like finding out Kelly disappeared just after the argument between her and Cliff, just after he gave her a milk float (remember – she had that dairy fixation?), but the milk float looks almost brand new? Unless I’m reading far too much into it – but that’s just adding to my fun even if I’m wrong.
The art might not be to everyone’s taste, and there are moments when the quality does waiver somewhat, but overall it’s lovely stuff, simple black and white work, yet warm and expressive work that captures the characters so well. His portrayal of the characters in old age is especially good, with those little touches in the art that add so much, like this panel of Cliff, where his right hand wobbles on his stick with the effort of retaining a dignified stillness:
Indeed, if I had to find one problem with this comic is that it’s too complicated to be read issue by issue, with months in between, something Rainey acknowledges somewhat in his editorial introductions to issues 7 and 8. Up until that point he’d provided a recap page, but with these issues, he just gives in and points folks to the back issues. Something I’m going to be doing as well, because although you can join the story at a later stage and enjoy it for the characterisations therein, it’s far better to start at the beginning and see why those characters are doing what they do. This is a comic that will really benefit from some form of collection at a later stage, as reading all 12? 14? however many issues Rainey takes to finish it will be so much more satisfying than issue by issue.
But until that collection comes out, and it’s a long way off yet, you can thankfully pick up all 8 issues in comic form, something I wholeheartedly recommend you do.