Why Don’t You Love Me?
Cartoonist: Paul B. Rainey
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
Published: January 2023
Why Don’t You Love Me? by Paul B. Rainey is perhaps the first must-read graphic novel of 2023, and the way you must read it, in my opinion, is by going into the book blind.
Don’t read any promo info about it. Don’t look for takes on Twitter, and, quite frankly, you should pause reading this very review (although, I’m going to dance around spoilers for a bit, so maybe read until the big bolded spoiler warning partway through).
Why Don’t You Love Me? is without question a special book, one that plays with expectations to great effect. Part of the experience of the book is presuming it to be about one thing, and then another, and then another, and having all your preconceived notions stomped and twisted and ultimately shined into something better and new. There’s a great way to sum this book up, but, unfortunately for me, a better writer did it and put it on the back of the book.
This perfect blurb is from Neil Gaiman: “When I began to read Why Don’t You Love Me? I thought it read like any number of slightly surrealistic slightly vapid early-2000s stories that were basically the cartoonist’s way of telling you they hated everyone and everything. And then it came into focus and it wasn’t that thing at all. And then it came into focus again, uplifting and heartbreaking and (a word that I use sparingly) relevant. The kind of story leading to a last panel that’s all pain and job and delivers the whole thing. What a masterwork. To understand all is to forgive all.”
That’s a perfect way to describe Why Don’t You Love Me?, a tragicomic chameleon of a comic and, as Gaiman notes, a masterwork from Rainey.
On the surface, the first act of Why Don’t You Love Me? reads as sort of an old school newspaper strip about a couple, a very bad couple. A couple bad at parenting and bad at being married. With the name of the book appearing on each page as if it’s a Sunday strip, this one opens like a familiar albeit darker riff on the family. It expertly builds that expectation and then uses it to engage the reader as it plunges toward something new. Here’s an example of a typical page…
As this story progresses, it becomes something much deeper (and at times darker), ultimately feeling experimental for a bit before rounding into a complete and successful coherent narrative predicated on the reader learning what’s really going on alongside the characters. The book is like a novel with a close third person perspective, with its audience locked on the two central characters, experiencing what’s really going on right alongside them. Newspaper-esque gags persist, but as a byproduct of the actual story. It makes you re-evaluate a certain type of comic, imagining what might be beneath them. It’s nothing short of brilliant, to be frank.
One recurring joke, for example, is that the father doesn’t remember the son’s name (Tommy? wait, no, Charlie? bah). But even this seemingly callous bit gets explored eventually, tied into something tragic and fantastic. It’s as if a cheap veneer falls away slowly in this book, in retrospect never having been there at all. Rainey baits comics readers, twists them, and delivers a story so engaging, those readers will be grateful to have been toyed with.
There are pivots that happen multiple times through this book, the sort of pivots that make sense yet are impossible to see coming. The result is a narrative that is compulsively readable, a wormhole puzzle box comic that you can’t stop thinking about until you have unraveled it all.
In the process, Why Don’t You Love Me? raises questions about who we are, who we might be in different circumstances, and how we respond to the grand or unknowable. Perhaps, Rainey posits, some of us are locked into bygone choices we no longer support, perhaps we need a new start, perhaps what we yearn for would be too much so as to break us, or perhaps we are just too small to truly grasp the nature of it all. Ultimately, what emerges from this story are grand questions about communication and understanding, delivered in a rewarding and powerful way.
With a comics resume that spans decades, Rainey is a seasoned cartoonist, and this book feels like — again, as Gaiman points out — a true masterwork, the carefully considered opus of someone who has spent years working within the medium and wants to push what it’s capable of. It’s January, of course, but unless recency bias works against it, Why Don’t You Love Me? should be on most every Best of 2023 list come December.
Why Don’t You Love Me? is available now from Drawn & Quarterly.
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