‘You need to look outside your own window’: the winner of our graphic short story prize 2020

Rachel Cooke
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

In Similar to But Not, the winner of this year’s Observer/Jonathan Cape graphic short story prize, a prematurely aged teenager visits his local pub hoping to spend his paper round money on an illicit pint, only to find a certain famous pop star sitting at the bar. As if this isn’t eye-popping enough (our hero lives in mild-mannered Bucks, not ritzy Belgravia), the singer in question is happy to talk and even, perhaps, to flirt with him a little – not that he seems to notice. “You have a black mark on your face,” she tells him, rubbing at it with her thumb. “Oh, that,” he replies, obliviously. “That’s from the Milton Keynes Mirror.”

Similar to But Not is the work of Paul Rainey, who has entered the prize every year but one since its inception in 2007. “I’m so delighted,” he says of this long-awaited triumph. “Every year, I would always be in a really black mood at not winning. I would moan to all my friends, and vow never to enter again. But then I always would, and I’m glad I persevered. Winning is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” Is his story, as it purports to be, autobiographical? “Yes, I’m afraid so. It recalls an intense daydream I had when I was 17. I’d seen Madonna on Top of the Pops [in 1985, when the story is set], and I wondered how I could possibly get to know her. This, believe it or not, seemed to be the only feasible idea I could come up with: that we’d meet in the pub, when no one else was around.”

Did he have a crush on the singer? “I think I must have done, though the story recalls the atmosphere of the daydream more than of the crush.” He hopes it can be read in two ways: as the fantasy he has just described, or as something that really does happen, however unlikely (life is often far more preposterous than fiction). “I didn’t draw Madonna as well as I might have, so it’s open for the reader to think: oh, she’s just someone who only looks like Madonna.” Either way, it comes with a satisfying punchline, starring Rainey’s dad, that the judges enjoyed particularly.

Rainey has spent his working life in admin and IT at Santander and the Open University (he has lived for the past 40 years in Milton Keynes, where his story is set). But his real passion is for comics, which he has drawn all his life, self-publishing in zines and online; his influences include Silver Age Marvel and 2000 AD, as well as Eddie Campbell, best known as the illustrator of Alan Moore’s From Hell, and Los Bros Hernandez, of Love and Rockets fame. As Similar to But Not perhaps suggests, however, he’s “increasingly obsessed” in his own work with trying to make comics that are “recognisably” British. “The world’s so transatlantic now,” he says. “But I think you need to look outside your own window; to catch conversations on the bus or street. We seem to have half an eye on wondering if we can get Americans to like something when, culturally, we should just let them come to us.” Having left his day job last year, it’s his hope now that winning the prize will help him to find a publisher for his almost complete graphic novel, Why Don’t You Love Me?, which is currently only available as an online subscription comic.

Our regular judges – Dan Franklin, the publisher of Jonathan Cape’s graphic novel list, Suzanne Dean, the creative director of Vintage Books, Paul Gravett, who runs the Comica festival, and yours truly - were joined in 2020 by the cartoonist and illustrator Steven Appleby, and the award-winning novelist Neel Mukherjee (thank you to both of them). This year was, of course, different and a little strange: our meeting took place on Zoom, and we were all struck by how many of the stories we read were about loneliness, isolation and grief. But perhaps this was one reason why Rainey’s story was our unanimous winner: as well as being beautifully drawn, it made us laugh out loud. The same is true of our runner-up: The Worm, by Ellie Durkin, which riffs pleasingly and daffily on the idea that people often come to resemble their pets. Congratulations to Ellie, too.