Review: The Motherless Oven

On a recent looting at Montreal’s iconic indie comic institution, Drawn & Quarterly, I came across a book with the following back-cover blurb: “The weather clock said knife o’clock, so I chained Dad up in the shed.” Call me impulsive, but that’s the kind of call-out that grabs my attention. It immediately reminded me of the arresting (and indeed jarring) opening of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in its double take-inducing content, and I found myself unalterably gripped. The graphic novel in question was Rob Davis’ The Motherless Oven, and it just may be the most uniquely entertaining, engagingly confusing books in the medium this year. As the pull quote above illustrates, the world of The Motherless Oven is one in which knives literally rain from the sky; where, in their infancy, children build their “parents” - highly emotional machines ranging from hairdryers to action figures; and where everyone knows when they are going to die, thanks to “death-days” assigned by a local police force led by an octogenarian with the supernatural relentlessness of Jason Vorhees.

It’s a world where every appliance - from an egg-timer to a bedside lamp to a light switch - is a semi-sentient, parable-singing “god,” and the masses are comforted by watching seemingly hypnotic, daily kaleidoscopic wheels instead of television. Set so extravagantly against a decidedly British backdrop, The Motherless Oven’s universe is one that also feels grounded and approachable. Sure, strange things are afoot, but Rob Davis tempers them in the mundanity of daily life, thus draining any pretense or unwanted esotericism, and allowing the reader to settle into the world quickly and comfortably.

The Motherless Oven follows the last two weeks in the life of Scarper Lee, whose quickly-approaching death-day is suddenly the least of his problems, after meeting a shit-stirring new girl, Vera Pike, and her personal project, Castro, whose “medicated inference syndrome” turns him into a Mos Def-like prophet when he hears certain decibels, and gives him the “mental clarity” to mend broken gods.

The Motherless OvenAfter Scarper’s “dad” (a large brass behemoth with a billowing sail, we are told) suddenly does a runner, the unlikely trio break out of school (past the guard lions, naturally) to look for him, but verge into an existential quest for the titular “Motherless Oven,” a mythical kiln of-sorts, from which all things on this world are said to be born, and where they hope to define (or indeed escape) the terminal nature of their existence.

In the end, The Motherless Oven leaves you with a lot of questions, but ones that force you to go back and experience it all over again, many times, and appreciate both the pieces and the whole that make it such an incredible reading experience. It’s one of those books that sticks with you, the kind you find yourself thinking about actively or in passing throughout different parts of your day. I’ve read it and subsequently flipped back through it several times now, and am still happily solidifying my thoughts on it, which is one of the highest compliments I can give to a work of fiction.

Thematically, this story reminds me of a mix between the strange goings-on in a book like Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, and the quasi-magical madcap childhood misadventure of Harry Potter. From page one, Davis thrusts you headlong into the deep end of this story, employing an outside-in narrative to its build. And believe me, it’s a discombobulating experience, but never an annoying one. As the three ex-students guide us through their world, the journey takes on the logic of a dream, where things only make sense the stranger they get. And they do get strange.

Again, this is set in a universe where weather laughs at you, where the seasons are controlled by massive floating bombs and where street gangs race and wreck on snarling, bulbous monstrosities they call “Dad.” It’s crazy surreal, and so much fun to explore, with insane little elements peeking out around every corner. You will get lost, you will be disturbed, and if you’re anything like me, you will love every second.

Davis is an exceptional writer with an incredibly unique voice, perhaps no more poetically expressed than in Scarp’s musings into the voice-recording Home Gazette device, which itself stands as a moral conundrum, being both seemingly alive and just an echo-capturing appliance. Simultaneously, his dialogue feels like it’s been polished in the street; organic and natural, it often provides a perfect foil for the inane action.

Artistically, Davis employs a visual direction which combines a structured, if not entirely stern style that plays with its narrative dichotomy in a way that every comic should. Drawn in black, white and fleshed further in chalky shades of grey, this book may be an odd bird, but in its clean and angular lines and heavy, atmospherically-dusted presentation, it’s also a fucking gorgeous one.

Davis’ art also benefits from being both dramatic in its expressiveness and hugely dynamic; and from his tight figure work to the phantasmagoric “televisual wheels” he uses as early page-breaks, he is able to convey the weird, almost cartoonish wonder of this place, but grounds it in boundaries. Visually, there is no better presentation when set against a narrative that is, by its nature, in the act of unravelling.

I honestly couldn’t recommend The Motherless Oven more to anyone interested in an off-beat, beautifully-constructed surrealist slice of fiction. It may require a bit of patience in terms of afterthought analysis, but believe you me, it’s an experience that you will remember as a wholly worthwhile pursuit.

Score: 5/5

Writer/Artist: Rob Davis Publisher: Self Made Hero Price: $19.95 Release Date: 10/21/14 Format: OGN, Print Website