GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis

Of all of the countless storytelling styles, there is something refreshingly outrageous about the comic book -or graphic novel- medium. It’s something hard to put your thumb on, but present nonetheless. The smug knowledge that a comic is an unashamedly un-real thing.

There’s none of the cloying self-importance that often hangs off a novel: laden with its own seriousness. It’s entirely free of the tension that accompanies most sci-fi and fantasy genres- that irrational fear that the truth police are suddenly coming to smash down your door and confiscate your bookshelf. Instead, you settle in. You relax and soak it up, like sinking into a warm pool of impossibility.

Rob Davis is someone’s who’s taken full and efficient advantage of that impossibility. ‘The Motherless Oven’ is a book brimming with un-real brilliance. 

The story begins (as all good stories do) on a dark and stormy night (well, afternoon), and Scarper Lee (our hero) is at home drinking tea, dreaming about biscuits and listening to the downpour of knives thudding into his lawn. Oh yes, it rains knives. Hold on to your hats, chaps. It gets better.

His mother, who is a Bakelite hairdryer, is hiding in the cupboard under the stairs because she doesn’t like storms. His father, who is a massive brass construction complete with sail, gears and spokes, is safely chained up in the shed. Scarper is peacefully watching the Wednesday Wheel and trying not to think about the fact that his Deathday is in three weeks’ time. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door. It’s Vera Pike.

As you can no doubt tell from that cocky grin, Vera turns out to be the catalyst of the narrative, sparking off a series of events which include: an escape from the school lions, an act of vandalism on the Instrument of Summer, and a chaotic hunt for the mysterious Motherless Oven itself. 

I may have already mentioned that this is a very ridiculous piece of writing. However, that’s not to say it’s flippant or lazy in any way- it’s anything but.

‘Stories don’t have points. They’re lies for keeping the truth in. They’re sort of rounded. Not pointy at all’ 

Scarper Lee’s internal dialogue is muscular and sharp, tinged with a comical sadness at an incomprehensible world – think Donnie Darko with more tea and biscuits. Rebellion is a repetitive theme in this story. There is an artist’s desire to rough things up with the eventual wish of making them better. 

‘The only way to free yourself from any system of control is to do something useless. But do it as well as you can! That’s what really does their heads in!’ 

The drawing style is stark in tone and line, which pleasantly softens the intensity of the storytelling. There is a sense anything more would be too many elements clashing together on an already busy page.  

The plot is slow to start but soon deepens into a satisfying tangle of conflicts and intentions. The characters are aloof yet interesting – especially the aforementioned Vera Pike, who is both terrifically annoying and infectiously attractive.  All of this pales into the background, though, when we talk about worldbuilding: that’s where Davis really excels. 

It’s hard to describe how swiftly and how softly your mind scrambles while reading this. It’s like being beaten into submission with a pillow full of abstract philosophies. On one level, Davis’ world seems utterly unlike our own. But look again. There is an intricate resemblance in the creative details. 

The monotony of school life, for instance, studying subjects like ‘Circular History’, ‘Mythmatics’, or ‘Shrine Mechanics’ – which seem just as distant, unimportant and entirely incomprehensible as our own teenage academic struggles.

Then there’s the rushing home to avoid the Laughing Gales, casually switching on the Kitchen Gods and relaxing in front of The Wheel, which is ever-changing yet always the same.

‘I tried thinking about truth. I’m wondering how anyone can know anything for sure. Maybe Castro’s right and truth is like a story, something you can only possess as you pass through it. A thing that can’t be owned by time’

The characters – Scarper Lee, Vera Pike, and their odd but kind friend Castro – are just like us. They think and feel the same way we do. They navigate the knotted emotional pathways of life while questioning the legitimacy of a mad and senseless world. 

Now, doesn’t that sound familiar?

The Motherless Oven is published by Self Made Hero and is available here.

Rob Davis

Rob Davis began self-publishing his own comic, the highly experimental SLANG, in 1989. From there, Rob made the leap from experimental into traditional when he was employed by Fleetway to reinvent British comics icon Roy of the Rovers. After a time drawing Judge Dredd, he began working as an illustrator and cartoonist for newspapers (including The Guardian) and children’s book publishers (including Scholastic). In the last few years, Rob has returned to comics, writing and drawing Doctor Who for Panini. His books for Self Made Hero include The Motherless Oven, The Can Opener’s Daughter and The Complete Don Quixote.
Twitter @Robgog
Reviewed by Philip Webb Gregg

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