by Rob Davis
“Better sorry than safe.”
“The weather clock said knife o’clock. So I chained dad up in the shed.”
This really is one of those books that defines itself within the opening few pages. The visual and verbal dexterity Davis displays just in the opening sequence was enough to put me on the edge of my seat, loving what I’d read, excited to read the rest. Seriously, one of those books you cannot put down, a strange narrative delivered with such style by Davis.
In fact, I think it’s one I could easily review just with art. I wouldn’t need to say much more, just look at this for a starter and be amazed…
(I’ll meet you below for more, hopefully absolutely unnecessary, wordage)
That, you have to say, is both absolutely gorgeous and supremely involving.
Pulse racing a little? Excited and want to know more? Yep, exactly what I felt as well. The Motherless Oven, straight onto my best of year list from the very first read. Go and buy it.
You’ll hopefully be aware of Davis’ work from his two-volume adaptation of Don Quixote. You might also be a fan of his from many years ago when he was part of the rejuvenation of Roy Of The Rovers (I know I was – see here). You should certainly have bought and read the brilliant Nelson, co-created and edited by Davis and Woodrow Phoenix. But this is his first original graphic novel and by heck, it’s great.
The invention in his pages, his ideas… it’s a revelation from the stricter confines of adapting other works. With The Motherless Oven Davis can really let loose, ideas and invention pouring out, brilliantly deranged, a piece of chaotic, inspired, clever fiction, absolutely cool, wonderfully weird.
And by God, do I love looking at Davis’ artwork, the brilliantly black lines, skinnier than skinny jeans legs with every face a delight of expression, never more so than with two of his main characters, whether it’s Scarper Lee’s mop of jet black, unruly hair atop a visage of Gallagher-esque extremes, all huge lips and enormously black eyebrows, or the beguiling and wonderful Vera Pike, with a nose that’s the very definition of perky and eyes that shine with mischief and smarts. The grey-washes that swathe the pages, combined with that dense black brush work, really give each page a depth and density, in no way a bad thing, the gravitational pull of Davis’ pages so strong, so damn rewarding.
In those first few pages, you instantly fall in love a little with the two leads, certainly empathise with them, weird things though they might be.
Scarper Lee, the doomed high school lad, Year 11 with absolutely no prospect of finishing school as he’s but a couple of weeks away from his death day, the preordained day of his death.
Vera Pike, the girl who turns up on his doorstep in the middle of a knife storm and proceeds to turn his world upside down. Scarper protests he hates her. You know he doesn’t really. But being a teen can be like that can’t it?
Which is all part of what makes The Motherless Oven an instant classic, Davis nails the voice of these teens, absolutely, utterly. It’s as though he’s been eavesdropping on school conversations for years, the natural rhythms and self-contained worlds of teen-dom are all here, wrapped up in an other-worldly strangeness sure, but face it, have you heard a teen conversation in full flow lately? it’s every bit as weird as that, probably more. And in this weird tale there’s also a simple, rather sweet one, a tale of Scarper Lee coming of age as he comes to terms with his impending death, Davis crafting a very real, very sweet tale of teen life (and death), of facing up to growing up, coping with parents, with the world, with everything dark and scary and horrible out there.
Wrapped around that you get the weirdness, gloriously strange stuff all through… Scarper’s mother’s a hair dryer, his dad a strange Henry Moore-esque brass thing with a sail, chained up in the garden shed. Household ‘gods’ with their little tasks, massages, cake recipes, loo paper… “they dispense it with a song or a rhyme“.. This is a place where children all make their own parents, they don’t remember it, but somehow they do. School lions patrol the playground whilst the kids inside study circular history and mythmatics, then head home to watch the ‘daily wheel’.
And everyone knows their death day.
Except Vera Pike. Vera Pike doesn’t have a death day. Scarper’s friend snuck into the school office to cadge a look.
Scarper’s friends don’t like Vera Pike, think she’s ‘totally banjo‘, a complete weirdo, who not surprisingly ends up in the Deaf Unit at school after she rips the legs off Donna’s mum (Donna’s mum’s a mural on the school canteen wall). In the Deaf Unit she meets up with Castro Smith, one of the weird kids with Medicated Interference Syndrome and a control dial for his moods. Castro’s mum is a bird cage. Castro spends his time taking household gods apart to listen to their frequencies. Scarper thinks Castro’s a nutjob.
But when Scarper’s dad gets out from the shed, chains cut, off on his own, it’s Vera Pike and Castro Smith who convince Scarper to run away with them, to track down his dad. Maybe Scarper’s dad wants to find out where he was built? Maybe they need to go “in search of the motherless oven where all the mums and dads are baked by the children of the world…”
A quest, a mission. By the end of the book, they’ve walked to the end of the near never-ending high street. They’ve destroyed someone’s dad, the police are still after them. Oh yes, the police. The authority figures. In here, authority comes with the old people, some made, some just there, unexplained, the teachers dispensing discipline and exams, the police ancient crones and wrinkled geriatric men riding around in clockwork jalopies, unrelenting, inexorably chasing crooks and runaways down, moving slower than walking pace, but never giving up. Never giving up. Scarper and Vera would do well to remember this. (They don’t, they’re teens. What did you expect?)
The Motherless Oven has got that impeccable cool air about it, the sense of something knowing and clever, that ‘Catcher In The Rye’ thing. I’ve already read at least two pieces calling The Motherless Oven hard to follow. That I can’t see. It’s multi-layered, it’s clever, it’s brilliant, it’s got the pace of the best action thriller and the stylistic weirdness of the best of David Lynch and the Coen Brothers wrapped up in one.
But hard to follow? It’s simply the story of a boy and a girl. And his death. Maybe. Sort of. The extra flourishes, the strangeness, that’s simply the icing on a particularly rich and wonderful cake. If you’re after something with a worldview of strict black and white, then you’re possibly in the wrong place, but why not relax a little, let loose and enjoy the madness, construct your own particular meanings from the symbolism Davis uses? The world would be a really dull place if all the stories went from A to B to C and on.
Scarper needed setting free. Vera Pike might have turned up at just the right time. Or completely the wrong one. Depends how you read it. The Motherless Oven is a quest that isn’t, a straightforwardly twisty tale that proves nothing but. There’s a finale that leaves you to make your own mind up, the why, the how, the what. Take whatever meaning from it you want. It can be a simple boy meets girl tale against a weird as anything backdrop, it could be a little autobiographical look into the author’s early years (Davis is a fascinating subject), it could be a critical dissection about authoritarian control over youth, it could be …… well, it could be about whatever you want it to be. But whatever you get from it, if you do get it, you’ll be instantly swept up in a fabulous book.
It’s a tale told with breathless fervour and style from an artist exuding confidence in every page, every panel. It’s one of the most original and vibrantly alive things I’ve read for a long time. Finish it. Turn it over. Start it all over again. Repeat. It’s worth it.