In 2015, Rob Davis’s “The Motherless Oven” won the British Comic Award for Best Book. Incredibly, even now, Davis and much of his work remain largely unknown to U.S. comic book fans. At first glance, perhaps, this book may seem a bit enigmatic and even inaccessible, but once you let go and give into it, it’s a refreshing, rewarding read.
Written and Illustrated by Rob Davis
In Scarper Lee’s world, parents don’t make children—children make parents. Scarper’s father is his pride and joy, a wind-powered brass construction with a billowing sail. His mother is a Bakelite hairdryer. In this world it rains knives, and household appliances have souls. There are also no birthdays—only deathdays. Scarper’s deathday is just three weeks away, and he clings to the mundane repetition of his life at home and high school for comfort. Rob Davis’s dark graphic novel is an odyssey through a bizarre, distorted teenage landscape. When Scarper’s father mysteriously disappears, he sets off with Vera Pike (the new girl at school) and Castro Smith (the weirdest kid in town) to find him. Facing home truths and knife storms at every turn, will Scarper even survive until his deathday?
“The Weather Clock said, ‘Knife O’clock,’” begins narrator Scarper Lee, “so I chained Dad up in the shed.” This is not a metaphor. Turn the page and you see dozens of gleaming butcher knives streaking through the sky, raining down from above. Sipping tea a little while later, Scarper distractedly muses, “I like to listen to the rain clattering on the streets outside and stabbing the lawn.” Disconcerting as it may be to the reader, Knife O’clock appears to be a normal, expected occurrence for the book’s protagonist. Not only is Scarper unworried, he finds this bizarre phenomenon soothing. His only real problem, in fact, is that he’s all out of biscuits. “Not easy,” he coolly complains, “biscuits are king.” Not even the foreknowledge of his impending Death Day – a mere three weeks in the future as the book begins – seems particularly upsetting. Indeed, Scarper takes it all in stride, hanging out with his friends in the schoolyard while taking a break from tedious subjects like Mythmatics, Herogeometry and Circular History.
Within the first three pages of “The Motherless Oven,” writer/illustrator Rob Davis unambiguously signals that this peculiar world is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, peopled almost exclusively with teenagers whose mothers are mechanical gadgets like an egg timer, bedside lamp or portable radio and whose fathers are mechanical contraptions that the children race through the night, having built these fathers themselves. Incredibly, it only gets weirder from there. In bold verbal and visual strokes, Davis creates an entirely unique world beholden to nothing but its own understated and beguiling internal logic – all drawn with a decidedly detached rock-and-roll sneer. (In fact, with his thick, pouty lips, black suit, striped tie and blunt haircut, Scarper Lee could almost be a youthful Mick Jagger or Joy Division’s Ian Curtis.)
Refreshingly, however, while Davis clearly remains unflaggingly committed to his singular vision, he is never overly enamored with his own cleverness or remarkable creativity. In other words, he plays it completely straight, doggedly avoiding unnecessary exposition and superfluous explanation. It simply “is what it is.” Despite its incredible weirdness, the book’s characters understand the wonderfully quirky world in which they find themselves, accepting it all at face value. And why wouldn’t they? It’s the only world they’ve ever known. It may take a bit of work on the part of the reader to fathom what’s going on, but once you do away with your tiresome preconceived notions and simply let go, it’s an amazing, magical ride.
Interestingly, as much as Davis’s peculiar language and eccentric ideas make some of his concepts truly foreign, his throwback black-and-white India ink visual style makes it incredibly accessible. The line work is clear and crisp, with heavy blacks and stark whites, but the purposely splotchy, uneven grays give everything shape and depth. You can almost smell and feel the newsprint as your eyes slowly make their way from panel to panel and page to page. There is a certain Steampunk aesthetic to the architecture and objects, but Davis renders figures and faces with such fluidity and tenderness you immediately feel like you’re part of the club, wending your way through town, debating the merits of various bands and poster makers.Continued below
Ultimately, strange as this world may be, at the center of it all is the simple, timeless story of a trio of newfound friends (the aforementioned narrator, Scarper Lee, together with Vera Pike, the brash, mysterious new girl who no one seems to know and the outcast, Castro Smith, a mechanical genius who wears an unwieldy “brain aid”) who embark upon a quest: in this case, to find Scarper Lee’s missing father. It also explores highly relatable themes of passivity versus action, friendship and the search for meaning and truth.
With a 2015 British Comic Award for Best Book on his shelf, it seems like creator Rob Davis would be a little more widely known on this side of the Atlantic. With Davis now writing and drawing a regular feature in Black Crown Quarterly, “Tales from the Black Crown Pub,” perhaps that will start change. Either way, “The Motherless Oven” deserves your time and attention. It’s a wonderfully quirky, captivating read bursting with memorable characters and inventive ideas all masterfully rendered with an effortless and accessible visual style.