The Motherless Oven is one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in the past few years. Comics often take risks and go bold in ways most other mediums don’t; but those risks often leads to comics that are silly, absurd or just plain bonkers. Characters in fantastic universes talk like they’re hip teens from our own times and the cool factor is favored over a cogent, logical world and tone.
In contrast, The Motherless Oven is a dark, surreal tale of a world where things are upside down and backwards from our own but just familiar enough to keep you oriented in this world. To the characters, the world is mundane and everyday and the fact everyone knows their deathday is unremarkable. But there’s also a growing sense for Scarper Lee as his deathday approaches that something is wrong with this world.
Writer/artist Rob Davis masterfully balances world-building, tone, and presentation in The Motherless Oven. It’s a world with many questions, but they unfold gradually, ending with plenty of questions left unanswered. The Can Opener’s Daughter continues the story of The Motherless Oven while peeling back another layer of the world.
Vera Pike is the mysterious figure that Scarper of The Motherless Oven pursues for the truth. In this book, we get Vera’s story firsthand. She lives in Parliament where she only interacts with her parents. Her father is a can opener and her mother is The Weather Clock, the Prime Minister of this twisted kingdom. She has no memory of her life before Parliament and continually questions about the outside world . Her inquisitive nature finally get her sent to a suicide school where she is taught the way of things.
The classroom setting certainly frames a way to give exposition and answers a lot of burning questions. But also is so different than our own that it never feels like a boring or lazy storytelling tool. To both the Vera and the readers, the way of the world seems so absurd, but the reality presented is accepted at face value by those who are raised in it.
Vera brings a spirit of rebellion, questioning the establishment and way of things and recognizing the absurdity of accepting the harsh conditions of the world. Surely there must be a way to stop knives raining from the sky or perhaps one can live life without knowing the day of your death. Instead of battling the chaos and disorder, the world has made a way to create faux meaning around the chaos.
Much like our own world, there’s something tragically broken with this place but people see it as normal. The perverse and shocking, given enough continual exposure, become routine. That which shocks the reader does not shock the regular inhabitants because it is everyday. And when the perverse and the wrong become mundane, the world truly becomes upside-down.
Rob Davis uses black and white to create such a bold, striking mood to the piece that colors would only dampen the bite of his drawings. To add color to this book would be almost comical, the black and white pallet fits such a world where death is planned and knives raining from the sky are as normal as a thunderstorm.
More than anything else, The Can Opener’s Daughter makes me want to reread The Motherless Oven. It contains enough revelations to illuminate questions from the first book. And yet, like The Motherless Oven, the book is brimming with so many questions that you’re left starving for more time in this world. Our world needs another chapter in this story.
The Can Opener’s Daughter illuminates truths about our own world while transporting us to a completely different place. In times where we are flooded with the absurd and appalling and the news cycles normalizes more and more ridiculous and outrageous stories, this fantasy is a wakeup call to how complacent people can become with unreasonable and unfair circumstances. The way things are is not necessarily the way things should be.
© James Blake Ewing 2017