Jason Sacks: Elkin, you teach high school so you know this better than me, but the teen years are often a fucked up time. Life is incredibly confusing. You often feel lost – in your skin, in your family and with your friends. You feel trapped in school and sometimes feel like the only friends you can make are as messed-up as you feel.
The Motherless Oven is a delightfully surreal take on those years. Whether it’s intended as parable, satire or straight-ahead fiction, this very strange graphic novel does a beautiful job of presenting that extremely uncertain time in everybody’s life. Writer/artist Rob Davis brings to life the interior/exterior dichotomy of that period with a piercingly original eye; in every deliciously supple brushstroke, he creates a thoroughgoing world that seems real and unreal all at the same time, a fascinating tightrope walk.
He pretty much avoids falling.
Elkin, we have so much that we can talk about here: the odd presentation of British schools, and the way that these kids interface with the media, and the very, very strange ways that parents are shown. But what I’d like to talk about first is the question that hangs over the book in some ways: do the parents make the children or do the children make the parents?
On one level, the answer is obvious, but on another level the answer isn’t as obvious and points in the opposite direction. Perception trumps reality, and few realities are odder than the world inside a teenager’s head. A lot of what we see in The Motherless Oven is the manifesting of that teenager’s head on a printed page. With that way of thinking of things, parents are mere mechanisms and not physical living creatures as the kids are.
They’re not alive, at least not in the same way that the kids are alive, and thus are shoved into the garage where they perform obscure tasks.
With that mindset, the kids are free to find their own adventures and battle to be free without having to worry about their parents. The parents don’t even really exist without being in the light of the teenagers’ gaze. The kids’ world is so self-centered that they almost can’t even perceive anyone who’s not in their social grouping as corporeal in some way.
Elkin, am I reading too much into this book? Davis doesn’t give readers a lot of clues to help guide the way, but I adore that about this book. It feels deep and maybe overly complex, like the world inside a teenager’s head. Frequently those perceptions don’t reward a closer look. But let’s look deeper inside this Motherless Oven and see if it’s half-baked.
Daniel Elkin: There’s a great depth to this Oven, Sacks. And I’ll help turn up the heat in a moment, but before I do that, I really want to address one thing:
Great first lines:
Great first lines set tone, set expectation, establish character, provide motivation, help create setting. They grab the reader and make them want to keep reading. They establish the writer as someone who has something to say.
From great first lines, great literature follows:
• “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
• “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
• “The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.”
• “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
• “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
To this list of great first lines I would like to add one more:
• “The weather clock said, ‘Knife o’clock,’ so I chained dad up in the shed.”
This is the first line in The Motherless Oven. With an opening sentence like that, anything is possible. A new world is instantly created, character motivations become unfathomable in the strangeness, and we are instantly on guard to try to make sense of this. We know we are in for a challenge. A casual reading will be impossible.
This is my kind of book.
But to your question about children and parents, Sacks. In The Motherless Oven, Davis is certainly considering many different types of relationships, the expectations inherent in each one, and how the slightest shift in our understanding of them allows us to see the nuances they actually consist of more clearly.
Like you’ve adroitly pointed out, the best place to start here is the book’s portrayal of parent/child relationship. In The Motherless Oven, Davis tells us that children build their parents. The parents are there to provide for their kids: food, shelter, transport, etc… Which is what parents do anyway. What they don’t seem to provide, though, is moral guidance – this sort of thing seems to be left to the state institutions, like the schools and the police and the media (whatever that is, exactly, in this world).
Once could say that this is Davis commenting on how, in our world, the breakdown of the family, the drive for standardization of public education, the militarization of our police force, and the consumerism of our news have all contributed to a disillusioned youth culture that needs an even stronger authoritarian hand to keep it from spiraling into anarchy (thus perpetuating the cycle and feeding itself its own tail). I think there is plenty in this book to make this sort of political argument, but I’d rather not distort this book through a singular critical lens.
The argument could also be made that Davis is pushing the edges of an existential theme. The inhabitants of this world are creators of their self, yet they operate in a world where their lives are proscribed, they know when they are to die, and are then expected to still be productive members of the social order. This strikes me as the ultimate fermentation formula for ennui. And yet, it takes the brave individual to see through the situation, react, and escape.
Then again, the structure of the book follows the Monomyth arc, so perhaps we should address that before we go any further?
Sacks: In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the Monomyth pattern this way:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Like everything in The Motherless Oven, Davis’s graphic novel follows its own trail in presenting the Monomyth pattern. There’s supernatural wonder – of sorts. There’s fabulous forces – of sorts. There are decisive victories — of sorts. But it’s a testament to the peculiar, majestic singularity of Davis’s vision that his vision both follows Monomyth and dramatically reacts against it.
In fact, the word that I’d use the most in discussing this book may be react. The characters are continually reacting to their singular world; in reacting, they take action, and in taking action they are most fully alive. The teenagers in this book are the outsiders, the non-complacent kids. They’re “caught up in the heat and the breeze”, as Scarper Lee says at one point, experiencing a life that they design themselves. Never mind deathdays or disabilities or responsibilities to parents or to school. These characters are alive. They’re vivid. They create. They react.
I see elements of Davis commenting on aspects of our society but what I feel most powerfully in The Motherless Oven is a deep sense of character. And not just a classic sort of teen character, who essentially learns that he can go his own way by being conformist in a specific sort of way. Instead, more than anything is that this is a book about the essential quality of uniqueness, of being a singular human being unlike anybody else; it’s about the importance of kicking against the pricks (or the lions) and fighting desperately and passionately to keep that individuality in the midst of a world that never ceases to try to force people to conform.
Even Davis’s artwork in this book reflects that theme. His linework is sensually busy, all thick lines floating into thin, all lovely shading (those freckles look so cute) and dark shadows that resonate and promise a deeper and even more inscrutable world than the one that we’ve discussed. If it can rain knives; if parents can be devices; if the ruins can be like mechanical versions of overpowering British mums, what else is out there?
Elkin, I think you see me trying desperately to find some firm footing in discussing The Motherless Oven but I keep stumbling. Perhaps you can share your take on the Monomyth and the personal myth in this most extraordinary graphic novel.
Elkin: You know how much I hate sharing, Sacks.
In terms of the Monomyth structure in Motherless Oven, it might be best to focus less on the journey and more on the “decisive victory” that Scarper Lee wins. Is it self-awareness – that “there is something beyond the Black Wood”? That the act of journeying outside the expected is the reward in itself?
Or is it a subversion of this altogether? Is Davis implying that in world like Scarper Lee’s there are no heroic acts possible as everything is controlled in a Brave New World ploy to stabilize instability and bring a certain predictability to an amazingly unpredictable world? It is an act of Hubris to climb the fence, necessitating the ultimate punishment. How then, does this transfer thematically? Or is that not even the point? Perhaps we are supposed to hold up Motherless Oven as one of those ciphers that tell us how our world is by showing us what it is not. Is Scarper Lee our stand-in as he takes apart the underpinnings of his world?
And what do we make of his name? It’s hard not to see its connection to Harper Lee, but what overlap is there between Motherless Oven and To Kill a Mockingbird? Is Scarper supposed to be like Scout Finch? Is Castro supposed to be Boo Radley? Who the hell is Tom Robinson? None of it works in my head. It’s almost as if it is purposely frustrating. A red herring. A “fuck you” to my intellectual posturings.
What game is Davis playing, and why do I find myself so drawn to this book?
That’s a lot of questions, none of which have any satisfying answers – which is a statement that could easily be a useful definition of either art or existence.
Questions that only breed more questions are maybe the best questions of all.
Motherless Oven is one of those questions.
Sacks: So many questions, Daniel. And Davis gives us no clear answers for any of them in this inscrutable book.
I actually think you’re onto something with Davis’s deep passion at avoiding answers and the indifference that Scarper and his companions give to finding answers. I wonder if on some level the point of Motherless Oven is that it’s intended to be willfully obscure, to avoid analysis on traditional terms. It’s not surreal because there’s a narrative throughout this graphic novel, but Motherless Oven is surreal because the narrative is so particular and eccentric and deliberately unreal it becomes hyper-real.
Maybe in that way it’s one of the truest depictions of the adolescent mind that has ever been published.
You know better than I do the complicated thoughts that animate the minds of high schoolers. They’re complicated and contradictory, full of strange allusions and a deliberately off-kilter way of looking at the world. There are code words and messages that the younger generation deliberately keep from the older, things we could never hope to understand, even if we truly do understand them deeply.
I’ve been on my high horse before about the dichotomy between depiction of the interior and exterior of comics, how comics are uniquely suited to show the interior feelings and outside reality of characters. I posit to you that Davis is playing with that interior/exterior dichotomy by creating a world that reflects the complicated interior minds of his characters, in all its dizzying glory. Perhaps what we’re seeing in Motherless Oven is the mind and experiences of Scarper Lee, on display right there on the comics page. Perhaps the shockingly gorgeous slashing lines of Rob Davis show the turmoil and drama in these characters’ lives. Perhaps a deathday is a day that will change a character’s life – perhaps the day he has to graduate high school or will start a new job. Perhaps school is like a jail because it feels like a jail, and perhaps this book is the truest depiction of adolescent life precisely because it’s so inscrutable and strange.
Am I on to something here?
Elkin: Either that, or you’re ON something (see what I did there)?
But I’m with you in Rockland, Sacks, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time.
As for the idea of a work of art being “willfully obscure”, “inscrutable”, and “strange” – this is certainly a possibility, and using this as a reflection of the adolescent mind in an interesting conceit, although to what end other than being snarky I cannot fathom. Davis seems to have an affinity with his characters. Why would he choose to obscure their possibilities for the sake of an aesthetic attempt?
But I get your point and see the validity of it to the degree that I can. If this is true, though, it makes me feel unsafe. It’s a yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet.
Purposeful senselessness is an anathema to my need to control the world around me. The whole thing reminds me of my experience reading David Hine and Shaky Kane’s Bulletproof Coffin – and just ask Keith Silva what that almost did to me (and I was a younger man then).
Still, I’ve come to a point in my understanding of art that the response I have to a piece is, perhaps, more important than the piece itself. The thoughts invoked and the emotions elicited become the aesthetic, regardless of intent or purpose. I am the artist creating my world. I’m pushed and pulled by what others have done, but ultimately the responsibility is mine.
You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.
I’ve derailed here, haven’t I, and have become grist for the mill for someone else’s response. What other option did I have after staring into the abyss. It begins to stare back at you.
Damn you, Rob Davis. Look what you’ve done to me. You’ve got me burning my money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall.
I’ll leave the last word to you, Sacks. Which is probably for the best.
Sacks: “Their garden, our path”, as Vera Pike says. A new generation is taking over. They see the world in their own way and if you can’t understand their world, that’s your problem. They’ll share their thoughts, but be careful because it may be raining knives. We may be shoved into the garage and seen as non-human, but deathday is approaching and on that day everything will change.