From mechanical mothers and parents transformed into beasts of burden, to knife storms, laughing winds and lions guarding the school gates, The Motherless Oven is perhaps one of the most gleefully surreal comic strips to surface in 2014. The story revolves around Scarper Lee, a human teenager who goes in search of his missing father, with only three weeks until his own untimely, predetermined ‘deathday’. Importantly, his father is a brass beast with a bulging sail and his mother is a hairdryer — both mechanical creatures in a world where parents are created to raise children.
The description of Scarper’s father could arguably be a reference to Seamus Heaney’s description of his own old man in the opening verses of “Follower” — ‘My father worked with a horse plough, / His shoulders globed like a full sail strung’ — but what makes this text interesting is that the artwork presents this in the literal, with the prose and dialogue serving as the metaphorical. Combined, these two literary techniques generate some intriguingly complex reading.
Having previously worked on Judge Dredd and Doctor Who comics, it is unsurprising that illustrator and writer Rob Davis touches heavily on authoritarianism in The Motherless Oven, while setting the story within a cyberpunk world. Significantly, the text has its own authoritarian dialogue: ‘deathdays’ instead of birthdays; ‘gods’ to describe the animate, talking objects and contraptions that populate Scarp’s universe; and political groups like ‘The Centaurs’ are all examples of Davis’ targeted lingo. This echoes the Newspeak in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and reminds the reader that the heart of the story relies on challenging ominous authority, while this surreal, cyberpunk city is used to magnify this theme. A quintessentially English tone also defines this text, much like that found in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. This vitally adds a grounding element of realism to the characters.
Davis also seems to question the duality of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’, epitomised by the loving, robot mothers who eventually break down and are thrown in an ’emotional scrapyard’ to deteriorate and rust. In one exchange Castro, a companion on Scarp’s twisted journey, confidently states: “Nature is the things that aren’t made by people.” Scarp, in response, counters: “But we’re made by people, so what does that make us? Are we artificial?” This could all be commentary on a growing dependence on technology, but it’s also a satirical approach to human nature more widely — the necessity of faith and family even in a secular society. One of Scarp’s teachers, on describing the story’s objects which have their very own life force, says: “I suppose they’re like any gods. We talk to them and hope they listen.” In this way, the ‘gods’ in Davis’ comic embody humanity, technology and divinity all at the same time. This points towards a society in which everything is created by humankind, including the spiritual and the holy. The fact that mothers do not create children is another rejection of physicality and intimacy.
In short, The Motherless Oven is a cleverly-layered effort, packed with satirical humour and carefully-crafted detail. The ending is a little flat yet still suitably dark, but Davis’ universe is so outlandishly odd it is frighteningly similar to our own.