The Can Opener’s Daughter
Written By Rob Davis
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
This book is a sequel to one of the most perfect comics I think I’ve ever read: The Motherless Oven (which we did it as a Book Club book all the way back in 2016). So yeah in the interests of full disclosure I’ll admit up front that I wasn’t too thrilled when I heard that it existed and wasn’t too thrilled the first time I read it. In fact I might even have screamed something like: “WHY HAVE YOU DONE THIS?”
If you’re reading this and you haven’t already read The Motherless Oven then you really should stop reading this and go and read The Motherless Oven instead (your local library will have a copy almost definitely for sure) and well yeah that being said please don’t get upset or surprised that I’m now about to spoil the whole damn thing for you ok?
So The Motherless Oven is a story about a kid called Scarper Lee who lives in a crazy world where knives rain from the sky and kids build their parents and lessons are about things like Ciruclar History and Mythmatics and there’s a thing called a Home Gazette which holds all your thoughts. Like – I said it’s a fucking great book.
Thing is tho – Scarper ‘s Deathday is coming up and so him and his friends go on the run and try to escape well everything while being chased by police led by the excellently-named Stour Provost. And yeah the police are all old people. And Scarper and his friends end up releasing summer way too early and all sorts of other stuff and then right at the very end they get to the fence that’s on the edge of everything and and and… Scarper dies. Killed by Stour Provost. Three pound lead shot to the back of the skull.
I can still remember the first time I read it. There was a kinda ringing in my ears when it happens. It kinda reminded me of an 80s VHS thing – where you think the hero has got away and then – whoops – turns out they didn’t and they die in a horrible way and get turned into a zombie. And yeah there’s a part of me I’ve got to say that thinks that this is how all stories should work. Slip the knife in and deliver the biggest possible shocks you can: and there’s nothing that feels so final as killing off the main character. I remember having a few prolonged conversations / debates / etc lol at the Barbican Comic Forum with some people who thought that the end of The Motherless Oven was a trick and that there was probably going to be a sequel at some point that would make the story work “properly” and maybe help to explain some of the craziness of the crazy world and make it all make sense and so of course in return I pontificated at length about how wrong they were and how the Motherless Oven was a complete work in itself and how there was no way Rob Davis was going to write a sequel and what the hell was wrong with the world anyway that they couldn’t cope with a book where the main character got killed right at the end? Is everyone really that mollycoddled that they can’t take a little liquid shot of darkness now and again?
And so then of course – The Can Opener’s Daughter gets announced and I was all like: boooooooo.
I mean: what the fuck? It’s like finding out that there’s going to be a sequel to Hamlet or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Watchmen something. My first, second and third question was: why? And why? And once more: why? And then I read it and (among many other things) they brought Scarper Lee back to life. Booooooooooooo!!!
That’s like watching Return of the Jedi and there’s a big scene where Darth Vader apologises and says “actually – I was just kidding around. I’m not really your father. Sorry about that.” It takes this thing that you kinda thought was the whole point and then just puts a pin in it. I prefer it when my heroes stay dead. Because obviously my brain is messed up like that.
And that’s not all – it also commits the (in my eyes) egregious sin of going around and actually explaining all of the batshit crazy stuff of the first book. All that stuff that doesn’t make sense and is unexplained? Well – The Can Opener’s Daughter starts to explain it and makes it make sense (good grief!). I don’t want to hear how the magical wardrobe works, where the witch gets her powers from or why the lion can talk – I like the rush of not knowing and trying my best to swim in a world that doesn’t quite add up all the way to something I can get my head around.
All of which is to say: you might be wondering why I’ve picked this book for the book club? Is it one of those things where I just want to slag it off and hold up all of the parts to the light so I can tear them into bits with my teeth?
Because actually – I’ve gotta say I’m now actually a fan of The Can Opener’s Daughter and even tho there is still a part of me that just wanted to keep The Motherless Oven as this single perfect self-contained object I think I actually love it more but mainly because I’ve read the book that comes after – The Book of Forks which manages to go further and wider and deeper than pretty much anything else I’ve experienced in my life. Which you know – is good. And now I’ve finished the whole trilogy I can see how in lots of ways The Can Opener’s Daughter is the necessary stepping stone to take things where they have to go: and you know – I think it raises interesting questions about what people want from stories anyway… (me: lots of sudden death and crazy bullshit that you’ve never seen before and that makes sense as metaphors but not as much as actual serious real world things. Your values – of course – may differ).
Barbican Comic Forum
When I bought the Motherless Oven it said on the back it was part of a trilogy so I didn’t have the same expectation that it was a one off story. I think also with comics I expect them to be serialised into a fine paste anyway, and with such a rich universe I was kind of happy that I could get my Bear Park fix as necessary but my friend who I recommended Motherless Oven to has refused to read Can Opener’s Daughter and I think it’s because he loved Scarper Lee so much that he didn’t want to ruin it.
That being said the Can Opener’s Daughter takes exactly the right approach by massively increasing the universe, raising the stakes, and actually not really answering many questions at all. Like knowing more about the raining knives doesn’t really give a logical reasons for them, which is good.
If the 3 characters of the series are different categories of rebel: Scarper the moany loner who wishes he could rebel but doesn’t really do any thing (he’s us); Castro who very thoughts are dangerous because they diverge so far from the shared illusion (which make me sense to us as well because the world he lives in also seems absurd and illogical from our perspective). And Vera who is the most important character because she is the the cause of pretty much all the drama and pretty much everything she does ends in disaster for everyone around her – especially her friends.
It’s only through the Can Opener’s Daughter that her destructive and seemingly amoral behaviour makes sense. Because knowing where she comes from it’s clear that she can’t just let people die on their death days, stand by and accept all the rules, and continue as if raining knives is normal, when she knows it’s all bullshit. So she has to go through a much more interesting heroes journey where instead of a problem solving MacGuffinor rescuing a princess, the only way to beat the system is to keep breaking bits of it until you find that critical piece of machinery, and even then the result is not a better system, just chaos. That contrasts very neatly with her mother who, by desperately trying to maintain order and control, is also similarly destroying the social balance she’s trying so hard to preserve.
It’s testament to the writing that despite the dystopian nightmare the characters already live in, things still feel like they could get worse somehow, as of being ordered to kill yourself by a talking clock is more terrible than randomly impaled. Somehow this feels better than Brazil where the main character feels like he is trying to escape to the “real” world instead of just settling for less being chased around. Everyone here is fighting just for “normal” bleak alienation as an alternative to random horror and premature death. The reason I thought of Brazil though is because like that movie it looks really really bloody great.
Twitter / Improvised Comics
First off, this trilogy of books is outstanding. It’s like 2000AD for grown-ups, giving that mad rush of ideas and strangeness used to reflect back the world around us. Rob Davies throws all sorts of big ideas about life, death, free will and destiny into the pot and stirs them, without offering any easy answers. And the sheer depth of punning and playing with language is incredible, the only comparison I can think of is Riddley Walker (I don’t know James Joyce’s stuff well enough to offer an opinion on that).
As the middle him in the trilogy, and the bearer of the unwanted news that this actually was a trilogy, I had mixed feelings when I heard it was on its way. Giving the cool mysterious Vera a back story was a tricky thing to get right. And when I read that it was half prequel half sequel, my heart sank.
And out of the three, it was the one I enjoyed least at the time (as in only a 9/10). Poor old difficult middle child.
Reading it again, after having read the book of forks, I’m struck by how good it is. The characterisation of the toxic family dynamics between Vera, her mum and dad is the deepest, most nuanced set of relationships in the series, and a great example of the maturity that he brings to the table. Although the main protagonists are adolescents, it isn’t good with an adolescent viewpoint (and yeah, Jonathan’s on-the-nose comparison to Brazil, I think this is why these books outshine Brazil, which was visually inventive but ultimately simplistic in its critique of “the system”, and obe-dimensional in the central love story).
It would be easy to make the mother into a pantomime villain, but he digs into her frustration at being a mere copy, in spite of having won. She’s the primary abuser in the abusive relationship, and cartooned to look the part with all those spikes, but presented with motivation, and even some sympathy.
Following up on a sequence where she takes Vera to the weird hi tech torture of the rememberist with what looks like more sadism but is actually just (just?) angrily brushing her hair is brilliantly done. And the cathartic stabbing-mum-with-dad moment is subverted by the fact that the mum is just a remote controlled copy of the copy.
The cover says it all, the mother dominating visually, but the book title ignores her, it just references Vera and her dad.
Oh and I loved the line where Vera tells her Dad to “grow a pair”, the anatomical incongruity of it, because he’s a cheap tin can opener.
Visually, it’s a feast, and the simple sketchy style showcases the weirdness and gives it room to breathe far better than if it were a polished “Brian Bolland” style. The recursive pictures are intriguing, the one of the seventies style parents arguing over the TV harks back to days before streaming video and choice somehow, or are they singing or praying over it? Its open to many layers of meaning.
This is booker prize quality stuff, in my opinion, up there with the likes of Peter Carey and Salman Rushdie. Utterly original, a singular vision, open to many interpretations, and good for many re-readings.
Oh wow yeah – it’s only reading Dave pointing it out that I realise how much of a short shrift The Can Opener’s Daughter gives poor Vera’s mother. She’s such a big personality but she’s even overlooked by the title. Son of a bitch.
Having that in mind opens up more readings reading it again for the third time: especially at the end when Vera’s Dad lays it all out there: “”Your friend is right luv, you need to realise how similar you are to your mum. You need to look at what she has achieved. See her for the great rebel she is. She could be a hero to you…” I mean: at the time I kinda dismissed it a little as empty blustering I think but this time it really struck deeply. I mean: if the book was named after Vera’s mum what would it even be called? Not the Weather Clock’s Daughter – as we find out pretty early on Vera’s mum isn’t even the “real” Weather Clock – she’s just a copy of a copy (paging Trent Reznor). I would actively support a fourth book that actually delved more into the life of Vera’s mum. Like – there’s hints of it. The Battling Clocks painting at school. The talk about “The Popular Weather Front” freeing the old Weather Clock from “it’s imprisonment in the pepper mines of Unshamp.” (which reads me of Lanark by Alasdair Gray which I’ve guessing is a book that Rob Davis has imbibed at least once or twice). I mean: I don’t want a history of the Weather Clock with all the blanks filled in (because that would of course be boring and nowhere near as good as how it exists in my mind) but more just to get a sense of how it would feel to be given proof that your very form and existence was nothing more than a cheap replication. That all you were was a recasting of something that had already happened before.
(This painting made me feel much sadder this time than the other times I’d seen it – the whole trying to make a connection using a thing that doesn’t actually let you make a connection – repeated into infinity. A copy of a copy of a copy etc).
Part of me wonders if there’s a feminist point here – in our society it’s often women who have the most emphasis placed upon how they look and I wonder if the copy of a copy thing fits with that? The idea that there’s a pre-existing category that already exists and you just have to fit into that. But maybe that’s a bit of a stretch?
Also I like the bit that comes right after: “Everyone is a rebel when they’re young. Then they grow out of it. That’s because real change means taking power, and power makes monsters of us all. It requires that we do monstrous things.” Although it should be noted that it’s Vera’s mum saying this so maybe it should be taken with a pinch of salt. But then again – what would Vera look like in several years? To some people she already seems like a wrong ‘un back in The Motherless Oven and her personality is already pretty spiky already. Maybe she’s going to end up a copy of a copy too?
Of course I’ve gotta say that with Vera’s mum being Prime Minister and such an evil oppressive force throughout the whole book the person that the Vera’s mum most reminds me of is Margaret Thatcher. And you know the design leans into that all the way with the nearly endless protrusion of spikes and sharp edges. I mean Jesus – even her feet are crazy evil sharp claws (she makes Where The Wild Things Are look like cuddly toys).
Ooh – another reference point is the (sadly quite little known) Raymond Brigg’s book The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman which is well – a picture book for very young children which tells the story of The Falklands War. I’ve yet to read this at a Storytime at work but I’m totally building up to it…
Of course growing up as kid in the 80s under Thatcher’s reign I always kinda thought of her as my “evil other mother” which kinda fits into the Can Opener’s Daughter a little bit too well.
And oh shit – speaking of: did anyone else start reading The Can Opener’s Daughter with a strong sense of: wait a second – where do I recognise that design from? It was kinda on the tip of my brain and I couldn’t quite place it until of course I went back and reread The Motherless Oven again and oh yeah look – there she is right at the start:
(I find this actually spooky).
Rereading it again I’ll admit that the whole “saving Scarper Lee” thing was much much less painful and awkward than the first time I read it. I mean: it’s Vera striking a blow against the system right? Not accepting the way that things are supposed to be. And what could be clearer than actually smashing things to cheat death itself. Ironically knowing that that’s where it’s going made it much easier to accept it.
But at the risk of being incredibly obvious my actual favourite bit was my favourite bit the first time I read it – when Vera and Cas end up visiting the printer’s and end up being confronted by a bunch of fellas who all look like Rob Davis surrogates (or maybe they all just go to the same hairdressers?).
“I’m thinking how we used to say we were subverting the state of thing and now we’re supporting the state of things” is a such a perfect encapsulation of my experience of the vast majority of 21st century mass media that I think the very first time I read this I did a little gasp. I mean there’s a lot of talk about art and films and books and TV being anti-establishment / anti-Capitalist but in the main very few of them actually seem willing to go there and do something different and well hell if these beautiful books are about anything (and lol of course they’re about a lot more than that) they’re about the actual spiritual necessity of making art that’s different just for the sake of it.
Or as the book puts it so much better:
Amen to that.
But ok – let me try and dig down a little into this idea of why trying to make “new sense” is important. I mean: obviously it makes sense in my head but i get that it might not make sense in yours. Like maybe you think it’s enough to just keep consuming the things that you’re already used to. You know: all those good and familiar and comfortable things that you probably enjoyed as a kid and – oooh look – they’ve made a new film of it or whatever.
Your speed may vary but for me the reason I’m into stories and art and comics and all that stuff is because it helps me to open up my mind to new ideas and new thoughts that I haven’t previously come across or experienced. I was rereading the excellent Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics which I would recommend you check out even if (like me) you have no real intention of ever actually writing a comic (lol). One of the bit that grabbed me by the brain was the bit when Alan Moore talks about the necessity of making sure that you start off a story with an idea. One of the examples he gave was the thing about how some people are never really in the present and are always thinking about things that happened to them in the past or the things they’re going to do in the future which means that they never play attention to the life that they have in front of them (which yeah I agree is pretty sad). The thing that made me go “huh?” tho is that apparently this was the basis for the very super Superman story he wrote with Dave Gibbons called “For the Man Who Has Everything” (which you should also check out if you haven’t already – seriously it’s fucking perfect).
Now when I read this story it didn’t really make me think about not playing attention to the life that I have in front of me. In fact it made me think more about how it’s cool that one of the best Superman stories of all time isn’t about someone hurting him physically – but hurting him mentally and emotionally. How someone got into Superman’s head and heart and then twisted the knife and hell – maybe that’s true for all of us you know? It’s the scars on the inside that take the longest to heal. Especially when those scars are based on our hopes and the way we love other people.
(LOL deep stuff I know).
But here’s the thing – because the story was based upon an idea – this idea lead to other ideas and this will lead to other ideas and then more ideas after that (and you know – that’s kinda one of the thing that this Book Club is based on: hearing how different people respond to the same book: or well shit – I guess actually that’s every book club lol).
And well yeah: this is why I’ve so often so down on things which don’t have any real thought put into them (be that comics or books or films or music or whatever). Because if they don’t have that quality then they’re pretty much useless. It’s like the difference between eating something that’s full of nutrients that will help you grow and expand the possibilities of your mind and well – something made up out of plastic.
Not stopping there and going further: the other important thing is that – not only does a comic need to be based upon an idea – but it needs to be a new idea and it needs to be something that people haven’t seen before: which seems like a tall order but probably isn’t as difficult as all that. I mean: our world is constantly endlessly changing and new things keep happening every single day (I could write you a list of all the craziness that’s happened in just the past year or so but hell: you were there too so you already know what I’m talking about…). And hell in terms of trying to make sense of it and understand it (what’s happening to the world and what’s happening to ourselves) the old metaphors and ways of thinking aren’t going to cut it (in fact: they might actually be part of the problem). Which you know – is why we need new sense and new metaphors and new ways of thinking. Not just because it’s fun and interesting and makes for cool books like the Can Opener’s Daughter – but because thinking about things in new ways may be the only way we can make sense of stuff. And maybe it’s the only way out.
And also because if you can only think what’s been thunk before then how do you even know you’re alive?
Twitter / Improvised Comics
Hi Joel and all,
Going back to your previous email – yes! Good spot on comparing it to Alasdair Gray’s “Lanark”, these books have a similar give to them.
Your final statement here for me thinking: “thinking about things in new ways may be the only way we can make sense of stuff”. It got me thinking about the relationship between these books and making sense. I’m not sure that that is what’s going on here.
These books are surrealist rather than fantasy, and as such they don’t make sense rationally. They’re juxtaposing things that don’t fit together, that are absurd, and letting that friction get under our skin. There’s a lot in here for the mind to get to work on, layers and layers of symbolism and all the gorgeous puns, but when I read it, something else is going on too, a much more emotional response. And if I responded with my mind, decoding the symbols, I’d miss something deeper.
Some of the emotional charge lies in sympathy with the characters, which is the most common way for fiction to generate emotional charge. Scarper’s moody fatalism, his mum’s heroic alcoholic end, the emotional triangle of Vera and her parents that I wrote about in the previous email. But I get a strong emotional, bodily response too from the imagery of the raining knives, for example, and the lumpy physicality of the racing dads, from the wheels and recursive paintings, or the whale with the baby face for an eye. The many ways he reinvents death, and the many blurrings between the animate and inanimate, make me feel my own mortality, without making sense of it. It’s a bit like watching Jan Svankmajer’s short stop-motion animations (go Google “food” or “dimensions of dialogue”), or Pez’s cheerier shorts (Google “pez guacamole”).
I reckon these books work so well because they can speak at these deep subconscious levels while retaining their absurdity and playfulness, and also provide a lot of intellectual fodder.
I’m all worded out. If that doesn’t make sense, next time I’m in London, I’ll come and express myself using puppets and free form dance (fortunately for us all, I’m not often in London!!)
I went ahead and bought these. It’s a testament to how much I value them as my own bookshelves have been overflowing for more than 20 years (though I always assumed people fucked me in spite of my books, not because of them) and I only ever buy books I can’t get through the library (which ain’t much). But after my 9 year old and I both agreed this was some of the best stuff we’d read in a long time I knew we needed to own them.
Over a period of about two weeks I spent over 16 snack-fuelled hours engaged in one-to-one conversation with my 9 year old trying to answer her questions about The Motherless Oven. We talked about parental archetypes, the origins of creativity, the nature of truth, class structure and the universal experience of rebelling (a sentiment I recently enjoyed exploring in Punk Rock Jesus which is fun and your local library probably just acquired).
We’re about 7 hours into our discussion of The Can Opener’s Daughter and we’ve looked at what evidence there is that children end up just like their parents, what are the manifestations of class, why the weather clock fears being known as a mother, and what we’d make our own parents if we were building them in the motherless oven. I’m guessing we’ll spend at least another 7 hours on this book but it could just as easily be more. It’s hard to see where any discourse based on these works would really need to end.
And that’s kind of the point really. I don’t want to try and reduce and distil these books into their themes and messages and clever little insights ideally suited to fora just like this one. I want to sit for hour upon tea (whisky?) -soaked hour talking about the big ideas this guy has managed to put into these gorgeous little pages. 35 quid (or a trip to your local library), for an endless source of fascinating conversation. Go get these books. Read them with a friend or your partner or your kid and talk about them. You’ll find you love each other more at the end of every discussion.
Gotta run, we’re off to make nuisance 😉