Disclaimer: This review is based on a review copy provided by AdHouse Books.
The Oven took two categories at the 2015 Ignatz Awards: Outstanding Graphic Novel and Outstanding Comic, wins that were well-deserved. Sophie Goldstein, who was nominated last year for House of Women, might also be familiar as one of the minds behind Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell, a now-completed webcomic featuring manticores, karma, and lots of roommate drama.
I read The Over in early September, the same weekend it won those Ignatz Awards, in a straight read through, and I’ve been starting and stopping this review since then. It’s not because I didn’t enjoy it or that I don’t have anything to say.
It’s because Sophie Goldstein’s The Oven held so much inside of it that I didn’t know if I wanted to unwrap it all, if I could, or if I should.
The basic premise, which is compared often to The Handmaid’s Tale, but feels maybe more like Gattaca, is this: Syd and her boyfriend Eric want a baby, but they aren’t legally allowed to breed. His acne constitutes a genetic defect, keeping him from their mysterious bubble city’s breeding pool. Since they cannot fix his genes, they instead hitch a ride out of the safety of their urban, controlling environment and strike it out in the wilderness outside. The Oven takes its name from the punishing sun; unprotected inhabitants burn up and are poisoned by the radiation. There’s no government-controlled protective dome there.
Our couple settles in to an agrarian lifestyle adjacent to their welcoming committee, an interracial couple, Maggie and Bear, who have three children and are trying to have more. They meet other wilderness dwellers, folks who left the city for freedom, for children, for various things. There’s a little community, and just like any other community, it has its own vices. Eric gets high, misses TV screens, and feels stifled by how hard manual labor actually is. Syd gets pregnant. Life, basically, goes on in the Oven just like it did before, only harder and dryer and less comfortable.
It’s a small story—essentially about a couple who may or may not want the same thing from their relationship—but it beats butterfly wings against a sprawling expanse of themes and issues as it progresses. Like many dystopias, the social or governmental breakdown or natural disaster is never really revealed, but unlike many, the dire straits illustrated don’t feel too far-fetched. Characters who have freed themselves from what they considered over-bearing government tyranny still yearn for the comforts of control, and life off-the-grid isn’t an idyllic paradise.
Sophie Goldstein’s art style is stark and geometric, in a way that almost belies how soft her touch is for things like expressions, gestures, folds in clothing. The book is hued in greys, blacks, and oranges, the bright light of a harsh sun permeating the world of the Oven around them. Bodies here are shown and stripped without fanfare—Syd and Eric want a baby, so they fuck, sprawled in their dilapidated freedom house. Time passes in wordless panels, giving us daily life without bogging the book down in too much exposition.
Details are woven in dialogue, broken down furniture, even in Maggie’s glasses and potential unspoken racial implications. Goldstein is light-handed when she introduces the drug of choice in the Oven—a psychedelic worm trapped in a metallic cocoon. When Eric trips, it’s not over-the-top, but centered in his body, the feeling of being a million different parts without any 1970s hallucinatory pastiche in the art. A metamorphosis is occurring for both Syd and Eric as they find their bodies, as Syd discovers hers is growing a child and Eric discovers his yearning to escape is also growing.
Goldstein’s book is a delight to hold, printing-wise. It’s bright orange caught my eye when it was first announced, and the interior printing looks wonderful. The book’s pages are stained around the edges, making it a block of color, solid, unrelenting in your hand. Syd stares, cocooned in a protective headscarf, the same bright orange as the sun she now lives under.