Top Shelf recently published Australian Chris Gooch’s In Utero, a surprising coming-of-age graphic novel, as the title misled me at first (I do like the title ultimately. It makes perfect sense once you read the comic). The book starts with a preliminary event, twelve years before the main story begins. A mysterious explosion, right in the middle of the city, devastates a large section of the downtown area. In the twelve years that have passed, though the hole in the earth remains visible, roads have been built over it. Some businesses surrounding it, however, seem to be left in disrepair. The rest of the city’s population continues on as if nothing has happened. The bulk of the story will take place in one of the abandoned buildings surrounding the site.
After this five-page/twelve-panel opening sequence, the story in the present begins, and we meet our young protagonist, Hailey, whose father has registered her in a holiday camp in a dilapidated old mall. Hailey’s mother, though not impressed with the mall when she arrives, still drops Hailey off out front, so she can rush off to work. Hailey slams the car door and makes her way inside: The interior is tagged with spraypainted initials throughout the hallways and on the pillars. Hailey takes the elevator to the top floor and finds a baby crawling alone in a hallway outside the main room completely unattended. She takes the baby inside and sees the woman in charge who is surrounded by babies and toddlers. She is screaming into the phone at her partner, John, who obviously has not shown up on time. Clearly, the one adult there is completely overwhelmed and in over her head. The scene switches to show two young boys getting into trouble looking at some very strange, small, responsive, living organisms that look like nothing I have ever seen. The story begins to get very odd all of a sudden as a seemingly horror-like element is introduced.
Meanwhile, Hailey meets a teenager, a little older than she is, whom she befriends. Her new friend, Jen, takes her further away from the leader of the camp as they wander down into a lower level of the mall, finding old potato chips to eat in an abandoned store. Then Jen leads Hailey down to the bottom level where they discover the parking garage for the mall. There are cars left behind with water as high as the top of the car wheels, so Jen and Hailey walk a path through the space by stepping from one partially submerged car to another until they reach the giant . . . .
And that is where I have to stop to prevent you from getting any spoilers, but let me just say that the twist is completely surprising. And it is this great twist that really makes this graphic novel a wonderful story. Hailey and Jen get into a lot of dangerous situations, and the story does not turn out at all like you will be expecting. I will say that while Jen and Hailey are exploring, John finally shows up to help the camp leader, Linda. So, Linda goes off to smoke, leaving John in charge. Linda discovers the two boys with the living organisms and soon realizes that there are many more and the mall is covered in them. She calls the police, and soon the mall is swarming with specialists in protective suits and who carry containment devices. Linda, John, and all the kids are put in quarantine, but one child, they soon discover, is missing. That child — Hailey — is off having her adventure, and we spend the rest of the time in the graphic novel going back and forth between Hailey’s story and what is going on with the scientists, the police, and the army, who have arrived to take charge.
In Utero is a wonderful, fascinating, and surprising graphic novel. The art is beautiful and striking, particularly the use of colors. Scenes are differentiated from one another by shifting the color palette from either a blue-and-white color scheme or a red-and-white one. Sometimes the shift is within a single page, and that helps the reader easily follow the plot, always able to tell at a glance where we are in the mall, or at times, in a place that is simply, elsewhere. I cannot explain it in any other way without giving spoilers. The contrasts between elsewhere and the mall at the end of chapter two are particularly effective. But the need for these contrasts continue throughout the book, with the implementation of only red and blue being quite effective visually. With such strong art and such a compelling story, In Utero is clearly a five-star graphic novel by an exceptionally gifted artist.