In Utero by Chris GoochIn Utero by Chris Gooch (writer and artist)

Top Shelf recently published Australian Chris Gooch’s In Utero, a surprising coming-of-age graphic novel. 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.

The title of this graphic novel cues us into the thematic ideas conveyed in the story. The term in utero gets us to think about mothers and their children, and for our protagonist, we have a literal image of her at the beginning of the book in her mother’s body — we see her pregnant mother in the first few pages of the graphic novel when the explosion first occurred. Thus, her birth is linked to the explosion in our minds. Years later, when we see Hailey as a young girl, we are witnessing her coming-of age as she visits the site of this explosion: Hailey is on the cusp of maturing. In other words, she is about to be born into another stage of life, guided by an older girl who stands in for the absent mother, because Hailey’s mother has abandoned her to irresponsible adults. Jen takes Hailey under her wing and nurtures her, allowing Hailey to grow up and make more adult decisions, to be independent in ways her mother has never allowed. Unfortunately, because I cannot give spoilers, I am unable to reveal the other ways in which the title thematically resonates in the graphic novel. But it touches on Jen’s situation and her relationship with her absent mother. So, we have two girls trying to make sense of their place in the world without maternal guidance. In Utero echoes with images and ideas of motherhood and birthing.

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.


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

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