In Utero Chris Gooch Reviews 

“In Utero”

By | April 16th, 2024
Posted in Reviews | % Comments

What if your new imaginary friend was a creature inside an egg in the basement of a mall? What if that egg hatched?

From acclaimed Australian graphic novelist Chris Gooch, “In Utero” tells the story of the unusual friendship between Hailey and Jen, a creature who has been gestating in an egg in the basement of an abandoned mall for twelve years. It’s also about our fear of the unknown and the fierceness with which mothers protect and love their daughters.

In Utero by Chris Gooch
Written and Illustrated by Chris Gooch

Twelve years after a disastrous explosion, young Hailey is dropped off by her mum at a holiday camp in a dilapidated shopping mall. Alienated from the other kids, she connects with an eerie older teen named Jen… but soon dark horrors awaken, and the two new friends are caught up in a cataclysmic battle between two terrifying creatures who have been lying dormant all this time.

“In Utero” opens with a mundane image that soon turns catastrophic. A pregnant woman is trying to rest while her son bothers her. But when they look out the window, a giant mushroom cloud appears over the city. Twelve years later, a superhighway is all that’s left of the city block destroyed by what’s called the ‘Stonehill explosion’. Later, the same mom is driving on this highway while her daughter, now twelve years old, pesters her with facts the way kids sometimes do. Hailey is set to go to a camp her father picked out because it’s cheap. The camp is in an abandoned mall, which serves as the setting for the rest of the story. If you grew up going to malls during their heyday, you know exactly the kind of eerie feeling an abandoned one evokes. Graffiti and empty storefronts are accompanied by leftover boxes of goods from stores and even an abandoned parking garage filled with toxic water.

This setup of the world and story is efficient but effective. It’s not easy to plunk readers down in a near-future world and introduce us to characters while giving us the information we need to care about them without making those pages feel like they drag on. This is true of the book as a whole, which is so tightly plotted, no panel seems unnecessary. Every scene either moves the story forward or gives you a crucial character detail. Even ones that seem mundane tell you important things, like when Hailey’s brother asks if anyone bothered to call Hailey’s dad. (LOL, nope. He’s clearly useless, but we know that from these little details sprinkled in throughout.)

Once Hailey secures her freedom from the rest of the daycare, she explores the mall and meets an older girl named Jen. Jen shows her around the mall and seems more mature and self-assured than Hailey. Meanwhile, a pair of younger kids have discovered a gooey brain-like creature and, of course, poke it. A hazmat team is called, and they discover more gooeys hiding in every crevice of the mall. So many gooey brains. They merge when in close proximity and soon the gooey brain monster is a giant with very sharp teeth.

Jen leads Hailey to the depths of the mall’s basement, and shows her a giant egg. Jen is the creature inside the egg. She communicates telepathically somehow, and can travel through people’s brains. Jen brings Haily to her inner world, where she sits in a dreamscape on top of a giant skeleton—her mother.

Black page margins and gutters, along with the sparing use of white space to emphasize light (and flames), lend the physical book a creepy feeling. It fits. The “monster” named Jen crawled out of the dark, after all. The only colors are blue and red. In the beginning of the book, red panels show the goopy monster’s development while blue ones follow Jen and Hailey’s journey into the basement of the mall. But as Hailey enters Jen’s psychic space inside the egg, the two colors merge and their significance flips. Blue shading is for the outside world, where the mindless brain monster lives and red is for Jen’s inner world.

Jen tells Hailey the real story behind the explosion twelve years ago as the hazmat team searches for Hailey and the gooey brain monsters, led by a scientist no one believes and a commando eager to shoot at anything that moves. Several sly details provide commentary on things like pandemic precautions (as the scientist has to ask several people to adjust their masks) and how humans are quick to label anything they don’t understand as monstrous. Jen’s mother fought the brain monster twelve years ago. She hid her egg away in the mall before blowing herself up along with the monster. They’ve both been hiding in the mall, waiting for the right moment to re-emerge. Hailey becomes suspicious that Jen is actually using her to help her fight the monster. It’s partially true, but together, they are able to cut open the monster’s brain and stop it so that Jen can escape.

Billed as a story about mothers and daughters (plus monsters), I’d say it’s more a story about unusual friendships and families. Jen’s mother’s memories may be what drives her to survive, but her bond with Hailey is the emotional core of the story. And while we see Hailey’s mom in a desperate fight to get to her daughter, we simply spend more page time with Hailey and Jen. Their sweet, strange friendship is what I took away from the story. It’s not entirely clear how Jen can be both a ferocious dog-like monster and a girl who can walk through walls and people’s minds, but it doesn’t really matter. Her desire for connection with Hailey felt true enough to make up for the lack of in-world explanations.

“In Utero” is also billed as a horror graphic novel. I would classify it as “gooey horror.” Both Jen and the monster she fights are big, Kaiju-like creatures with very pointy teeth who fight an epic battle. But the most horrifying panels are the ones with ooey gooey brains dripping everywhere and inside actual brains, where eyes and other organs protrude from the squishy walls. When I say there’s lots of brains, believe me. And despite its title, there’s no pregnancy body horror, which was a relief to me. Fans of Cronenberg films or truly scary horror might not be scared enough, but those who liked “Stranger Things” and like emotionally resonant stories about friendship will enjoy “In Utero” — if they’re okay with some brains and some teeth.

//TAGS | Original Graphic Novel

Mel Lake


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