Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘In Utero’

“Don’t take a phone company to tell you life’s pay as you go”

I like Chris Gooch‘s comics, so I’m glad he has a new one every few years or so. His latest, In Utero, is published by Top Shelf. Let’s have a look!

Gooch tends to write slightly off-kilter science fiction, and in this comic, he begins with a big explosion in an Australian city that, 12 years later, is still having an effect on the residents. A mother drops her daughter, Hailey, off at a very sketchy daycare program in an abandoned mall. The people running the daycare are overwhelmed, so Hailey is allowed to wander off by herself. She finds some younger boys in a room who have found something weird that they don’t want to reveal, and then she meets a slightly older teen named Jen who seems perfectly nice and offers to show her “something really cool” in the mall’s lower levels. Hailey, of course, being a 12-year-old, thinks this is awesome instead of terrifying, so she goes off. Meanwhile, we see that the boys have found what looks like a brain. Well, that won’t come back to haunt anyone later, right?

In the basement, Jen shows Hailey the flooded lower level (with cars still there) and then … a giant egg. Well, that can’t be great. Then, Jen tells Hailey that she, Jen, is inside the egg, and that she’s not exactly a person, just a mental projection of whatever is inside the egg. Then, the boys find more brains, which start doing things. Oh dear. None of this can be good.

It turns out that this is a monster story (sorry, that’s not exactly a spoiler). The explosion a dozen years ago was caused by a fight between monsters, and it seemingly killed them, but now one of them is waking up, and the other … is Jen. The army, naturally, gets involved, and Hailey’s mother finds out her daughter is missing and freaks out, and Jen and Hailey need to figure out how to stop the “bad” monster before it kills everyone. So … there’s that.

This is a fascinating book, because it’s not too often we get an “origin” story of a monster from the monster’s point of view. Jen is an interesting character because she’s trying to figure out what kind of … well, not person, but entity she is, and whether she can change that. She might look like a monster (when she hatches, that is), but she certainly doesn’t want to be one, but she might have to be in order to stop the worse monster in the story. The other monster is also interesting, because while Jen is able to speak for herself, it has no voice, but just because Gooch allows Jen to express herself, it means the reader starts to wonder about what the other monster is thinking, and whether it should be considered something more than just a “monster.” We only have Jen’s version of events from 12 years earlier, and that’s a bit suspect, so while Gooch makes sure to make the other monster a bit creepier and Jen – as a “monster” – a bit less evil-looking, the fact that we don’t know what the other monster is thinking is still in the back of our minds, making this a bit more complex than just a monster fight. It’s a nifty trick by Gooch.

Of course, this is more about Hailey and Jen than the actual monster fight. Gooch hits all the standard beats of this kind of story – the growing dread of the humans, the arrival of the scientists and the soldiers, the death of the cannon fodder, the suspicion and fear that the army will not distinguish between “good” and “bad” monsters – and he does it well, but the friendship between Hailey and Jen is at the center of the book. Hailey is a child of divorce, and her mother does not have good things to say about her father, naturally. She is obviously lonely (her brother is significantly older than she is), and Gooch does a nice job with showing that without being too obvious about it. She looks up to Jen early on, as she obviously looks at her as an older sister type, and when Jen does reveal what she is, Hailey doesn’t flinch, but is very willing to help Jen take on the “bad” monster. Their relationship has a nice, realistic feeling to it (yes, Jen is a monster and a lot of their relationship takes place inside the minds of the characters, but you know what I mean!), and it makes this a more humanistic monster story than you might expect. Plus, the other people in the story aren’t cardboard stereotypes, either. All of them have their own personalities, and Gooch does a nice job showing that the actions they take are logical, even if they might be ill-advised at times.

Gooch’s art has gotten a bit more confident over the years, which isn’t surprising. His characters are nicely done – just the tiniest bit cartoony, so he uses their big, manga-y eyes to good effect, but a bit more realistic in their bodies and other parts of their faces. He does a wonderful job with decay – he always has – as the mall is a dilapidated place, with dark corners and dank basements – the perfect place for monsters to incubate. His monsters are terrific – the “bad” one is scary and ugly, while he manages to make Jen far less monstrous, so the readers – and those encountering her – won’t react negatively. When Hailey and Jen are in the mindscape, he does a nice job making it alien but also a bit familiar, so it doesn’t take us too far out of the story, and the otherworldly depiction of the “bad” monster is truly terrifying. His fight scenes at the end are very well done, as both Jen and the “bad” monster are trying their best to kill the other, and Gooch doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of two monsters tearing at each other (without being too gory; the book is actually not bloody at all, as perhaps Gooch is trying to keep it “YA,” so it’s kind of impressive it’s as brutal as it is). He does a nice job with coloring – most of the book is cool, soothing blue, but some scenes are starker, hotter red, and while that’s not the most innovative use of colors, it’s always effective. Gooch also uses nice Zip-A-Tone effects, adding some nice texture to the artwork and making it all seem more three-dimensional. I don’t recall him using that before; I’d have to check, but if he hasn’t, it adds some good nuance to his artwork.

Overall, this is another good comic from Gooch. I wouldn’t call anything he’s done so far a masterpiece, but he creates good comics that entertain and also have a bit more on their minds than you’d think at first glance. He’s young, too – he turned 30 last year – and he’s always improving, so I look forward to his next comic! In the meantime, you can find this book right here!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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