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Book Review: In Vitro

22 June 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1052

In Vitro

By William Roy

Published by 2000AD

ISBN-10: 1643379887, ISBN-13: 978-1643379883

Buy this book from Amazon UK

In Vitro is a graphic novel written by William Roy, telling the story of a couple's journey to and through IVF treatment, from the perspective of the would-be father.

The story is described as autobiographical yet centres on the fictional characters Guillaume and Emma, a young couple living in Paris. After two years of trying for a baby, they go to get checked out at a fertility clinic. 'While she was getting a series of unpleasant gynaecological tests done, I went to a lab and jerked off into a cup...', Guillaume narrates, adding, 'They use different terminology.' The tests reveal that he is infertile. They decide to try for a baby through ICSI and IVF. The rest of their story unfolds in a comic, drawn in a combination of monochrome colour and black lines that is pleasant to look at and clear to understand.

Roy draws unexpected dark humour from a difficult situation. The inexplicably terrible art hung in the sample collection room, for example, which Guillaume tries and fails to ignore while masturbating; or the awkwardness of coming face-to-face with another man emerging from a collection room, both of them clutching full samples. A fertility doctor won't stop fiddling with what Guillaume first thinks are rosary beads. Guillaume comments, 'They're made of balls!' (It's actually an orchidometre).

There are also flights of inventive fantasy, as Guillaume argues with a horde of his ancestors, or the crazed Professor Beuaarr pops up to break the fourth wall by explaining something scientific to the reader, before degenerating into somewhat obscene farce.

But while humour keeps the mood from dipping into melancholy, the story still manages to effectively capture the difficulties of the IVF treatment process. When tragic news occurs, the author lets panels without words convey the couple's devastation, showing, for example, their two tiny figures standing outside a pharmacy to see the results of a pregnancy test, then mutely huddled together on a nearby bench.

Indeed, the comic medium is very effective at presenting themes and questions implicitly. Although Guillaume does reflect on wider themes of what being infertile means for him and talks to an unexpected friend about his guilt at putting his fertile partner through IVF, this was not the most significant aspect of the book to me. While the science of IVF to assist conception is remarkable, as Guillaume narrates, '...the real struggle takes place outside,' and it is the lengthy array of repetitive tests, strictly timed schedules, indifferent administrators, and multiple doctors that really showed me something new. I particularly admired the artist's ability to show a range of emotions using simplified caricatures – their lively facial expressions, sometimes smiling or kind, at other times indifferent and uninterested.

Questions about the importance of genetic versus social relationships, or personal preferences for IVF over adoption, are framed with the aid of flashbacks. Guillaume works as a film editor, and happens to be working on a film about same-sex marriage. Guillaume fears he wouldn't love an adopted child enough. Alongside the central story, he is contacted by his estranged father, who did not seem to want him. But it is left to the reader to ultimately draw their own conclusions about what the basis of these relationships are.

Emma's feelings, or her experience in procedures where her partner isn't present, are hardly shown. We only ever see her through Guillaume's eyes. Provided he is a reliable narrator, she appears to be a true optimist, and their relationship remains stable. This might alienate some readers who would like a more balanced view of a couple going through IVF, or simply a fully fleshed out female character. While others might simply appreciate a male-centric account of infertility, especially as it often seems there are not enough resources for men on this journey (see BioNews 970).

The conclusion of the central plot, of course, hinges on whether Emma will become pregnant and deliver a baby, not whether the treatments will be a success or whether the couple will remain together, or even if Guillaume will reconcile with his father. This is something that is only revealed in the last frame, so read the book to find out!

Buy In Vitro from Amazon UK.

In Vitro
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