The abyss in Kevin Mutch’s Fantastic Life

Fantastic Life is a hallucinogenic trip full of zombies. Why did I dislike it initially?

George Orwell wrote in Confessions of a Book Reviewer: “It is almost impossible to mention books in bulk without grossly over-praising the great majority of them.” I have written a few reviews of graphic novels over the past few months, and found that I didn’t have a negative thing to say about a single one of them. I began to wonder if I had fallen foul of some reviewer’s rule, where I was “grossly over-praising” (to borrow Orwell’s phrase). I wondered if comics were so necessarily complex, that by the very act of making them, all quality issues are automatically taken care of. Was there not a single graphic novel that I had not enjoyed reading?

Racking my brain, I thought about how uncomfortable Kevin Mutch’s Fantastic Life made me feel. I remember buying it second-hand in a comics’ fair, struck by the illustration style. I own an older, black-and-white edition. It lay on my shelves for the longest time, until one of my friends came to stay with her husband on a visit. I met her when she was a literature student, and she went on to work in publishing. She dug the book out from somewhere and asked to read it, while she smoked by herself (no one else in our house did). I only really looked at it after she put it down.

Typographically, the book isn’t put together really well. The pages have no numbers. Yet, the drawing style is far from amateur. The figures are drawn in good proportion with excellent ink lines. Kids at a college party. This could be fun.

Okay, so I was too stupid to get it. This is not the first graphic novel I completely missed the point of in that period of reading. I don’t mean this to be self-deprecatory. Having undergone a deeply personal journey seeking the means to be artistically productive, the underlying explorations of the psyche such a journey necessarily entails, the darkness that has to be looked at and examined, and the massive expansion in consciousness that is the end-product of this process, I sort of get the direction in which Mutch wants us to go. In fact, it does make me wonder if comics are for a general reading audience at all. They seem to need a sort of brain plasticity to decode. They are going to pass by the ears of a lot of people.

Mutch’s inspiration are the terrible nightmares about zombies he suffers, and the paintings of the protagonist Adam, an art student who plays in a band, in are the author’s actual, own work. “I still get zombie nightmares from time to time, but they’re getting a bit less vivid and a little less frightening, which I suppose is true of life in general as it goes on,” writes Mutch in the introduction.

The most interesting character in this novel is Anna, the fair-haired girl who works as a nude model at Adam’s art school, and is a political radical who is seeped in a typical sort of Critical Theory. She serves as a foil to the geeky Adam. The two have clashing, contrasting views. Anna gives Adam a hard time for wearing leather, asking what dead cows have to do with rock music. Adam says stupid things to her in response, like he has no problems with lesbianism, as long as they let him watch.

Adam zones in and out of hallucinations involving Anna. In one she throws him over. In another, they’ve spent the night together. In between, people slowly transform into zombies and the panel work, again, beautifully proportioned, segues into the gothic paintings on Adam’s bedroom wall.

Though very different in tone, but equivalently filled with art students smoking at parties and lots of babes and tits, is Jamie Coe’s Art Schooled. Both novels are about the ridiculous things that go on in art schools, and the weird characters that inhabit the spaces. Coe’s work is rooted much more in reality (playing more with panel structures and typography) and a lot less disturbing, while Mutch has very regular panels, but the story-telling inside is not for the squeamish.

On a re-reading, a year after my editor friend had left, and my graphic design studies progress, I find that I enjoy the novel much more. Mutch’s work shines, and is professional grade. It really deserved better publishing resources. Yet, I still didn’t like the ending. That, of course, is the artist’s prerogative, how they want to leave the protagonist and the emotions we’ve invested in the character’s struggle as readers. My other great learning between buying this book and understanding it, is that mental battles are won not shutting ourselves away from the world, but seeking ways to open ourselves and be vulnerable to it. As Nietzsche wrote:

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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