Kevin Mutch draws terrific tits. I know, I know, but it’s best to get it out in the open, and as bluntly as possible. I mean, the book sure does—“Look at those tits!” is the third line on the first page. Fantastic Life is festooned with the things, and they’re as alluringly drawn as I’ve ever seen them, largely because Mutch doesn’t pull any punches by idealizing them. They obey the laws of gravity, they seem kind of awkward to have to deal with if you happen to own a pair, they draw the unwelcome and laser-focused attention of horny creeps (ahem), and as with all of humanity’s primary and secondary sex characteristics, the longer you look at them the weirder they get. But boy, do we look anyway! And in the case of Fantastic Life, those terrific tits are emblematic of why and how the book succeeds.
On the surface, this is familiar territory. It’s the story of a drunken, drugged-up art-school malcontent stumbling his way through awful parties, lousy punk shows, mortifying painting-class critiques, and portentous encounters with the woman of his (wet) dreams, with some “is it a hallucination/is it a dream/is it a warp in the space-time continuum?” weirdness ladled on top toward the end. Charles Burns’s X’d Out and the film version of Daniel Clowes’s “Art School Confidential” are the nearest analogues; Fantastic Life shares the former’s pill-popping, reality-hopping protagonist and intrusive mental imagery (swap out holes and pig fetuses for zombies and the aforementioned mammary glands), as well as the latter’s nude-model love interest and overall contempt for people who use words like “paradigm” to describe a painting of Papa Smurf. Beyond that you might be reminded of the Jaime Hernandez’s booze-soaked punk-centric Love and Rockets material, or that bit in Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings in which the lead puts up with some performance-art nonsense (“This song is called ‘Fallujah’” or whatever) in hopes that he can score with the artist.
Mutch isn’t the stylist or craftsmen any of those guys are, however, and the book is drawn in a familiar, though admittedly pleasant, classically alt style, with heavy-lidded, pug-nosed, lanky characters and thick lines that wouldn’t look out of place in a Danny Hellman or Ellen Lindner piece you saw linked to by someone on the TCJ message board some time before 9/11. Lots of beer bottles, lots of cigarette stubs, you know? And there are limitations to its Xeric Grant-funded self-published printing, too: I can’t remember the last time I saw a book printed in gray tones that didn’t clearly want to be either color or black-and-white instead.
But Mutch steeps his story in atmosphere palpable enough to transcend the familiarity of subject and style as well as the limitations of the presentation. And again, as with the tits, this is a matter of believable, sense-memory-triggering detail. Early on, a very sudden and very funny glimpse of an unexpectedly topless party-goer precedes main character Adam’s first of many fades into unconsciousness—precisely the kind of “the last thing I remember is…” image that bubbles back to the surface after an alcohol-induced blackout. The art-school sequence is a bit more alien to me (hey, I did really well in that one photography class I took, thank you very much), but it’s peppered with believably idiosyncratic obnoxiousness, like the trollish asshole who baits the women in the class with a painting of Smurfette being disemboweled or the earth-mother type who dismisses Adam’s questions about form as the result of traumatic potty training. Later, Mutch nails the kind of night out where each new drink or substance consumed makes saying what you want to say and getting what you want to get a more and more excruciating ordeal as the time passes, with each newcomer to your shrinking sphere of consciousness throwing a monkey wrench into the works just as you were starting to figure things out.
But it’s not just awkwardness and awfulness Mutch excels at. Toward the end of the bar sequence, Adam has a sudden epiphany that enables him to improvise some quantum-physics jive in order to beat back a blowhard rival for his inamorata Anna’s affections. You can feel the triumph in his mind as he realizes it’s working—it’s that same just-solved-a-Rubik’s-Cube sense of things improbably clicking into place people feel when they realize that against all odds, someone’s buying their bullshit. This leads to a conversational interlude in the nude that’s almost oppressively sexy—think of Keith’s conversations with the casually sensual Eliza in Burns’s not-dissimilar Black Hole—followed by a sex scene that captures, better than most any I’ve read in comics, that woo-hoo sensation of finally being able to touch and draw pleasure from a human body you’ve desired. “It’s like a fuckin’ dream come true!” Adam thinks, a foul-mouthed adult variation on that feeling you get as a kid when you go to Disney World and rocket from ride to ride, your delight shot through with disbelief that you’re actually there.
The kicker to it all is that Adam is actually quite the dullard compared to most of the other students we meet. He may dismiss their jargon-laden discussions of art, feminism, science, and philosophy as just a way to get in an intellectual’s pants at best and pretentious bullshit at worst, but at least the people spouting it appear to care about something—something beyond getting fucked up and pulling tail, that is. Adam’s got a band that’s mentioned in passing mostly in reference to the hassle of finding a new bass player, and when we first see his paintings, he literally can’t remember painting any of them. It’s only when talking about his work is required as part of a last-ditch attempt to get laid that he does so at all, and it’s only then that he comes alive as a character. Not just because it enables him to successfully woo Anna, or even because he subsequently slips into the nightmarish, zombie-plagued alternate reality that has seemed central to his fugue-like state all this time, but because he’s finally making a case for himself as a person beyond a walking Clowesian collision of id and superego. If existence is really as rootless as Adam’s experiences, real or imagined, make it out to be, then you’ve got to go ahead and root yourself—the same way Mutch’s attention to detail, from the tits on down, solidifies and strengthens this book. It’s horny, heavy shit.