The world of this 386-page part one of a monstrous graphic novel has been thoroughly lived in and explored so that we, the reader, can take a fantastic journey. The author, one Emil Ferris, seemingly arrives from nowhere to join the ranks of graphic storytellers of the first order. Ferris grew up in the 1960s. She holds an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and has been an animator and toy designer. A 2010 video shows pages from the long-form work that would become My Favorite Thing is Monsters – only the cover and pages are different. Does this mean some of the work was re-drawn, or it will show up in Book Two? One thing we can know for sure, Ferris has been working on this book for a long, long time – and it shows.
One senses the author lovingly embraced this work so closely, and for so long, it might have been bittersweet for the author to bring it to an end and release into the world. With the release of My Favorite Thing is Monsters, from Fantagraphics and just in time for Halloween in 2016 (Update: the book’s release is now scheduled for Feb. 14, 2017), comes a fresh, original voice in comics. Meet Emil Ferris.
The first thing that strikes, strokes (your fur), stripes and stretches you on embarking into My Favorite Thing is Monsters is the drawing. Sumptuous, skillful, articulate, intelligent, passionate renderings with pencil and pen lines. The cross-hatching used to both vividly delineate detailed forms and evoke a wide palette of emotion rivals the mature work of Robert Crumb and evokes numerous graphic masters (for me, Maurice Sendak, among others).
The imagery and storytelling are all Ferris. Page after page of organic, dense layouts in the service of the story; swirling spreads that are about using drawing to capture or hide truths such as the splash of green in a pupil or the complex, multi-layered expression on a woman’s face for a fleeting instant in time, all created with an ever-changing variety of mediums and styles. Every strange artistic decision feels right, even if you’ve never seen it done this way before.
And then you delve into the narrative, a sort of Harriet the Spy meets Anne Frank monster mash-up, with a dose of Where the Wild Things Are thrown in for good measure and wrapped around dozens of other symbols and stories.
It’s all shaped into the diary of one 10-year old Karen Reyes, which may or may not depict real-life events (in the first pages Karen appears to turn into a werewolf, but she is never seen as such by anyone but herself). Karen desperately wants “the bite.” She reasons if a monster bites her, she will die and then come back as an immortal being, and then she can bite her family members so they may live forever as well. Things don’t proceed quite the way Karen would like. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is about loss and the aching, crystalline sadness of letting go.
Emil Ferris can draw. Boy, can she draw. But what elevates My Favorite Thing Is Monsters into the stratosphere is her choice to not use her ability to draw like an angel in the service of a sober “true” story that maps to a life lived, but instead to ride the bucking psychedelic bronco of her imagination. Her heroine moves through a wild, ever-shifting matrix of characters, scenarios and realities, only some of which are recognizable.
Karen’s child-life is hardly realistic. In one sequence, the kid knowingly eats a pot brownie, visits a cemetery at night and meets the ghost of Kate Warn, a proto-secret service agent who watched over Lincoln so well, her vigilant eye was used as the logo for a detective agency and thus spawned the term “private eye.” (One learns a lot of interesting facts, reading Ferris. Don’t even ask me about the meaning of the Gorgon myth!).
The book’s design evokes a spiral bound notebook – a conceit seen often from the bestselling Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney to the charming Spiral Bound (2005) by Aaron Renier, and numerous other examples. I’ve never seen it done better than in Ferris’ book. Every page has images of blue notebook lines, three-hole punches and spiral wire binding. As you read the story, some of the pages play with the holes, integrating them into the visuals. (Making nothing appear to be something is the way young/old Karen Reyes copes with the difficulties of her own life).
Reading Emil Ferris’ stunning My Favorite Thing Is Monsters takes me back to 1986. Book One of Maus had been published and it was five years before we saw the second, concluding book. Similarly, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, a thick graphic novel, in all senses of the term, is only part one. I am so thoroughly inducted into the worlds of 10-year old Karen Reyes and the past/present horror/mystery story that I am eager to read the rest of the story. On the other hand, this is one of those books that I enjoyed so very much that I might slow down when I get my hands on part two – thankfully scheduled for release in about six months. After all, this is clearly work that took years to create, with lifetimes behind it and with all the stops pulled out — a go for broke epic story — so why rush it?
As the story opens, Karen Reyes’ neighbor, a troubled and beautiful Polish woman named Anka, has suddenly died. That’s Anka’s beautiful face on the cover of Book One, frightened, world-weary, and full of secrets that perhaps can be unfolded by looking deeply into the her left eye that stares out at us (there’s that eye/seeing theme again). By her own hand, or so they say. Karen, who has a rich interior landscape, sees reasons to question the suicide call and begins to investigate. Karen is a fan of monsters – especially the Universal Studios kind: the Wolf Man, Dracula, and Frankenstein.
Karen enjoys rendering in her spiral bound diary/notebook/sketchbook the covers of the horror mags and comics her brother, Deeze gives her. The handsome young man Deeze, also an obsessive artist (when he’s not obsessively fucking) has a mystery of own, that may be connected to the recently departed Anka. As does her mother. In fact, virtually every character in Ferris’ increasingly complex narrative has secrets. Right down to the glass-eyed, disappeared ventriloquist.
Perhaps the biggest reveal comes in long story-nested-in-a-story when Karen listens to a cassette tape interview with Anka and learns of her incredible, pain-filled life. Born in Berlin in 1920, Anka manages to survive child prostitution and even viler circumstances only to be taken to a concentration camp. In one scene, Anka is taken by Nazi guards into a quonset hut to call her powerful and mysterious benefactor, a sort of perverted Daddy Warbucks, and a monster, even if his appearance is normal. Ferris draws the wooden walls of the hut with psychedelic intensity, and then into the grain, the face of Anaka’s savior, with one eye a knothole (there’s that one eye theme again … there’s that playing with holes and negative space again). The parallels with Maus are unavoidable, and one wonders if Ferris has a personal connection herself to the material – it certainly seems so. In any case not all of the monsters in My Favorite Thing Is Monsters are creature features.
Around Anka’s story, which young Karen bears witness to, are many other stories and characters with which Ferris interweaves her monster theme to add layers of complexity. There’s Karen’s classmate and friend Franklin (Frankenstein) whose face is a network of scars, through which Karen imagines his inner luminescence shines. I was struck by Karen’s new friend, the poor, starved Appalachian country girl whose disturbingly unfocused eyes and manner remind me at times of Sparkle Plenty from Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy.
Most lovingly rendered of all is Karen’s mother. A single mom, firm, compassionate deeply superstitious and possessed of an inner strength to be awed. We love her because she loves Karen and Deeze. In one scene, Ferris devotes a full page to a lovely image of the mother sleeping on their living room couch. She is drawn so tenderly, so vulnerably she appears to be the child figure in the story. Perfectly, the image is inverted — the parent has become the child in this moment. This image foreshadows one of the most powerful scenes in the novel.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters takes place in Chicago in the late 1960s. MLK is shot and killed during the course of the story and the city and Ferris’ characters react to the loss with pain, numbness and self-destructive decisions. Ferris weaves in history the way Mad Men shows us the 1960s, from the inside out.
Although the story centers on 10-year old Karen, the book is not a children’s story, nor is it a young adult story. There is death and loss, sex and violence – all drawn so beautifully it’s easy to forget the horrors Ferris is showing us. Karen draws herself as a silly, cartoonish, Sendak style young werewolf – usually wearing a too-large trenchcoat and hat, private eye style. We are permitted to see her true image only once in Book One, when her brother, who has read her sketchbook/diary forces her to look in a mirror and see her true image.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, believe it or not, has much more to offer than what I’ve described in this review. For one, there’s an ongoing concern with art itself. Karen and her brother love to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, its entrance guarded by a pair of majestic lion statues which Ferris, who has no doubt walked past many times herself, depicts with impressive, eyeball kicking hyper-realism. Karen has the ability to walk into select paintings and see deeply into them. Some of my favorite moments in the story occur when Ferris renders graphic versions of these paintings in colored pencil and then opens them up. For both Karen and Ferris (who has an MFA from the Art Institute), the great art of the past is a living, huffing, panting, breathing, howling creature to be ogled, respected and perhaps embraced, at times feared — a monster in itself.
One of my prize possessions is a patchwork quilt made by my great grandmother, Lila James. She used all sort of bits and pieces of cloth from her life – parts of old flower-print dresses, pieces of flour sacks from when she was a migrant fruit-picker, towels, sheets, and special cowboy prints she bought at the dime store just for me. My Favorite Thing is Monsters is like that quilt: weird, unique, lovingly crafted from caring and devotion – and a book I know I will cherish. Oh yeah, and Ferris is one hell of a block-letterer.
Currently, my favorite thing is My Favorite Thing is Monsters.
Note: To raise funds needed to complete Book Two, Emil Ferris is running a crowdfunding campaign. Among the different levels of support, for $108 (the Chicago Cubs waited 108 years to win a World Series), Ferris will put a contributor into Book Two of My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. See YOU CAN BE IN MY GRAPHIC NOVEL, here.