“She uses the sketchbook idea as a way to change the grammar and syntax of the comics page …”
– Art Spiegelman in The New York Times, February 17, 2017 (“First, Emil Ferris Was Paralyzed. Then Her Book Got Lost at Sea.” by Dana Hennings)
This interview with Emil Ferris (see Part One here) was conducted February 7-10 2017, just prior to the long-delayed release of Book One (of two) of My Favorite Thing is Monsters. The book was due to come out on Halloween 2017 and then the shipper, the giant Hanjin, abruptly sank into bankruptcy and the copies were stranded in Panama. This was only the latest in a series of events that Ferris refuses to assess as unfortunate. Mid-way through the multi-year process of creating the novel while working 16-hour days and living extremely frugally, it became necessary to find a second publisher (the first publishing house, when they saw the book Ferris was creating, realized it was beyond their scope to properly market).
All of this came in the years after Ferris contracted West Nile virus from a mosquito bite and fought her way back from paralysis. Among other setbacks, Ferris’ computer, needed for the creation of Book Two of My Favorite Thing is Monsters gave up the ghost (see her crowd-funding campaign here) Despite this astonishing backstory, her novel must be―and deserves to be―assessed on its own merits, which are considerable.
During the days we spoke, My Favorite Thing is Monsters received attention from several media outlets including a write-up and a generous preview in The New Yorker and a staff pick selection in Publisher’s Weekly. Right after Part One of this interview ran, The New York Times ran a full page profile on the Chicago artist and NPR’s Fresh Air praised it in a particularly lucid review. It’s no surprise that book has gone into a second printing. Ferris has expressed gratitude and joy at this attention, and remains grounded and focused on the aspects of her life that led to the creation of this extraordinary work.
Paul Tumey: I just read your new auto-biographical comic in Chicago Magazine, “The Bite That Changed My Life,” which was published today. You join a rich tradition of gifted visual storytellers published by the Chicago Tribune, including Frank King (Gasoline Alley), Garrett Price (White Boy), Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) and E.C. Segar (Popeye). To me, your work in My Favorite Thing is Monsters is every bit as fascinating.
Emil Ferris: Thank you! It was a hard piece to do because it required that I encapsulate and objectify a difficult time in my life. I’d never done anything graphic/textual about it. But the reward is always in the same place as the difficulty.
Paul Tumey: I especially loved the bit where you tell about meeting Art Spiegelman. I understand he was pretty nice to you?
Emil Ferris: He is one of the most legendary forces within comics and one of the kindest and most sensitive and generous people I’ve ever met. He liked and has championed the book.
Paul Tumey: You write in your Chicago Magazine piece that, after receiving Art Spiegelman’s praise, you excused yourself to go hug an octopus. This is perhaps an image of the embrace of attention your work is generating, I think.
Emil Ferris: Hah! You divined that! You are very sensitive and really very correct. Yes, it’s been rather daunting and pleasing at the same time.
Paul Tumey: Part of answering “the call” is, I think, not just making art, but living in synch with the ripples in the moonlit lake radiating out from that bold act. I’m guessing you are in for some ripples as more and more people discover your work. As we sit down to talk, we are about one week away from the release of the book – delayed for months.
Emil Ferris: I could draw your questions. They’re such beautiful images!
Paul Tumey: Wasn’t Book One originally scheduled to be released on October 31, Halloween? And then that whole thing happened with the shipment of books being “arrested” by the Panamanian government.
Emil Ferris: Yes, that’s correct. There are two important dates in the book – Halloween and Valentine’s Day. The book actually ends up beginning on the same day that it is released. That is the day a bullet tunnels through Anka Silverberg’s heart, which begins the mystery of her death―and her life. I didn’t pick the date of the second scheduled book release – it’s the inspiration of Jacq Cohen at Fantagraphics.
Paul Tumey: Another bit of synchronicity is the classic Universal horror movie Dracula, was released on Valentine’s Day in 1931. I think the timing on your book, with the help of Jacq Cohen, turns out to be poetic.
Emil Ferris: The whole story of the book is like that … catastrophes followed by what amounts to windfalls and blessings, if you will.
Paul Tumey: I’d love to discuss your method to creating art and comics. The page layouts of My Favorite Thing Is Monsters are complex and organic. Each page is unique. You don’t use the device of panels very much. How did you construct this book? Was there an outline?
Emil Ferris: There should have been far more of an outline than there was. I allowed the writing and the drawing to simultaneously direct the story.
Paul Tumey: What was/is your method for constructing a page? Do you have a thumbnail, or do you just start drawing?
Emil Ferris: I discovered things by virtue of both the writing and the drawing. I am attracted to certain images in context of the portion of the story. I know they have to be there. I let them suggest the next images to me. Then I begin to collect them and think about them in a purely visual way. I draw in the Golden Mean and repetitive shapes and textures.
Paul Tumey: I really enjoy the playfulness in the juxtaposition of the elements.
Emil Ferris: Thank you! I like the pages to echo certain subtle things. Sometimes I like a word you read to be near an eye so that when you read that word you take in a ‘sense memory’ – if you will – of an eye. These things collide in the mind and the attempt is to heighten the evocation and resonance for the reader. This was something that the Surrealists taught and something I think I understood and wanted to emulate but it requires intuitive drawing to do that.
Paul Tumey: That helps me understand why the reading experience of My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is different from most other comics I’ve read. There’s layers and connections. This is a very different approach to making comic books than the one I know — which is to have script, block it out, layout the panels on pages, pencil, letter, ink, color, and so on. This assembly line method was created in the late 1930s by Will Eisner, among others, to allow multiple people to crank out pages. Of course, later on, in his own work, Eisner because a master of organic, innovative page layouts. Your pages to me feel like SPIRIT splash pages in the sense that they work both as a kind of poster, a narrative and as a text-image poem – they are both part of the narrative and stand outside of it. Many of your pages work this way.
Emil Ferris: Those pages that defy time are some of my favorites. I refused to learn how to tell time. I did not learn till I was almost 12. I felt it was a dangerous artificial construct. The pages use time in an emotional way, that isn’t always linear.
Paul Tumey: I’ve worked out you averaged a page every three days. Does that sound about right?
Emil Ferris: Actually it was probably about a page every two days.
Paul Tumey: That is impressive, to say the least. Earlier, you mentioned the story of the making the book was “… catastrophes followed by what amount to windfalls and blessings.” Can you share a little of that story? I’d love to know more.
Emil Ferris: Yes, There were a lot of setbacks and challenges in the process of making the book. I’m glad to relate them; it might be instructive for people who also have a story to tell. During the production of the book I went broke, experienced some homelessness due to various catastrophes, lost important relationships and had myriad physical disability setbacks and obstacles. But I believed in the story and I narrowed my focus and just kept going.
Paul Tumey: Books One and Two together are about 600 pages? It’s an ambitious work. And, like Maus, Fun Home, etc. it’s got something different and new and, if you’ll pardon the word, strange, to offer. Was it hard to find a publisher?
Emil Ferris: The two books together are coming in at closer to 800 pages between the two. And yes! It was a challenge. I have a great agent who held with me throughout the trials of the thing. The book was noticed early on by Katie Adams and initially the book was slated to come out with the extremely wonderful publisher for whom she worked, but, when finally they had the book in hand the publisher felt that I would be best off to do it differently. (The head of this company, Judith Gurewich is a total mensch!) That publisher decided to ask nothing back from the support they gave me to complete the work. I was deeply grateful, utterly broke and completely lost when they decided not to publish it. So Holly Bemiss and myself, we hit the (publishing) street like two Depression Era sales dames carrying worn suitcases full of encyclopedias (my book, “the big monster”). We went from town to town and then were ‘taken in” by the kindly folks at Fantagraphics, Gary Groth and Eric Reynolds, who just threw everything behind the book they could.
Paul Tumey: I’m glad they did, and I predict they will be very happy with their decision. Just today (two days after we started this chat) I see you’ve gotten a great write-up and preview at The New Yorker, and Publisher’s Weekly choose Monsters as a staff pick. Did you get many rejection letters?
Emil Ferris: I think the rejection math, was 48 rejections out of 50 submissions. I want people to know that. It’s important for them not to give up.
Paul Tumey: What’s the genesis of My Favorite Thing is Monsters? What’s the earliest form of the idea for you that you can recall?
Emil Ferris: More than twenty years ago I took a screenwriting class at what was the Center Theater over on Devon in Chicago. I was working on a screenplay based on this vision I had of a werewolf lesbian girl being enfolded into the protective arms of a Frankenstein trans kid. That idea never left me. That vision of two ‘monstrous’ outsiders was then the impetus behind a short story I wrote in 2004 that was published in an anthology. Karen was still talking to me (growling at me, really) and it was on that short story that I based the book.
Paul Tumey: When did you start creating the book in earnest?
Emil Ferris: Six years or so ago I began drawing. I have been drawing ever since. I am in the service to these characters and now I love them and I do their will.
Paul Tumey: And so when did you get “the bite” of West Nile virus?
Emil Ferris: I got that bite 14 years ago.
Paul Tumey: So you created My Favorite Thing Is Monsters after fighting your way back from paralysis that kept you from being able to draw. You’ve written that making art healed you.
Emil Ferris: It really did. I was told by the Head of Neurology at a really major hospital that I would never walk again. He was quite sure that I wouldn’t but I think the experience of going to the School of the Art Institute was just what I needed. Making the decision to grasp at a better thing – I had no college level art education – was like this statement to the universe that I refused to take the paralysis, ‘lying down’ if you will. All of a sudden there I am, surrounded by these marvelous, talented, largely generous younger people.
Paul Tumey: How did the younger students react?
Emil Ferris: Their eyes went wide first day of class, as oftentimes I was the oldest person in any of my classes and at first I was in a wheel chair – so I was very different than they were. But they delighted me. There is so much talent and decency among those whom people call “millennials” that I have come to hate hearing them dismissed and denigrated.
Paul Tumey: I know! I think that generation is so special, from what I’ve seen.
Emil Ferris: I do, too! I love them. So many of the younger men are free from misogyny. They had strong loving mothers whom they respected and the younger women are just such all-out badasses!
Paul Tumey: Did you conceive of the book as a spiral bound diary from the start?
Emil Ferris: Yes. That was what I knew it had to be. I had many spiral bound notebooks as a kid. Just like Karen’s. That part was utterly autobiographical.
Paul Tumey: I find it interesting the cover of Book One shows Anka, and not the main character, Karen. It’s sure a compelling image and she is beautiful as you draw her.
Emil Ferris: If you look closely into Anka’s eyes on the cover, you will see Karen’s reflection.
Paul Tumey: I’d like to talk about the characters in the book a little. Is the character of Karen’s older brother, Deeze based on anyone in particular?
Emil Ferris: Yes. His various attributes make him a complex, sympathetic and yet not entirely ‘good’ character. In that way he is like quite a few people whom I know. His penchant for ‘womanizing’ (in the parlance of the time) is legendary. Yet he is a soulful person. Can I tell you who he is based on without alienating some important people? Nope.
Paul Tumey: Fair enough. I’m impressed you gave an informative yet diplomatic answer. Deeze is a great character, and I don’t want to spoil anything for readers, but I love how you subtly foreshadow his story in the early scenes. I also love Karen’s mother in the novel, she is so flawed and yet so lovable in spite of the flaws. She’s shown more than once in bed, asleep and I thought of that Tom Waits song, “You’re innocent when you dream.”
Emil Ferris: Awww! Yes, I love Mama. She is so desperate to protect those whom she loves. She isn’t educated in the common sense of the word but has a deep and dedicated sense of decency. I love her superstitions, I remember my grandmother making me lift my feet when the car we were in crossed over a railroad track and I remember what she called ‘padiddles’ which was when an oncoming car had one busted headlight. Can’t remember what we did to protect ourselves from that curse … which was basically that we would never find our true love. Yeah, superstition and a very early childhood in New Mexico went hand-in-hand.
Paul Tumey: If I recall, Mama’s superstitions in Monsters are from an Appalachian background?
Emil Ferris: Yes, Mama is from the Ozarks originally. She is of Irish and Cherokee decent.
Paul Tumey: I was fascinated, as well by Karen’s friend, Sandy, who comes from mining country in Kentucky. There are a lot of characters in Monsters, and they have a rich variety of cultural backgrounds. I felt so sorry for Sandy — she seems so sad, and hungry.
Emil Ferris: Well her story was based on a true experience of mine. I went to the birthday party of a child and those were the circumstances in which she was (very barely) surviving.
Paul Tumey: That’s so tender and sad. And then there’s Anka — a truly complex and great character. Her back story is nested inside the book and takes us back in time to Weimar Germany.
Emil Ferris: Weimar Germany represents one of my favorite time periods in all of history. Socially. such a contrast between dark and light – and in that way very much like the severe, almost carved, juxtapositions of dark and light within the work of such artists as Beckmann, Kollwitz, Grosz, Dix, Nolde.
Paul Tumey: You captured that feel very well, I thought. That shift was for me totally unexpected, and it put much higher stakes on the table, and not the kind of stakes that defeat vampires! As we wind this up, we are just a few days from Book One’s official release. Book Two is in the works, yes?
Emil Ferris: Yes, I’m drawing, drawing. Drawing and drawing. My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book Two is scheduled to come out in October of 2017.
Paul Tumey: Is there anything you can share about Book Two, due out Halloween this year?
Emil Ferris: A lot of the focus is on the parallels between what is happening in Karen’s life―her questions about her sexual identity―and Anka’s difficult choice regarding how best to save the six children she has rescued. Essentially, Book Two is about how we survive the most difficult things within a broken world, and about how love and art can save us.
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.