When I was a kid, I loved monsters. I dressed up as a monster or an alien (i.e., stealth monster) every Halloween. I watched monsters movies on weekends and tokusatsu shows or whatever featured monsters after school. I loved kaiju and the monsters on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. I sat in the aisles of both my school and my city’s libraries, staring at pictures of monsters in books. I devoured books on mythology, mostly because of the monsters. (There’s nothing like Jason of Jason and the Argonauts to make you side with monsters). I would make towns out of my toys and rampage, laying waste to entire municipalities. I say all this not to establish my monstrous bona fides, but to provide some context. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics, 2017) feels eerily parallel to my own life, though I did not grow up in 1960s Chicago, like both artist/writer Emil Ferris and her protagonist, Karen Reyes. But I feel the book’s mix of horror movies and comics, mythology, private detectives and painting. Chicago was just across the lake and I spent a lot of time with my mom at the Art Institute of Chicago. On Saturdays, I would watch Creature Features like Emil Ferris and My Favorite Thing Is Monsters‘ protagonist, Karen. And I would have loved to be a monster.
In My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Emil Ferris creates the notebook of 10-year-old Karen Reyes using what appear to be the school supplies that would be available to Karen at the time. Ferris also renders Karen’s recreations of paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago and the covers of horror magazines Karen likes. (I would read any of the magazines). My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is burly book, and I am only on the first volume. Together the two volumes come to something like 800 pages.* And it is a masterpiece. When I first came on to the Gutter, I wrote about how I was interested in the parallels of fine and disreputable art. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters hits their overlap on a Venn diagram just right. Ferris brings fine art and comics together not only in the paintings and art history represented and discussed, but also in terms of techniques that lurk outside the tightly constrained contemporary understanding of how comics and graphics novels are constructed and work. (I am looking at you Comics Journal and Scott McCloud).
Paul Tumey: What was/is your method for constructing a page? Do you have a thumbnail, or do you just start drawing?
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.
Tumey: I really enjoy the playfulness in the juxtaposition of the elements.
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.
And great art inspires art in response. It’s part of how you know it’s great. That and there is always more to say about it. There are a million things that could be written about My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. And when they were written and you picked up the book again and read it one more time, there would probably be a million more.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters reminds me a lot of Lynda Barry’s work. Barry’s art is much looser and she tends not to vary her style depending on the content. Ferris style is generally tighter and more meticulous. Her range goes from very cartoony depictions to recreations of paintings that have caught Karen’s attention–in the style she has created for Karen. But Ferris reminds me of Barry in other respects. As in Barry’s Marlys comics, Ferris focuses on a school-aged girl in the 1960s. And both are willing to show the ugliness and the beauty in their characters’ lives. Though we mostly see Karen’s life outside of school. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters reminds me of Barry in its density of art and text, particularly with Barry’s memoir/creativity teaching guide/graphic novel, What It Is (2008). Ferris is not afraid to fill a page with text if it serves the story. And she is willing to mix in the pain of childhood. She remembers what it’s like to be 10-years-old.
On spiral bound, blue-lined ruled and using ballpoint pen, felt tip marker, what looks like number 2 / HB graphite and hard-leaded colored pencils, Karen Reyes records her story and the stories around her. She loves monsters and drawing and she draws herself as a werewolf girl who is not completely transformed. She lives in a basement apartment with her mom and her older brother, Deeze. Deeze protects her and teaches her about art history. They spend a lot of time at the Art Institute. Her father, “The Invisible Man,” is out of the picture. Karen goes to Catholic school, but is not particularly devout. Karen deliberately tempts monsters by going out at night to give her “the bite” that would fully transform her. At first she wants to be bitten just for herself. Later she wants the bite so she can save her family from the draft, death and “The Invisible Man.”
Karen identifies with monsters not just as something as powerful when she is not, but as the shunned and despised. Karen is not like the other girls in her school or her neighborhood. She has stepped on the cootie step and is ritually polluted forevermore. But Karen was different even before that. Besides being a freak for liking monsters and reading horror comics, Karen likes her best friend Missy as more than a best friend. They watch horror movies together. They have modified their Barbie Dolls making them a werewolf and Countess Alucard. In Karen’s notebook, Countess Alucard tells Karen that she is braver than the countess because, at a sleepover, Karen dared kiss Missy’s hand when Missy was asleep.
There are a lot of problems in Karen’s life. The newest is the death of her upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg. Anka might have been murdered. Karen, wearing a trenchcoat and fedora, decides to investigate—looking for clues in paintings, exploring the cemetery and interviewing a specter and recordings of Anka recounting her life. Karen swipes the cassettes from Anka’s husband Joseph. But what starts out as one mystery that seems solvable proliferate into so many more.
We all live in stories, our own and the stories we tell about ourselves together. Karen uses stories of monsters and private detectives to make sense of her self and everything happening around her. Karen believes receiving “the bite” would solve all her problems. She imagines her friend Franklin as a frankenstein. One filled wih a beautiful light revealed beneath the network of scars covering his face. Her brother Deeze has a dragon self, that is dangerous and possibly self-destructive. Her friend Sandy appears and disappears like a ghost. She sees neighbor Sam “Hotstep”** Silverberg looks much like Boris Karloff as Imhotep in The Mummy (1932). They are both tormented by the loss of their beloved. But Anka Silverberg, the woman who dies in the beginning of the book, is more protean. Sometimes Anka seems like a ghost or a zombie. But other times she is Medusa or an Egyptian queen. Like Karen, Anka used stories to make sense of her own life. Instead of horror movies and comics, Anka used mythology to understand her life in Weimar Berlin, in Nazi Germany and, later, in Chicago.
I appreciate how compassionate the book is for one that goes into so many dark basements of life and history. It could easily become nihilistic, and Karen is briefly tempted by St. Christopher the Werewolf to give in to an impulse to destroy everything she loves because it could not protect her from the awful parts of being alive. In a dream she kills all the monsters, but realizes it is a terrible mistake. Because the monsters in her life are good. It’s the humans in the story who are “monsters.” And we call them that to try to distance any human capacity to do terrible things from human beings. We do it to feel safer and less implicated.
But if there’s anything the last two hundred years or so of history have taught me, it’s that Dracula has nothing on human beings when we go bad. I think that’s why monsters have become ever more sympathetic, despite the unhappiness of horror fans who want them to stay scary. In My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Karen sees and hears about human beings who are capable of so much worse than Dracula or the Wolf-Man. She lives through the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. She sees the smoke from Chicago’s West Side as it burns down after King’s assassination. And she listens to Anka’s story of growing up in a brothel in Berlin and being shipped to a concentration camp. Karen is afraid her brother will be drafted to fight in Vietnam. And she is angry that no one will talk to her about any of this.
It is easy to try to separate everything into good or bad and choose a side. But things are complicated and people are complex. And the stories that save us sometimes justify doing terrible things. There are the monsters who can’t help what they are or how they look. They are all hair and teeth or sewn together corpses and galvinism. And there are the monsters who choose to be cruel, to try to control the world and tell us the worst stories about ourselves. I make this same differentiation between monsters and “monsters” not only because I love monsters and have always hated to call awful human beings with their name. It allows people the space to be more complex than simply good or bad. The same person can do wonderful and terrible things–sometimes at the simultaneously. It is a human conceit that if somehow we can identify the monsters, we can drive them out or slay them and then live happily ever after. But these are usually the most dangerous stories, the ones that lead to genocide. Humans are not as straightforward as monsters. Dracula drinks blood to survive. Werewolves bite because they are cursed. Frankenstein*** was created and then neglected. Frankenstein can’t help what he is, what his mad scientist father made him, but after reading a lot, he can choose what he does. It is his fault that he murders, but it isn’t his fault that he doesn’t have the emotional maturity to make good choice. Like Karen, I’m with the werewolves.
*I would really like a book stand for books this burly.
**Nice play on “Hotep.”
In many a distant village, there exists the Legend of Carol Borden, a legend of a strange person with the hair and fangs of an unearthly beast… her hideous howl, a dirge of death.