My Favorite Thing is Monsters vol. 1
Emil Ferris (Writer and Artist)
February 17, 2017
In elementary school, I was enchanted by a library book about monsters. Its dust cover lost to the ages (or ripped apart by another anonymous, sticky-fingered child), I remember it as a black hardcover book, mysterious and untitled, full of pictures and summaries of classic Universal horror films like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Werewolf of London. Even though I hadn’t seen those movies (yet), I would check out the book again and again, mesmerized by Lon Chaney’s transformation into the Phantom of the Opera and the sad saga of lycanthrope Larry Talbot. Eventually my aunt voiced exasperated concern over my reading habits: what could a young girl, soon to face the metamorphosis of puberty, unsure in her own skin, and already learning that to be a girl is to be different–see in monsters? When I heard a one-sentence summary for My Favorite Thing is Monsters (young, monster-obsessed girl tries to solve the mystery of her Holocaust survivor neighbor’s death), I immediately zeroed in on Emil Ferris’s graphic novel with my x-ray vision.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters is the kind of debut graphic novel that lands with the impact of a meteor—the same meteor that carried the slimy, flesh-eating Blob from outer space, we can assume. The book is presented as the journal of Karen Reyes, an artistically gifted 10-year-old girl documenting her life in late 1960s Chicago. Like many outsiders, Karen is drawn to the monsters of Horror Theater and Ghastly magazine because of the way they represented the other, or people ostracized from society. A child in a multi-ethnic family during the last days of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, and a girl gradually realizing her deeper feelings for her best friend Missy, Karen is struggling to find her place in a world that is much, much bigger than she is.
In the book’s most charming conceit, Karen depicts herself as a adorable little werewolf girl in a flowered dress, a misunderstood monster lost in a mob (actually an abbreviation for “mean, ordinary, and boring”) of everyday people. Her monster mania touches every part of her life: she sketches the sapphic countess of Dracula’s Daughter approving of her tender courtship of Missy, and likens her absent, deadbeat father to the Invisible Man, whose menacing presence can be felt even when he can’t be seen. But then Karen’s life is touched by real, not fantastical horror: her neighbor Anka is found shot to death in her apartment. Police rule it a suicide, but like Harriet the Spy or the self-appointed girl detective of The Little Friend, Karen just can’t let it go.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters is an intensely ambitious work, with a scope much larger than its Chicago apartment block-setting implies. It’s a coming of age murder mystery with a central tragedy linked all the way back to the Holocaust, and though this is only the first half of the story (volume 2 is due in early 2018), it never feels overstuffed or overreaching. It is also one of the most artistically impressive graphic novels I’ve read in years, pushing the medium into places that are both beautiful and unsettling. Inked by something as simple as Paper Mate pens, (“schoolgirl’s tools,” according to Ferris at SPX), the book is presented mostly in black-and-white, with splashes of dramatic color like the Technicolor painting in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray. Anka in particular is drawn in shades of icy, corpse-like blue, bringing to the surface the melancholy of a woman slowly disintegrating after a life filled with horror.
Ferris varies her style throughout the book to match different moods and feelings, from Karen’s more cartoony, scratchy sketches (her big round eyes and little fangs!) to portraits of near photo-realistic beauty. Most breathtaking is Ferris’s use of crosshatching, which gives her illustrations a fleshy, three-dimensional depth that make every inky tattoo or bristly werewolf hair feel real and touchable. In a medium that seems increasingly littered with failed movie pitches passing as comic books, Monsters is a graphic novel that loves art itself—yes, there’s the giant praying mantis crushing a city on the cover of Ghastly magazine, and there’s also Anka’s limp widower twisted into Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, and a little girl’s stunning recreation of Henry Fusselli’s unsettling, Frankenstein-influencing painting The Nightmare. Here, art is as transformative and transgressive as any metamorphosis under a full moon.
So then, what makes a monster? What separates a good—or at least, sympathetic—monster from a bad one? Karen, a precocious wolf girl in a Columbo jacket, searching for the truth, thinks she understands; a monster may be the weird neighbor with a ventriloquist dummy, a vicious school bully, or a local gangster. Or maybe a monster could be someone like Anka, who did something terrible to escape the unthinkable, or even her beloved older brother Deez, who may have a dark secret of his own. In My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Karen unearths important mysteries about the human heart, but unlike the Universal monster movies where Dracula is staked in his coffin and the Bride of Frankenstein is lost under a crumbling castle, not everything stays buried.