How This Unlikely ‘Monster’ Is About To Transform Graphic Literature – Forbes

Art from My Favorite Thing is Monsters (Fantagraphics Books, 2017) by Emil Ferris.

Art from My Favorite Thing is Monsters (Fantagraphics Books, 2017) by Emil Ferris.

When I first started hearing about My Favorite Thing is Monsters last summer at San Diego Comic-Con, it was in terms reserved for the acknowledged masterpieces of the comics medium like Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Alison Bechtel’s Fun Home, or Chris Ware’s Building Stories. The samples I saw at the booth of publisher Fantagraphics confirmed that this was a book of elite, mature artistic quality. When I finally had a chance to read the complete work, it became clear that Monsters would be considered a literary achievement even if it had been scrawled in crayon. Together, the art and story make My Favorite Thing is Monsters – due out on Feb. 13 – one of the most profound, ambitious and accomplished creative works to appear in any medium this decade.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a magical coming of age story that blends historical memory and well-observed character studies with a murder mystery, set in a multiethnic neighborhood in Chicago in the late 1960s. It’s told through the eyes of 10 year-old Karen Reyes, an introverted artist in love with monster movies, who illustrates her life in a spiral-bound notebook. The 400-plus pages, meant to be Karen’s notebook, are drawn almost entirely in ballpoint and felt-tipped pen on lined paper, using a beautiful, intensely detailed crosshatching style that conveys a huge range of emotions with disarming casualness. Rarely have words and pictures worked together so seamlessly in service of such a complex narrative.

Usually this kind of tour de force is the product of a well-known talent at the peak of their powers, someone who’s been working in comics for decades refining their craft. My Favorite Thing is Monsters is not only the debut graphic novel of its creator, Emil Ferris, it’s her first published work of any kind.

“I had never heard of her, had never seen any of her work, didn’t know she existed,” said Fantagraphics Publisher Gary Groth, who’s been putting out literary-quality comics for the past 40 years. “The work came like a bolt of lightning, completely unexpected.”

Self portrait of writer/artist Emil Ferris.

Self portrait of writer/artist Emil Ferris.

So who is Emil Ferris?

“I spent the last 20 years or so being a single mom, raising my daughter in Chicago,” said Ferris when we spoke by phone. The daughter of free-spirited artistic parents, Ferris grew up telling stories and drawing in her notebooks, much as her young protagonist Karen does in the book.

Fourteen years ago, her life took an unexpected turn. “I was bit by a mosquito, and a few weeks later, woke up paralyzed from the waist down, unable to speak and had lost the use of my right hand.” Ferris had contracted West Nile virus, and her sudden disability derailed her career doing commercial art and industrial design.

She spent her days at the Art Institute of Chicago, determined to power through her disability using the power of art. “I became so invigorated that I began to heal,” she said. “I got some facility in right hand and started to draw more, first digitally and then with pen and paper.”

Ferris, who grew up reading horror comics, MAD and illustrated editions of Charles Dickens novels sent to her by her grandmother, was seized with the passion to tell stories using words and pictures. She started work on Monsters when she was completing art school. She used the first 24 pages as her graduate thesis. It won an award that carried a $10,000 stipend, which she used as seed money to develop the work.

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