There’s something comforting and empowering about becoming a monster. Losing your humanity and all the pain that comes with it when changing into something fierce and strange enough to scare away everything that once terrified us. In the world of Emil Ferris, to be a monster is to be something beautiful in spite of everything that has scarred and broken us.
Emil Ferris’ “My Favorite Thing is Monsters” was published in 2017 for Fantagraphics and takes place in 1968 Chicago, following young Karen Reyes, a girl who feels completely out of place in the world and finds solace in the idea of B-movie and horror magazine monsters. Karen imagines herself to be a werewolf, embracing the fantasies of horror when unable to come to grips with the darkness of the world around her, which is only intensified by the mysterious violent death of her upstairs neighbor Anka, her spiraling troubled brother Deeze, and her mother’s cancer diagnosis. Slowly, Karen works to unravel the mystery of Anka’s death while learning about her tragic life, coming face to face with the darkest aspects of the world and trying to transcend the true horrors in life through art.
When “Monsters” debuted in 2017, it marked the arrival of Ferris as one of the great, original comics artists of the modern era. A creator whose own style seemed at once astoundingly unique and deeply rooted in the teenage bedroom scribblings of our youth. But Ferris had worked for years at her craft, even recovering from paralysis caused by contracting West Nile Virus in 2001. As she relearned how to both walk and draw, her debut graphic novel served as a form of physical therapy.
Structurally, “Monsters” is designed as Karen’s massive spiral-bound journal, recording her monster fantasies and journey of discovery. It’s a mammoth work of art that challenges us to better understand the perspectives of the marginalized and as Book 1 of a two-volume story still waiting on its second half, “Monsters” exists as a dark journey into the horrors we suffer and the ways in which we must change to find hope. It’s a grim, unflinching story that plumbs the depths of both historical and fictional tragedy, but whose transcendent art offers a passage through the darkness.
The Comfort of Monsters
The idea of the monster has been an aspect of cultures around the world for as long as society has existed.
Whatever form they take, monsters have often fulfilled the role of both giving reason to the unexplainable and giving form to “the other” within society. But in modern civilization, the idea of the monster slowly shifted from an inhuman creature that should be feared and into an allegory that many would find relatable or even romantic. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” published in 1818, can be seen as the inflection point within this shift, giving rise to a tide of gothic horror and complex monsters whose natures were often both caused by and a reflection of society.
It was these gothic monsters that first came to life in the early days of horror films, with Universal Pictures seizing on the opportunity the most and creating decades of movies that influenced generations. From the misunderstood nature of Frankenstein’s Monster to the strange attractions of The Creature From the Black Lagoon, the Universal Monsters were a collage of characters who attracted legions of fans due to their push and pull of self-identification and terror.
Still, these films often stood as allegory for real world horror of the time. Consider 1941’s “The Wolf Man,” written by Curt Siodmak.
Siodmak fled from Nazi Germany in the ‘30s to escape the growing tide of antisemitism that would give way to genocide. And in “The Wolf Man,” the curse of the werewolf is tied to visions of a pentagram, which bears a striking resemblance to the yellow badges forced on Jews by the Nazis. This “othering” of the monster by society shows deep ties to how the worst of us systemically single out and persecute those we choose to label as inhuman.
It’s no wonder that so many who were seen as inhuman due to society’s racism, sexism, and prejudice found solace in monsters.
It’s this wave of newfound modern identification with the monster that we find personified in our central figure of “My Favorite Thing is Monsters.”
Much like Ferris as a young girl, Karen Reyes is obsessed with monsters. Everything in life is filtered through the idea of monsterism, from depicting herself as a little werewolf to obsessive recreations of faux horror magazines to the ways in which people in Karen’s life are translated through a monster lens. But there is a distinct difference between the romantic, positive depiction of being a monster akin to a B-movie creature and being a human monster whose true horror comes from real world violence.
To be a monster, in the gothic, Universal Pictures sense, is to be an outcast of society. To be shunned from a humanity that hates your differences, but to also embody the power that derives from not being subject to the worst of human impulses.
“My mother was very, very beautiful, and I saw that the beautiful women around me were often constrained not only by their beauty but by the way that being an object of male desire frequently caused violence in their lives. And it caused them to be constrained in these terribly sad ways – their brilliance was not valued. They weren’t socially valued at the time, either.
I didn’t ever want to be a woman. I mean, it just did not look like a good thing, nor did being a man, because it felt like they were being victimized by the same system. Being a monster seemed like the absolute best solution.”
So what we see in Ferris’ graphic novel is that those who are depicted in the most traditional, non-human visuals of monsterhood are beautiful and broken outcasts.
There’s Mr. Silverberg, the widow of Anka, who’s depicted often like The Mummy, withered from years of grief. There’s Anka herself, whose constant deep blue facade gives the impression of a ghost, a wandering spirit of the past whose story gives greater understanding of the worst of humanity. There’s Franklin, whose tall frame and deep facial scars remind Karen of Frankenstein’s Monster, but whose beautiful queer soul is quickly seen during a trip to a museum. And there’s Karen, who constantly depicts herself as a werewolf, but is also on a child’s quest to be bitten and transformed. It’s here that we see our central figure as a young girl who understands how dark the world can be, and who is beginning to understanding that she’s a lesbian, but is still in the process of understanding who she should be within this new understanding.
The Art of Emil Ferris
Given its nature as a journal, “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters” absolutely blows apart the conventional idea of comic book structure. We’re not reading from panel to panel, ingesting sequential events and understanding a linear flow of time as typically presented in the medium. Instead, Ferris has each individual page become a sort of visually dense tableau, each flowing in different ways and shifting from realistic recollections of crucial moments in a young girl’s life to outright fantasy given the chance to fly free. Words and images crush together, sometimes without a clear flow through the pages, forcing readers to determine their own pathway and linking the emotions of the image to the haphazard narration or dialogue. When you combine this with each page being presented as a lined, spiral-bound sheet of paper inside one journal, the initial effect is dizzying. But Ferris’ heavily crosshatched style of inking supersedes these static lines to accustom the reader to what’s on display.
The act of reading through a journal composed of perfect recall regarding events and illustrated through incredible art only possible through decades of training serving as the thoughts of a young girl still coming into an understanding of the world creates a balance between verisimilitude and artificiality. We are both engrossed in this deeply personal firsthand experience and distantly observing the sheer magnitude of the art.
“We should be in the service of protecting freedom,” said Ferris. “People are not our enemies. Fear and ignorance are our enemies. There are so many great books within the graphic “canon” that are situated firmly in that ideology of service. I drew and drew and truly hoped that what I did would inspire others to tell their stories, to really believe in them and honor them.”
Ferris drew almost all of “Monsters” with Bic ballpoint pens and used a Paper Mate felt tip Flair pen for text, forgoing the traditional use of page outlines and instead translating images collected in her head from page to page, which is likely the reason why the book’s page count ballooned over time.
Ferris’ art draws inspiration from modern cartoonists such as Robert Crumb, Alison Bechdel, and Art Spiegelman. She’s also cited the fleshy, body-centric art of Francisco Goya and Honore Daumier as early childhood obsessions alongside the boundary pushing horror of EC Comics, which inspired the faux horror magazine covers recreated by Karen throughout the novel and used as chapter breaks. But these disparate influences are tied together by the use of the New Objectivity art movement that rose to prominence in 1920s Weimar Germany.
New Objectivity focused on unsentimental reality that often leaned toward the grotesquely satirical as it observed the objective world around the artist. Alongside this approach, many of the faces in the crowds are drawings of strangers that Ferris observed while out in public. And it’s no coincidence that a large portion of Anka’s story takes place in Weimar Germany, which stretched from 1918 to 1933, when Hitler and the Nazis seized power.
There are primarily three approaches to illustration used in Ferris’ novel.
First, an extremely fast and loose approach using only black pen, which creates a looseness to character interpretation. While Ferris has a standard model for each person in her story, this is one person’s perspective on the world around her and a narrative propelled by an obsession with physical transformations.
Next, a more detailed, fully fleshed out characterization using possibly one or two colors, which creates repeating visual motifs for certain characters, such as Anka’s blue coloring to represent the grief carried around by her at all times. This approach takes up the majority of the book and feels most akin to traditional cartooning.
And finally, an extremely detailed, often full page character study using many different colored inks that are finely crosshatched to create the contours and shadings of the subject. These are most often applied to Anka, their intense study relating to Karen’s obsession with understanding what happened to her neighbor and eventually who she truly was. But they’re also seen in her horror magazine covers, which push into the fantastical, and her recreations of famous works of art, which help her see new facets of her quickly growing worldview.
As a reader of Ferris’ story, we experience several degrees of separation from the truth we are trying to understand. Ferris is drawing Karen’s experiences as a personal journal, which is informed by the perspective of a child. Eventually, Karen hears Anka’s tapes, listening to her neighbor speak about her own traumatic life, which the readers experience through illustrations, creating yet another layer of separation. These are experiences given second, third, or even fourth hand, leaving it up to the reader to parse through both metaphors and mistakes for a stronger grasp on reality.
But above all, the process of creating and analyzing art gives both the character of Karen and the reader the ability to process a dark world and choose a path forward for themselves.
“Hush, little artist.”
“Never let anyone’s darkness provoke you into your own midnight.”
“But honestly I love the idea … of my own midnight.”
The Monstrous Nature of People
It’s clear from early on in our story that we’ll be exploring the darkness within our characters, but little can prepare us for Anka’s story. This mysterious, haunted woman seems to move like a ghost through life, but when we listen to her recorded conversation about her past, we quickly understand why.
Even at an early age, Anka moved from tragedy to tragedy, growing up in a brothel, forced into prostitution herself, and only able to escape the holocaust by turning to a man who abused her as a child. Karen’s brother Deeze and her mother, while loving, caring people, hide violent secrets, too. It’s a testament to Ferris’ characterization that we can see so many people’s worst sides, yet still understand them as complex people whose beauty shines out from the scars.
Those scars are caused by the worst of humanity. A different kind of monster.
“I make a distinction between good monsters―those that can’t help being different―and rotten monsters, those people whose behavior is designed around objectives of control and subjugation,” said Ferris. “I don’t really think they deserve the title of monster. In my mind that’s an honorable title. It represents struggle and wisdom bought at a high, painful price.
I’m thinking of people whom I’ve known who were broken by life and then engaged to re-form themselves in order to be more extraordinary and more powerful within themselves.”
Anka’s past shows us the the terrible toll of sexual abuse and the evil of Nazis. Karen’s present shows us a growing tide of racism and prejudice. The past culminates in genocide, the present in the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These moments are the worst of humankind unchecked by the facade of society, exposing our darkness and forcing us to come to terms with who we are and what we must do to be better.
“The West Side is burning. People are sad and freaking enraged because of King’s murder.”
“Yeah, but they’re burning their OWN neighborhood!”
“Sometimes a thing happens that’s so bad that it feels like things should be made to look on the outside, the way they feel on the inside.”
The story of “Monsters” isn’t all just the worst of what we experience, of course. It’s filled with small moments of human connection and the times in which we understand one another in innate, spiritual ways. The moments our souls connect and see one another for the full, complete, broken beings that we are. These are what make life worth living, what make it possible to reforge ourselves. And art is the tool used in that reforging. Karen’s monster obsessions help her understand her burgeoning romantic feelings. Her study of real life paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago works as a spiritual portal that helps her find truths she wouldn’t be able to otherwise. And this entire journal we’ve been given to read is the journey of a young girl processing the loss of innocence in her life.
If there’s a major shortcoming to the comic, it’s that it abruptly stops. Ending on a cliffhanger that’s less a dramatic climax and more like the book simply running out of pages. That’s the result of Ferris and Fantagraphics Books deciding to split the story into two volumes as the page count continued to grow. Narratively, it’s unsatisfying, but it leaves the reader desperate for the story to explore the dark corners of life it has begun to expose.
Looking forward to Book Two, Ferris said, “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.”
There’s a hardness, a darkness, a cruelness to the world exposed in “My Favorite Things Is Monsters,” but there’s also beauty and mercy. We can’t choose how the world may break us, but we can choose how we resurrect ourselves. That may be as a wandering spirit or a sharp-toothed, clawed creature of the night. But maybe monsters can love more deeply and genuinely than a human ever could.