Karen Reyes is a monster. Well, she wants to be. Nothing would please her more than for her bones to break and change shape, her teeth to grow sharp and finger-length, and to have the power to bite her mother and brother, Deeze, to make them like her. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters occurs through the eyes of a young girl battling personal trials while discovering the demons of the people around her. Drugs, sex, race, class, death—all are framed within the tumultuous times of the 1960’s in Chicago, and author and artist Emil Ferris uses everything at her disposal for her debut graphic novel.
When a neighbor, Anka, is found dead under questionable circumstances, Karen dons her trench coat and brother’s fedora and appoints herself the detective who must solve the mystery. She follows the trail of clues left behind by the people who live in her building and her neighborhood, learning along the way more about her own identity. Bloodsoaked rose petals, an audio tape of Anka’s personal story, and a series of long forgotten memories all lead Karen to unlock some of the darkest secrets of her family history.
Monsters is a graphic novel that functions more as mixed media visual art. Ferris utilizes not just traditional comic imagery, but she also drills deeper by using paintings from Chicago’s Art Institute serving as characters and settings in their own right. Karen keeps an art diary, which acts as the format for Ferris’s story. Each page resembles a notebook that Karen uses to work through problems. Art is her sanctuary, and, when necessary, her next witness. She climbs into the paintings and shakes loose memories that shed insight on the investigation at hand. Using this imaginative literary device, Ferris recreates famous works of art that hold clues in every crosshatched shadow. The time period and style of the painting replicas are deliberately chosen by both Karen and Ferris and used to reveal more about each of the characters.
The story takes place over a century after the painting of Eugène Delacroix’s Arab Horseman Attacked by a Lion (1849-1850) and uses time eloquently to expand the world of the characters, much like Will Eisner’s The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue. Eisner uses the Great Crash as the pivotal point the way Ferris uses the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The marker pinpoints more than just a date, but also the moment when characters are their most vulnerable and volatile. Another comparable text that comes to mind is Hip Hop Family Tree, a graphic novel series—also published by Fantagraphic Books—documenting the birth of hip hop as a major cultural touchpoint in America.
Aside from occasionally reaching conclusions a bit beyond her ten year old sensibilities, Karen is the perfect conduit for this story. She learns the gravity of her mother’s illness through an overheard conversation. Anka’s husband lets Karen listen to the recordings of Anka telling her own childhood trials and her Jewish history because she’s seen as a harmless child. But what Karen observes despite her age is quite compelling, particularly about the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and riots that occurred in the aftermath of his assassination:
“I thought about the West Side kids who’d walk to school on Monday and who’d have to pass the smoking heap of what used to be their neighborhoods because when adults are haunted, it’s kids who get the worst frights. The word ‘aftermath’ comes to mind. I guess it means the time after something terrible happens when you do the math to figure out what has been added and what’s been subtracted.”
Her child logic is evident, yet still evokes sympathy for people who are hurting because she is familiar with “otherness.” She is coming to terms with her feelings about one of her classmates. She imagines herself throughout almost the entire graphic novel as an almost werewolf, not as a little girl. Karen can deeply empathize with the suffering of others—and forces us to as well.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
Published February 14, 2017
Emil Ferris grew up in Chicago during the turbulent 1960s and is a devotee of all things monstrous and horrific. In a previous life, she was an illustrator and toy sculptor for a diverse range of clients. In 2010, Ferris was made a Toby Devan Lewis Fellow in the visual arts.