What is a monster? The word “monster” comes from the same Latin root as the word “demonstrate”; there is something demonstrative or showy about a monster that reveals to us what we might not want to see. In Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, 10-year-old Karen Reyes believes she is a monster—she obsesses over horror comics and creature features on late-night TV. Ferris’s drawings show Karen as Karen sees herself: a preteen werewolf, on the verge of transforming. She’s a girl who needs fangs and claws, to protect herself not from an angry mob of villagers but instead from another mob—or M.O.B. as Karen calls them: those who are Mean, Ordinary, and Boring. Being a monster also allows Karen to hide in plain sight from other children and their casual cruelty.
Karen lives on the north side of Chicago in the spring of 1968. The economic and cultural changes of that era, as well as the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., influence Karen’s story. Early in the book, Karen’s neighbor Anka Silverberg, a Holocaust survivor, suffers a violent death that is ruled a suicide by police. Ferris interlaces Karen’s story with Anka’s, through the narrative device of having Karen listen to cassette tapes on which Anka had recorded an interview. Karen suspects that Anka’s history is the key to her death, whether suicide or murder. Borrowing her brother’s trench coat and fedora, she transforms herself—yet again—into a detective.
Both thematically and stylistically, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters evokes the work of other graphic novelists and testifies to Ferris’s training as an artist. The narrative structure of flashback and investigation related to a Holocaust survivor’s story will undoubtedly remind readers of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The late 1960s setting filtered through the consciousness of a child suggests the work of Lynda Barry. The photorealistic, sometimes grotesque style of cross-hatched facial closeups reminded me of Drew Friedman’s portraits, particularly in Ferris’s depiction of Anka’s life in Weimar Germany. Each page is drawn on a sheet of spiral-bound notebook paper, and Ferris often incorporates the punched holes, lines, and perforations into her layouts, drawing attention to the construction of the page. Karen is obsessed with art, both fine art and the “low art” of comics and pulp magazines. She is encouraged in her interest by her beloved older brother Deeze, a tattoo artist. Deeze buys comics and pulp magazines for Karen, and Ferris’s versions of covers from Ghastly, Terror Tales, and Horrific introduce each section of the narrative and comment thematically on the plot. In several scenes in the book, Karen visits the Art Institute of Chicago. Ferris lovingly recreates famous paintings, including Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884), Jacob Jordaens’s “The Temptation of the Magdalene” (1616), and Jean-Leon Jerome’s “Portrait of a Woman” (1851), noting for each the artist, title, and year. Readers get a lesson in art history along with Karen, and her thoughts about the artworks reflect themes in the story.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters addresses sexuality and violence frankly and explicitly, but not gratuitously. The settings of the story, both in the main narrative of the 1960s and in the flashbacks to war-torn Europe, were violent times. Ferris does not shy away from depicting difficult subjects, and her work is deeply compassionate toward sex workers and other marginalized, vulnerable people. The book would certainly be appropriate for older teens, particularly if they have read autobiographical titles like Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.
When Karen’s mother becomes seriously ill, another mystery emerges from the family’s past, and we leave the story just as Karen realizes she has layers of questions to investigate. Was Anka indeed murdered? What was Deeze’s relationship to her? How does the past reverberate through the present? We won’t find out the answers yet. This is Book One—the sequel to My Favorite Thing Is Monsters will be published later this year. I can’t wait.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Vol 1
by Emil Ferris
Publisher Age Rating: (16+)