I have run out of superlatives when describing this book to friends. There is so much to love, such rich artwork and storytelling. Alison Bechdel calls it virtuosic; I would say mind-blowing. The story is as complex, nuanced, and dark as the art. Perhaps dark times call for dark stories, but ultimately Monsters comes down to girl power and Ferris’ timing is just right.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a story within a story influenced by Emil Ferris’ own surreal story. Her artistic style references the horror and detective comics of the 1950s and 1960s, and it’s both an homage to them, and a way to accentuate the dangerous monsters in the characters’ lives. Then there’s the monstrous otherness that the heroine, Karen, feels inside. Horror is the theme here, both real and fantastical, and the idea that fictional comic horrors somehow give us a way to deal with, or at least face on some level, the very real terror, sadness, and brokenness of this world.
The primary story is set in the politically turbulent late 1960s, and 10-year-old Karen Reyes is growing up poor in Chicago where it’s dangerous to be a girl, with bullies and predators everywhere. Her oversexed brother, Deeze, and her ailing mother try to protect her, but they have their own demons, and that means Karen must rely on herself. Karen is a “wannabeast” who draws the journal that is My Favorite Thing is Monsters, and in which she portrays herself as a werewolf detective with fangs. It’s her dearest wish to be bitten by a vampire so she can be undead and live without fear.
But there’s also a mystery! Karen’s trying to discover who killed her lovely, troubled neighbor Anka, while trying to survive her own difficult life. Was it the husband who “did it,” or some creep from Anka’s extremely disturbing past? Or perhaps it’s even someone Karen knows? We are drawn into Anka’s world growing up Jewish in 1930s Berlin, through a tape recording she left behind. Karen listens for possible clues to Anka’s murder, in a life revealed to be filled with true horror.
Meanwhile Karen befriends a boy who looks like a black Frankenstein and a starving white “hillbilly” girl with hollow cheeks. This odd posse finds some strength in their common status as outsiders. There’s so much to unpack here, and I haven’t even mentioned how Karen can slip into the great masters’ paintings in her beloved Chicago Institute of Art to chat with the devils hiding in the dark corners of the canvas when she and her friends go for a visit. Sustaining ourselves through difficult times by both making art and appreciating art is another thread running through this book, and I suspect that Ferris is writing from experience. At 40 she was bit by a mosquito that carried the West Nile Virus and she became paralyzed. Gradually she learned how to draw and to walk again, and fifteen years later here is this astounding work of nearly 400 pages.
While my favorite thing is not monsters, in this current era of monsters exposed, e.g., Weinstein and his ilk, the girl power story resonates. Ferris distinguishes between those who can’t help looking like or seeming monstrous to society with those who act monstrously. As she mentions in her “Fresh Air” interview, the Nazis were regular people who turned into “monsters” through fear and manipulation and who blamed “the other” for Germany’s problems. Unfortunately this is a highly relevant topic these days. Ferris leaves us with a cliffhanger ending, so needless to say, I’ll be waiting for more.