My Favorite Thing is Monsters
As we roll further into October, most of us are indulging in our favorite fall (and Halloween) pleasures: cooler weather, pumpkin spice (or complaining about it), falling leaves and, of course, monsters. Halloween is the time of year that monster lovers can come out of the woodwork and celebrate their enjoyment of the old thrillers as well as the new ones. I mean, they can do it other times of the year but it’s slightly less strange in October. While I didn’t watch many of the old classic monster flicks, I very much enjoy watching creature features, particularly this time of year. There’s something about the way it gets dark earlier and the reveling in the spookiness of Halloween that makes it feel like exactly the right time for monsters. Which is why this week I decided to pick up the monster (pun intended) first volume of My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris. This very large (414 pages in just the first volume) story caught my attention when it was nominated for the Hugo Award in 2018 as well as being nominated in and winning several categories for the Eisner Award. Both the story within its pages and the book itself have been on one hell of a monstrous adventure and make it the perfect pick for a Halloween review!
My Favorite Thing is Monsters opens by introducing the strange young girl, Karen Reyes, who faces the challenge of growing up in Chicago’s Uptown in the late 1960’s. A lover of the classic creature features and the popular but much maligned horror comics of the age, Karen loves to draw and the story acts as her diary. Due to her love of movie and comic monsters, Karen often portrays herself as a sort of werewolf-creature and has long since given up on fitting in with her classmates at the local Catholic school. When her neighbor, Anka Silverberg, dies under mysterious circumstances, Karen decides to (literally) put on her gumshoe hat and standard trenchcoat and solve the mystery herself. At ten years old, this is no easy feat and made even less easy by drama of her family and the class, racial and identity politics rife in the community and the country in general. The slow uncovering of the mystery reveals as much about Karen’s life as it does about the death of Mrs. Silverberg, as well as how one defines a monster.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, the emergence of this first volume in the story has faced one hell of an uphill battle. It is the debut graphic novel of Emil Ferris, who began writing it after becoming partially paralyzed at 40 years old when she contracted the West Nile virus. She wrote the story as part of her recovery while attending the Art Institute in Chicago and even after finding an initial publisher, was forced to find another publisher when the original went under. And in the world of graphic novels, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is truly gigantic. The full story (including the second volume which is due to be published next year) amounts to 700 pages, which is epic under any terms and it took Ferris six years to complete the story. With a struggle like that, it’s easy to see how the story is somewhat of a magnum opus for Ferris.
The greatest appeal of the story is actually the art. The entire story is done with pen sketches that alternate from cartoonish when depicting monsters to hyper realistic for the real-world people in the story and somehow it’s integrated so well that it doesn’t feel jarring when monster Karen is interacting with the realistic (and occasionally explicit) people in her life. There is a true love of art and the Art Institute that really comes through in the way that Karen sees the world and makes connections, particularly with her brother Diego “Deez” Reyes who is a strong influence on her life and art. Karen tackles a lot of issues for a kid, including class and racial struggles and even gender and sexual orientation issues. While it’s good to see a graphic novel play with these kinds of issues and try to define good monster versus bad monster, sometimes it makes the story feel too gargantuan. There are so many things pulled into the story and Ferris plays a lot with how you read a comic panel so it can get difficult to follow at times. There were times that I had lost interest in the story and might have put it down if not for the art. There were so many textures and clever ways of playing with color that it was difficult to stop even when I was confused by strange panel choices or too much content.
While My Favorite Thing is Monsters isn’t one of the traditional spooky Halloween stories, it’s an interesting blend of monsters both real and imagined and one young girl’s struggle to figure out her own life. The art is spectacular and even when the story gets disturbing, it’s hard to put down. It isn’t a story for everyone but Ferris does deserve recognition for the immense work she’s put into this story. If you like magical realism and using the graphic novel medium to explore tough issues, this story might be the right October pick for you!