I thought I left comic books behind in early adolescence, however, Jeff convinced me recently to read Saga, an intriguing, often risqué, beautifully illustrated 7-set graphic novel volume based on the comic. So began my sojourn back into the world I left behind, albeit on a completely different level of existence than the fluffy comic books of my youth. While I enjoyed Saga, after hearing her interview on Fresh Air, I looked forward to reading My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, the first graphic novel by Chicago illustrator Emil Ferris. Her personal story of perseverance is remarkable and tugs at your heartstrings, but even without the back story, this book is so incredibly brilliant, I found myself mesmerized.
About 15 years ago, Ferris contracted meningitis and encephalitis from a mosquito infected with West Nile Virus, losing her speech and suffering from partial paralysis which impacted her right hand. As a child, she suffered from severe scoliosis, which was exacerbated by childbirth years later, leaving her spine quite vulnerable to infection. Her then 6-year-old daughter duct-taped a pen to her right hand and she arduously retrained her brain and hand to draw. She developed the fantastic, truly unique dense crosshatching technique employed in Monsters many years prior to that. The book is printed on lined paper with a facsimile spiral spine, resembling a typical composition notebook. Ferris used Bic pens to draw the images and Paper Mate Flair felt tips for the text.
Ferris received a MFA in creative writing from the School of the Art Institute in 2010, which is evident in some of the passages, even though they are written from a 10-year old’s perspective. Here are a few of my favorites:
As I laughed the top of my head brushed the ceiling of our basement apartment; but what came out instead was a long and loud howl. All over Uptown, skinny shepherds and toothless Chihuahuas – jacked up by some memory of the wolf in their blood – joined me in my howl. Humans were hearing the howl, too. They poured out of the Lawrence and Wilson el stations…
Walking into a warm steamy diner during a Chicago winter is like going from Alaska to a tropical country where the president is a giant onion ring who smothers you with greasy bear hugs while chain-smoking.
I couldn’t sleep. I wandered our apartment in the darkness. I felt like I was copying everything into myself. Like it was Silly Putty being pressed onto our life so that I could have the image in case everything changes…
Briefly, this is the first-person story of 10-year-old Karen Reyes, her sleazy but loving older brother Deeze (Diego Zapata Reyes) who has escaped the Vietnam draft, their single mother, and a motley assortment of neighbors living in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood in the turbulent late 1960s. Karen is drawn as a monster because that’s the persona she prefers – this could be interpreted simply as a young girl grappling with self-esteem issues in light of being different or thinking she is physically unattractive, but it’s far more complex than that. There is one scene in which Deeze confronts Karen, revealing her true, non-monstrous reflection in the mirror. You’ll have to read the book to see this image. Karen truly feels that life as a monster would be easier than dealing with life’s harsh inequities. Despite whatever insecurities she may have, Karen is incredibly brave and sometimes even defiant about her uniqueness.
Karen comes home from school and learns her beautiful neighbor Anka Silverberg has been murdered. Karen works diligently to uncover the mystery with the reluctant help of Anka’s husband Sam, who is a complete basket case. She interacts with a cast of neighborhood characters and her sleuthing puts her in grave danger at times. The book becomes a complex whodunit mystery, with interwoven past and present tales. Above all, this book is about embracing differences, tolerance, hatred, and compassion – with passages about bullies, LGBTQ themes, and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Karen’s life is touched by real-life monsters both in the present and by reliving Anka’s past … evil humans who embody the worst qualities in life.
The chapters describing Anka’s nearly unfathomable early life in Nazi Germany are dark and often as compellingly moving as any novel about the Holocaust. Anka’s mother was a prostitute and horrifically abusive. The drawings of Anka are painstakingly beautiful – I found myself going back time and again to look at them. The pictures of the characters in the whorehouse are edgy and seedy and the text is profoundly sad. At times, the pathos is peppered with laugh-out-loud humor.
Unlike most people, often the whores could see below the surface of people…from inside of my shyness I understood the value of the brothel ladies attention. They noticed me, saw my injuries and with their loving brutality they bit into me like fierce rasps, attempting to chew the rough bits from the wood with rows of tiny metal teeth.
Each of the chapters is separated by a brightly colored cover of the Dread, Spectral, and Ghastly comic books Deeze gave Karen every month, as well as other horror genre comic book covers. I gave up attempting to correlate the covers with the chapter content, but I think there is likely some connection.
Readers of my blog are likely familiar with my obsession about the past, although my fascination with the underbelly of urban life is likely more evident in my NYC articles than my Chicago posts. This is simply a result of circumstances – after I went off to college, I was bold enough to venture into seedy areas and explore the dark side of my inquisitive nature. The in-depth descriptions and illustrations of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood in Monsters appeals to my deep-seeded appreciation of the quirky, edgy, and sometimes dangerous side of urban life. Like Ferris, I loved riding on the “L” when I worked downtown in the 1980s – it was an endless source of visual inspiration. I actually started riding the Pace bus downtown alone when I was 10-years-old, twice a week to see my shrink. I remember being enthralled by a woman who was a regular on the bus – she had severe elephantiasis and bloody bandages on her massive legs. I also loved watching Creature Features as a kid and was especially intrigued by Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein from a visual perspective – and even incorporated him into my collages.
When I was in my 20s-early 30s, I lived in Ravenswood near Wilson and Damen, a stone’s throw away from Uptown. I lived in a building with plenty of characters and witnessed some weird things, although never a murder, thank goodness. I remember Uptown being quite rough back then and I avoided hanging out there, especially after my daughter was born. Oddly, even today, it is one of the few areas on the North side of Chicago that seems to have escaped complete gentrification. The historic Uptown Broadway building is now home to the Adolescent Division of Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Uptown Underground, so yes, the urban landscape inevitably changes.
I was entranced by Ferris’ brilliant, quirky interpretations of paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Karen (little artist) and Deeze are both artists and he introduces her at a very young age to the museum. Karen also visits the Art Institute with her drag queen friend Franklin and Sandy, a friend who is likely imaginary.
It is masterful the way Ferris depicts and weaves these artistic references into her dark tale. The museum is imbued with a palpable magic and the art serves as an allegory of sorts for the challenges faced by the characters. Ferris illustrated 24 esoteric paintings in the book, if I counted correctly, most of which are from the Art Institute. She included some iconic examples, like A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges-Pierre Seurat, but also some more obscure paintings. Karen recalls Deeze taking the family to the Detroit Institute of Arts, at which they saw The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, which is illustrated in a bravura 2-page spread. Leda and the Swan by Corregio at the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, is portrayed in one of Anka Silverberg’s flashback scenes in Nazi Germany. Again, you’ll have to read the book to see these wonderful images.
I loved the obvious wink and nod reference to Grant Wood’s American Gothic in a mob scene early in the book. This painting has been spoofed so many times, yet Ferris does so in a unique manner that reflects how much she loves art, especially the esoteric collection at the Art Institute. There are other art-inspired passages throughout the book. Here are three of my favorites:
I ate the Hippie Brownie. It tasted like patchouli and Salvador Dali’s paintings (if they were made of chocolate) and when I reached the cemetery my dark cloud had totally changed.
She looks a lot like this artist named Andy Warhol that Deeze has a picture of on his bedroom wall.
Deeze-grease smells like that Bellows’ painting of boxers or like standing in the men’s cologne department at Marshall Fields and eating pizza off the back of an alley cat who smokes Lucky Strikes.
My parents took me to the Art Institute on many occasions during my childhood, but my fondest memories are when I attended the Young Artist’s Studio the summer after 8th grade and rode the bus downtown from Lincolnwood. I took a painting class on the main campus and a photo silk screening class at the Pakula Building at 218 S. Wabash. SAIC rented out four floors in the building from 1969-1976, which housed the printmaking department and graduate painting studios. I had plenty of time before and after painting class to stroll through the museum. Ferris mentioned Peter Blume’s The Rock, a painting I found entrancing as a teen. She wanted to draw it, but was unable to obtain permission. This made me think about many artists who have appropriated works, the most notable being Sherrie Levine. I always assumed you didn’t need permission, as long as you altered components … which Ferris most certainly did.
Like Karen, I was 5-years-old when President Kennedy was assassinated, although I only have one clear memory of this somber occasion. I clearly recall the riots on the West Side of Chicago sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King. My parents invited our Black housekeeper and her entire family to stay with us during this horrific time, but they were deeply proud and likely felt uncomfortable with the notion of staying in Lincolnwood, which was lily-white in 1968. I also remember being scared when it was reported King’s killer James Earl Ray might have escaped to Chicago, where his brother lived. I was certain I saw him on my bus when I was riding downtown, prior to his being apprehended, although like Karen, I had a vivid imagination.
I’ve always been drawn to unusual people and places – the overlooked and underappreciated. So many things in this book struck a personal chord … feeling different due to my own sensitive artistic nature, being bullied, and even Graceland Cemetery. Karen was brave enough to visit Graceland by herself, however, my mom accompanied me there on one of our many outings to Chicago during my teen years. The book evoked nostalgia and regret – as I read it, I felt sad about the passage of time and loss of childhood innocence – both mine and Karen’s. I urge anyone with an interest in Chicago history, art, the Holocaust, mysteries, or passion for overlooked people in society to read this book! This first-time graphic novel is a tour de force and I can hardly wait until Monsters part 2 is released in early 2018.