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With a title like My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, a reader could reasonably assume that Fantagraphics’ most recent critical darling is a horror tale. The book does engage components of horror stories, like using the violently explicit covers of classic horror comics as chapter dividers or incorporating the features of monsters into the design of its characters. However, the constantly shifting style of Emil Ferris’s debut graphic novel allows it to avoid the strictures of any one genre, allowing it to pivot between seemingly divergent storylines with great ease and efficacy.
Set in the same 1960s Chicago where Ferris spent her youth, the book’s main character is Karen Reyes, a 10-year-old obsessed with movie monsters. She lives with her superstitious single mother and ladies’ man brother Diego, an artist who teaches Karen an appreciation for fine art. Her world, however, is shattered after her disturbed upstairs neighbor Anka is found dead of a gunshot wound in her apartment. As Karen investigates the murder, the secrets of family members and neighbors come to the surface.
Lovingly detailed and intricate production design is a hallmark of many Fantagraphics releases, and Monsters is no exception. The central gimmick of the comic is that Karen is the cartoonist behind its creation. Accordingly, the tome mirrors the spiral notebook that provides the canvas to so many children’s first forays into sequential narrative. The spine looks like a stack of notebooks, full of blue-lined, white paper. The back cover is the deep mustard yellow of a cheap notebook’s back cover, and a two-dimensional rendering of a spiral coil threading through holes sits close to the spine. This innovation in packaging enhances the feeling of peering into a gifted youngster’s work.
The format also allows for a freewheeling approach to storytelling. Illustrations are free of the shackles of panels and grids, with each image given exactly as much as space as necessary to make its impact. Similarly, the text often flows unfettered by balloons or boxes; when these restraints do surround words, they are scribbled repeatedly for emphasis, their roughshod appearance suggesting that these are mere suggestions and there are no set rules for the page. On this malleable canvas, narrative possibilities expand.
Ferris takes full advantage of this limitless potential, mashing up genres in a riveting way. Karen’s obsession with horror films allows for several sequences that revel in their tropes, like when she transforms into a werewolf and is hounded by an angry mob. When Karen borrows Diego’s hat and starts wearing an overcoat pinned so it fits her small frame, Monsters shifts to a detective story, following her on her hunt for clues. At one point, Anka’s husband shares a recording of her narrating her life in Weimar brothels and Nazi concentration camps, a story that dominates much of the book with powerful imagery. Meanwhile, Karen takes trips to the Art Institute of Chicago with the Reyes siblings, where we see detailed reproductions of classic paintings by Georges Seurat, Jacob Jordaens, and many others; in several instances, Ferris provides the names of the painting and the artist as well as the year the work was produced, turning the proceedings into an art history lesson. And the book takes the shape of a coming out narrative when Karen begins to process her friendship with classmate Missy as something more than friendship. These jarring turns in subject matter yield a graphic novel that is hyperactive — but ultimately triumphant — in its ambition, making for an engrossing read at any given time regardless of its style or setting.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters is Ferris’s first graphic novel, and it is a rich tapestry full of hairpin turns in style and content that would allow the narrative to continue indefinitely. The mention in the artist’s bio that Monsters “is Emil’s first, but not last, graphic novel” assure the reader that Karen Reyes’s story will indeed continue after the volume’s gripping cliffhanger. At one point, Karen explains a misconception she held by saying, “After all, I was just a little kid then.” Upon realizing that at least some parts of the story are told from the point of view of an older Karen, the reader cannot help but eagerly anticipate the continuation of the likely circuitous path that leads to that wiser woman.