Eagerly Awaited Graphic Novel Embraces Chicago, Art and Monsters — Both Real and Imaginary

Left: The cover of “My Favorite Thing is Monsters Book Two.” Right: An image from the book. (Provided)Left: The cover of “My Favorite Thing is Monsters Book Two.” Right: An image from the book. (Provided)

The literary marvel “My Favorite Thing is Monsters” has risen from the crypt in a highly anticipated “Book Two.”

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Graphic novelist Emil Ferris seemingly materialized out of thin air in 2017 with the original “My Favorite Thing is Monsters,” and she was soon named “one of the most important comics artists of our time” by Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Maus.”

Ferris was 55 years old when the book — her first published work — was released to instant praise. Years earlier she had been an illustrator and sculpted prototypes for toy companies. The overnight sensation was a lifetime in the making.

Now she’s back with “My Favorite Thing is Monsters Book Two.”

(Scroll to the end of the article to see images from the book.)

“Book Two” continues the tale of Karen Reyes, a 10-year-old misfit who thinks of herself as a werewolf. Growing up in Chicago in the ‘60s, Karen tries to solve the mysterious death of a neighbor and navigate the scary Uptown neighborhood where she lives. She also seeks to understand her beloved big brother, a talented young man with a knack for trouble. In midst of real terrors, Karen falls in love.

Ferris builds genuine fear into the narrative, and the intersecting lines of her cross-hatched drawings give a sculptural quality to the art. Monsters — good and bad —are drawn in pen and ink on paper that looks like a spiral-bound notebook. It’s an ambitious epic made with Bic and Paper Mate pens.

The books are set against a backdrop of Chicago landmarks, including the Aragon Ballroom and Graceland Cemetery. The Art Institute is a pivotal location — Karen actually enters the paintings, and the museum’s lions come to life in her dreams.

Sony Pictures bought the movie rights for “My Favorite Thing is Monsters,” but another worthy film subject might be the author herself.

Ferris grew up in Uptown — underprivileged and disabled by scoliosis. She had moved to Chicago from New Mexico as a child. At 40, she contracted West Nile virus and was paralyzed. She had to learn to walk and draw again. She earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute and began the work of creating the more than 800 pages of narrative art in the two books.

WTTW News spoke to Ferris about monsters and more. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.

WTTW News: As a child on Halloween, what did you dress up as?

Emil Ferris: I have a mask still in my collection that’s important to me because it was made by my mother. We were poor at the time, and the only thing she could find was a broken Spider-Man mask. She’s such a brilliantly creative person that she took strips of newspaper and soaked them in glue, and she built up this wonderful green witch’s mask. I dressed in a cloak and went door to door, and I was small and slightly hunchbacked, and my voice was deep when I was a child — it pretty much hasn’t changed — and I cackled when people opened the door. I just scared the hell out of them. I remember it as one of the happiest times of my childhood. [laughs]

What is it that kids find so interesting about monsters? Do you think they see themselves in them, as outsiders and misfits?

Ferris: Yes, I think that they’re outsiders, but I also think that the process of childhood is this taking in of the adult world and slowly relinquishing the child world. I think that the loving of monsters is a rebellion to that. It’s a rebellion against being constrained and tamed and made less wild — and I’m not thinking of wildness as a bad thing. I’m thinking of wildness as the generative part of us, the creative part of us. And as we watch our parents do exciting things, like balance checkbooks and go to 9-to-5 jobs, we know that the future is not dedicated to our freedom. Loving monsters is a way to say, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m really loyal to the part of me that you don’t like.’

Left: Karen Reyes of “My Favorite Thing is Monsters” and creator Emil Ferris. (Provided) Right: Emil Ferris (Whitten Sabbatini)Left: Karen Reyes of “My Favorite Thing is Monsters” and creator Emil Ferris. (Provided) Right: Emil Ferris (Whitten Sabbatini)

You moved to Chicago from New Mexico when you were young. Was that a culture shock?

Ferris: Yes, but New Mexico was not what it is now. It had no awareness of its uniqueness. It was humble and genuine. My grandmother would take me to the [national historic landmark] El Santuario de Chimayo, and we would pass through the church with a sense of respect and reverence almost like you do with a museum. That’s where I saw the penitente art and where I realized I loved these strange, dark celebrations of death — and the truth about death, that it was this liberating force and also a mystical force. When I was a kid, I’d seen a lot of death. I mean, Uptown was an even more violent place than it is now. There were quite a few horrific things that I witnessed, and those embedded themselves in me. I think creature-feature movies helped me contextualize the true-life horrors that I experienced. They helped me understand death and maybe externalize those things, so that I could actually think about them. This is what Karen is saying a lot in ‘Book Two.’ She’s saying, ‘You guys keep all these secrets from me, and that isn’t helping because I have serious things I’m trying to figure out.’

In the books, the Art Institute is a magical place where one can understand the world by understanding paintings. Is that how you see it?

Ferris: I think it is a wonderland. I get blowback from younger people because I’m skeptical about the way they are experiencing the world. I’m not sure if they consider their phone a protective device or if it’s how they collect the world or if it’s the lens through which they see the world. I had a residency at the Louvre and spent three months going to the Louvre every day to draw from the paintings. I witnessed people from all over the world come through, and the thing that disappointed me was how many people came through looking at their phone to see the paintings. They were filming or taking pictures, but they weren’t actually looking or interacting. It was concerning to me. One of my favorite things to do is to go to a museum with a person who doesn’t spend a lot of time with paintings, because there are so many mysterious, mystical, hidden things in the paintings. I was recently at a museum with someone who fit that profile, and she saw things in the picture that I didn’t. There’s a certain language with how paintings get made, and these are clues to a way of seeing. I want people to have that. It’s their heritage, their birthright, and they should have fluency in it.

Do you work on location or use models and photographs?

Ferris: I do all of the above.

A lot has changed for you since Book One became a success. What has the ride been like?

Ferris: Well, it definitely got me to the Louvre and that was amazing, and it got me — a kid who was pretty darn poor until she was about 8 years old — to the Uffizi and the Prado, museums I never thought I’d have the opportunity to see. That, for me, is the standard by which I judge success — you know, how many museums have you been to? That was something that the success of the book did for me, which was fantastic, and I’m really grateful for that.

What’s next for you and for Karen Reyes?

Ferris: I’m really working hard now on the next books. ‘My Favorite Thing is Monsters’ is finished, but Karen’s life hasn’t finished, so there’s another book that comes after this. ‘Records of the Damned’ will be about ghosts and being haunted. It’s early Karen. It happens before everything in the first book. And then another book is coming which talks about what happened at the end of ‘Book Two,’ which is a mystery. I’m enjoying the hell out of this book.

The first book was published before book banning became a thing once again. Any concerns about the adult themes of your new book?

Ferris: I’ve heard murmurings and there have been veiled threats, not made directly to me, but as I peruse online, I see people who say angry things, coming from both sides politically. On the right I have people say, ‘I bought this for my 7-year-old, and it has nudity! How dare you put nudity in comics!’ I respect them — they want to protect their child, but they don’t understand that comics doesn’t necessarily mean funny and cute. Then I’ve had people on the left say, ‘Some of your characters say things I don’t like.’ I understand that, but if you want to read a book where you agree with everything, that’s your book to write, not mine.

See images from the book below.

An image from “My Favorite Thing is Monsters Book Two.” (Provided)An image from “My Favorite Thing is Monsters Book Two.” (Provided)

An image from “My Favorite Thing is Monsters Book Two.” (Provided)An image from “My Favorite Thing is Monsters Book Two.” (Provided)

An image from “My Favorite Thing is Monsters Book Two.” (Provided)An image from “My Favorite Thing is Monsters Book Two.” (Provided)

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