As social beings, our lives are imbricated forcibly with one another. Through family ties, friendships, work relations, neighbourhood life, nationality, identity communities, we relate to everyone around us, whether we feel attracted or repulsed, or even if it’s simple indifference. To be indifferent towards someone or someone is not indifferent to our own constitution as human beings and citizens.
To a certain extent, the overnight sensation first volume of My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris is a hefty novel about this interconnectedness, through the protagonist’s attempt in overcoming such indifference. The book is purportedly told in such a way that it seems to be an autobiography in comics form written and drawn by a young girl named Karen Reyes. It is quite probable that there are several traits that are coincidental to those of the empirical author, but that is not important for the reading of the book. Whatever degree of distance or proximity there is between Ferris herself and little Karen, what is important is the authenticity with which the text presents itself, as an urgency of telling the things it tells.
All the drawings are made on perforated, blue-ruled white legal paper. Allied to what seems to be ballpoint pen lines, mostly in black, but sometimes using bold colours such as red, yellow, green, blue and others, in beautiful, intricate hatchwork that takes fully advantage of subtractive colouring at significant and powerful moments, Ferri’s artistic signature in this book is, at one time, deceptively simple – everyday materials – and masterful – a painstakingly morose process, with momentous results.
This materiality has a forceful impact on the fabric of the narrative. As we’ve seen, we are embarking on a narrative seemingly told as it occurs by young Karen herself, so it’s as if we were reading her actual physical diary, or at least her daily scribblings on “the case.” Due to this very heterogeneous, deceptively simple, relatable and approachable, everyday materiality, one is reminded of Lynda Barry’s ongoing effort in inviting people into the world of comics, regardless of more consolidated integration on more classical genres, styles or “schools”. The way Ferris does not follow customary structural choices – the visibility of the legal paper lines, the non-natural colouring, the collage-like page composition, the fluctuation of styles and renderings, the free-hand calligraphy – is not a sign of amateurism in the least. Don’t be fooled. Ferris is an incredibly accomplished artist, capable of fluctuating back and forth between the high stylization of tv cartoons, modulated academic figuration, beautiful contrasted Muralist-like coloured portraits and silly, swift scribbles that remind one of bored teen’s annotations on school notebooks. Appropriation, pastiche and repurposing of existing art, whether of lowbrow (the monster magazines) or high-brow (the masterpieces of the museum), abound, creating filters of representation and remove from the realities at hand.
Without being an experimental work, it goes well beyond the “naturalized” choices of most comics. When people talk about the “potentiality of comics,” beg them to stop and tell them about the many comics that have brought about real change. Ferris’s book is a great place to start.
This convolution of styles, allied to the possibility of reading multiple narrational genres in this book makes us return to Barry, and it is quite possible to address Monsters as a work of “autobiofictionagraphy.”
Indeed, despite having a “detective mystery” at its core – who killed Jewish beauty Anka Silverberg, Holocaust survivor? – the book goes a little everywhere, bringing in traits from personal memoir and autobiography, mixing collective history and memory, and always following new, tangent thoughts. Some readers may find this disheartening, as it “does not go the point.” But the “point” is precisely to follow the cognitive processes of young Karen, and children, especially intellectually-inclined, curious 10-year olds, will want to learn everything, even if that means being momentarily distracted from the last question they asked. In fact, Karen is not “distracted” (etymologically: “drawn in different directions”), she is just able to open up multiple forking paths, and it’s up to the reader to comprehend the overall pattern, which, granted, may only coalesce at the end of the whole series.
One of the most poignant aspects is how we witness Karen growing internally, revealing herself and learning who she is. Her budding sexuality, the way she copes with the world around her, and so on, is sprawled throughout the events of the book, bringing to the fore the nurture-nature issue, in a way that even if it’s not totally original, is genuine, powerful and touching.
It will be up to other reviewers familiar with 1960’s Chicago history to underline all the snippets of contemporary American history that Ferris touches upon – systemic racism, poverty, internal migration, collective identities’ social pecking order, social policies, the impact of politics on the daily lives of the working classes, and so on. But there’s no doubt that for those inclined to do such historical or sociological readings, My Favorite Thing is Monsters will give them a field day.
The cast of characters is absolutely riveting. One may think that they are made up. Karen’s older artist/bum/drifter Latino lover Deezee. Poor, perpetually-hungry friend Sandy. Closeted, branded and suffering Franklin. The eternally kvetching, contradictory mama. And many others, with diverse degrees of screen time and action. Not to mention, of course, Anka herself, whose life story we have twice-removed access to via tape recordings Anka did for a young reporter and which her husband, Sam Silverberg, share with Karen (bringing to the table yet another complication in the mediascape of memoir and lifetelling). This allows us to follow yet another identity storyline that goes from the crumbling of the Weimar Republic to the advent of Nazi Germany, and which will probably extend to modern American Jewishness. In turn, the crossing of Jewish, Latino and other identities that have been marginalized in American history or myth-making is an additional, powerful layer of the vigor of this project, whose second volume one can’t wait too eagerly.