APRIL 9, 2017
A FEW HUNDRED YEARS BEFORE the Common Era, Aristotle contended that the monster “does not violate nature as such but [is an animal] that exceeds normality.” By the 1500s, essayist Michel de Montaigne argued that monsters are not unnatural beings, but simply the results of both human ignorance and human imagination. In the mid-20th century, philosopher and cultural theorist Michel Foucault asserted that the monster exists to ensure the ongoing emergence of difference.
On a divergent but perhaps also parallel trajectory, the first written version of Beauty and the Beast slid itself into print at the dawn of the Enlightenment. Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s “Le Belle et la Bête” (1756) attempted to prepare girls for an arranged marriage that required them to abandon their own desires — to ignore them, to neither know nor own them — for the sake of their future husbands. Men, in this story, are always potential monsters. By the time the tale reached the ears and quills of the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century, it had become a celebration of the civilizing power of feminine virtue and its triumph over base, carnal desire.
Fast-forward a few hundred years and we land here, at Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. Ferris’s epistolary graphic novel is a bildungsroman. Karen Reyes, Ferris’s young narrator, visualizes herself as a monster. A literal monster — something of a vampire, perhaps, although she defies simple categorization — she is even equipped with an under-bite fang. Karen’s obsession with monsters and monstrosity stems, however, not only from feeling like a monster, but also from her desire to bond with her brother Deeze. He gives her comics about monsters, and the covers of these comics form an interstitial narrative that interrupts and complicates the main story. While Karen’s monstrosity makes her feel like an outsider, she also has a deep faith in monsters. To her, monsters are saviors.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters insists that it is a primary document. It portrays itself as Karen Reyes’s diary, complete with printed spiral binding along its margins and college-ruled blue lining across its pages. Although these details may be small and seem insignificant, they bring an authenticity to the epistolary form. This is not a book or a work of fiction; it is a girl’s journal, where she divulges her most secret of secrets, where she can cast herself as a monster and feel safe, where she can find refuge.
Karen needs to find refuge because she exists in a world of strife, hatred, and death. She lives in Chicago in the days surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and Chicago becomes a central character in Karen’s life, not only as the literal place she inhabits but also as an imagined space she creates. Chicago landmarks — the El, various streets, the Art Institute — occupy these pages to build a recognizable place. But Ferris’s Chicago also expands into imagined space that is much richer and starker than the place as it really exists.
Ferris’s genre-bending narrative is part horror story, part noir. Karen makes herself into a detective — donning a trench coat and hat to fulfill the stereotype — when her upstairs neighbor Anka is found dead. Although there is no explicit evidence of foul play, Karen devotes her time to searching for clues that might support her suspicion that Anka was murdered. As an amateur sleuth, Karen patches together a retrospective narrative of Anka’s enigmatic life.
Born into the forced circumstances of sex work in Nazi Germany, Anka sees her girlhood serve as a perverse source of value at a mysterious “pharmacy” where children are prescribed for healing. Anka’s nascent body becomes the site for gross fantasies to flower: when she visits her first patient, Herr Schutz, she naïvely thinks that he will show her mercy because of her obvious fear. She vomits and he cleans her, but his mistranslated altruism swiftly changes into punishment. They do not have sex. There is no penetration. Anka leaves his estate bruised and afraid that she has not satisfied him. Her girlhood intact, she doesn’t understand him, or the persuasions of his desire. Although Anka is still only a girl, she adapts quickly, because she has no other choice. Long before Anka becomes Mrs. Silverberg, the beautiful woman who lives above Karen Reyes and whose mysterious death curves its way through My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Anka sews a gold star to her garments. She is laid naked for sacrifice. She is sent to the camps.
Herself still a girl when she investigates Anka’s past, Karen comes to embody the archetype of the detective as someone who not only investigates a particular mystery but seeks Truth with a capital T. In the most literal way, Karen risks danger for the truth by stealing cassette tapes labeled “Anka Silverberg Testimony,” hunting for hidden passageways in the basement of her apartment building, diving into paintings to follow demons, and consorting with convicted criminals in prison. But perhaps more poignant than these physical dangers is Karen’s compulsion to plumb the nature of death — and by extension the things that entail and define life. Anka’s death provides the catalyst for Karen’s adventures, but eventually she must also navigate her own mother’s death, as well as Martin Luther King’s assassination. Along the way, she discovers that while some monsters are murderers, other monsters can provide hope in despairing times.
Rather than make friends at school, Karen would rather participate in an imaginary monster coalition. Even standing before a mirror, she must be aggressively jarred before she can recognize herself as a human girl. There is safety in being a monster. To see oneself as a monster is to preemptively accept alienation. Before Karen can be rejected, she becomes self-rejecting, making herself into someone who does not belong because she cannot belong. In this way monstrosity becomes a refuge, but also — as My Favorite Thing Is Monsters recognizes — a sign of complacency. The monster is a simple mask, and standing in front of a reflective surface, Karen must recognize herself as a human — and recognize that humans are monsters, too. More so, maybe, than actual monsters.
And yet, monster or not, Karen is still a child ruled by child-logic. She is full of imagination, and imagination ushers in a sanguine hope. Confronted with death and alienation, Karen reasons that the only way to survive is to become a monster and the only way to become a true monster — as opposed to the imagined version that she already embodies — is to sacrifice one’s human life. Her logic may have a tenuous grounding, but she relies on it as the serum of life, treating monstrosity as her saving grace. But on another level Karen’s quest for immortality is purely unselfish, a form of sacrifice engendered by her mother’s struggle with cancer. Karen wants a monster to bite her, thereby turning her into a monster, so that she can bite and transform her family into monsters as well. In this way she seeks to forgo her own humanity to save her mother. Ferris’s story is thus one in which hope only comes in the form of imagining oneself as a monster, and optimism can only be approached through magic. And yet, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters can hardly be described as a magical story. Although there are non-realist elements and moments, such as Karen entering a painting at the Art Institute in search of a demon, everything about this novel is purged in the brutality and hurt of honesty. From this perspective, the existence of monsters is a coping mechanism, a way for a child to understand a world that is otherwise incomprehensible. The detailed texture and realness of Ferris’s Chicago provides the objective correlative of the tragic dimensions of Karen’s life.
So too, the real monsters in the story have human faces. They call Karen derogatory and teasing names, they ostracize her, they exclude her from friendship and comfort. The worst of these monsters is Missy. Missy and Karen were once best friends, united in their love of monsters and their identities as monsters — Missy was a bride of Dracula — until their relationship takes a tragic turn. The girls touch, they kiss, and Missy is transformed into a different kind of monster: one who abandons Karen for the popular girls.
Ferris’s story is, without a doubt, anti-Beauty and pro-Beasts. Beasts, to Karen, occupy a range of identities, and the politics of identity wind through this book in unexpected and fruitful ways. From race — Karen is brown, Anka is a Jew, the story unfolds against the backdrop of the MLK assassination — to queerness and class struggle, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a bouquet of the non-normative, a choir of difference and non-conformity. It opens with something I usually loathe: an elaborate dream sequence. But Ferris provides a refreshing turn on an overused trope. In Karen’s dream, an angry mob scours the streets in search of a monster, her. They fill their guns with silver bullets, and although Karen is hiding, they find her and shoot her. When she wakes up, alive but trembling, she has an important insight. MOB, she realizes, is an acronym for, as she puts it, “Mad. Ordinary. Boring.” To be a monster is to defy these terms, to move beyond anger, banality, and bourgeois ennui and to become truly human. The MOB is Aristotle’s normal, whereas the monster exceeds. The MOB is a sign of human complacency, and the monster is the extension of Montaigne’s hope for imagination. The MOB is the same, and the monster is Foucault’s path to the crowning of difference. As in the Beauty and the Beast stories, the MOB fights for the status quo, and is angry at anyone who insists on their right to be other.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters stands at a point of intersection among many book-identities as well. Within the nascent canon of the graphic novel, Ferris’s work finds itself in conversation with its bildungsroman foremothers, whispering secrets with Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons!, queerly gabbing away with Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, sharing philosophical insights with David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, and arm-wrestling against Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and other Chicago-based graphic novels. But despite these resemblances, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters belongs in a category all its own: it is a new genre of book that extends beyond the graphic novel, that transcends any attempt at compartmentalization. Bechdel calls it a “spectacular eye-popping magnum opus” and “a visual phantasmagoria,” and Ware declares the book to be “absolutely astonishing.” My Favorite Things Is Monsters is, to stake out an appropriate metaphor, a Frankenstein’s patchwork monster: a beast with a constitution borrowed from various places but transformed into something overwhelmingly, gloriously its own.
The book as an object demands recognition, too. It’s a hefty beast, hundreds of pages long — it’s difficult to count how many because there are no page numbers, perhaps because the author or designer thought they would be too distracting or disrupting. At the same time, each page of the book is a small masterpiece: detailed, passionate, leaking genius. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a visual marvel, and it is tempting to forsake its narrative in favor of the exquisite illustrations. Ferris’s artwork bullies and commands the reader’s attention, each page bringing her to the brink of exhaustion because the struggle between art and words is so great, and the whole is so sensorially overwhelming. Ferris is a master of hatching and cross-hatching, the art of shading by means of parallel and intersecting lines, and each page balances the darkness of shading and the glowing white space of its negation. Emotions crystallize in this complex grid of simple lines: anger, jubilance, mourning, camaraderie, nascent love.
My praise for My Favorite Thing Is Monsters may seem hyperbolic, but I promise you that to call the book a masterpiece, a magnum opus, a work of genius is in fact to undersell it. We need bigger words of praise. We need to go in search of monsters. Young Karen Reyes’s world may be unfair and full of pain, but My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is resplendent. It shatters its categorization as a “graphic novel,” and becomes literature, pure and simple (although not so pure, not so simple). It’s a book that demands to be read, demands to be experienced, and at the very last page returns you to the beginning — where you fall in love, again.