Happy Countdown to Halloween night, kiddies! Andy Larson here, host of the 9,999th most popular comic book related podcast/blog out there, the Ghosts of the Stratosphere! I gotta say I appreciate you all taking some time away from watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” for the 8th time this season, to sit a spell with yours truly and listen to me yak on and on about comics.
Although I will say that Great Pumpkin is one of my personal favorite holiday related specials out there. I especially love the subplot about Snoopy being the World War I flying ace and getting shot down by the Red Baron. As a kid, I really got sucked into that story for some reason. Like the eerie whistling music and stark bombed out French country side, it really is incredibly atmospheric. And it’s even more so when you realize it’s Snoopy projecting these images on world with his imagination.
As Charles Schultz said, the main reason he wrote these things in the comic strips is because it must be so extremely boring to be a house dog, that Snoopy had to pretty much create his own world and escape into it just to maintain his sense of well being. It’s a pretty powerful and universal message I feel, especially in today’s culture were we are all so separated by technology that boredom eventually gets the best of all of us. Heck, it’s like Snoopy was playing “Call of Duty” in his mind like 50 years before it was even invented. Interesting Stuff!
Anyways, today’s blog is not to talk about the Great Pumpkin and all of its allegories, and trust me, there are some. Instead, it’s time for me to wrap my spooky read pile books for this Halloween season, and honestly unlike the previous couple of entries, today’s blog is really something that is heavily influenced by horror pop culture. I’m talking about a book that I first talked about during our “Free Comic Book Day” visit to our local comic book shop, Phantom of the Attic, this past May.
It’s probably one of the most interesting comics that I have read in a long time, both from a story telling perspective and from a visual perspective. It is Emil Ferris’ “My Favorite Thing is Monsters”, originally put out by Fantagraphics back in 2017.
The book has a received a laundry list of awards since it was first published including: winning “Outstanding Artist” and “Outstanding Graphic Novel” at the 2017 Ignatz Awards, and “Best Graphic Album–New”, “Best Writer/Artist” , and “Best Coloring” at the 2018 Eisner Awards. It was also nominated for a Hugo Award for “Best Graphic Story” in 2018.
So long story short, it’s probably one of the most “prestigious” recent books I’ve reviewed here at the blog. However, as Stew has often pointed out often on our podcast, just because something has won a bunch of awards doesn’t exactly mean that it’s entertaining. And I’ve seen The English Patient which won a ton of Oscars despite being boring as hell so I know what he means…
So is this book something I would recommend to everyone? Let’s read on and find out…
***This review does contain mild spoilers. You have been warned!***
10 Cent Synopsis:
Set in Chicago in the late 60s, My Favorite Thing is Monsters tells the story of a young woman named Karen, who often feels out of place with society given her love of the horror sub culture as well as her budding attraction to other females.
However, she seems to find a focus for her energies when a middle aged woman she knows named, Anka, mysteriously and violently dies in her apartment building. Karen’s quest to find the truth about Anka’s death and whether it was a suicide or murder, uncovers startling truths about Anka’s past as a Holocaust survivor as well as her relationship with her older brother, Deeze.
Adding to the complexity of the events are revelations within her own family including her mother’s fight with cancer and a terrible family secret that has been haunting them ever since Karen’s father left.
Quick Fanwank on the Art:
Before I get into my overall feelings of this book, I gotta take a moment and just absolutely heap mountains of praise on it just simply because of the absolutely gorgeous art throughout. My co host, Chad, has often said some of the books that have gotten him the most excited as a reader have been the ones that do things that you can’t do in other mediums. The books that have a visual storytelling which brings out why comic books as an art form and medium for delivering interesting work can be unique and powerful.
From the moment I saw this book, I knew this book was going to deliver that in spades. The fact that it’s all rendered in ball point pen, to the fact that it’s arranged as if these were pages in a young woman’s notebook with notes and extra sketches in the margins, it’s all brilliant. It’s unlike any comic book I’ve ever read nor will I ever read again. It’s sort of like the “found film” sub genre of movies, in which you believe the narrative even more because it seems so true to life, like it was real footage forgotten about and lost to time. You really believe this is Karen’s note book and that all of the drawings and notes are her innermost thoughts, dreams, and fears.
Plus, as a result of it being in this format, it often ditches the conventional “panel grid” design of the comic medium allowing for a more organic arrangement of the story which adds an extra level of illusion, furthering the suspension of disbelief in the story.
Then you have the actual drawings themselves some of which are perfect ball point recreations of such famous paintings that it really does take your breath away. All that shading and use of color. If there’s one thing I can say for sure, I feel Emil Ferris is a genius when it comes to comic book art, and I would love to get one of here sketches to add to my collection.
Okay…enough with the fanwank…back to the review….
Overall Thoughts & Final Grade:
Let me start by saying that this book was one of the most difficult I’ve ever had to write about. Not because it was difficult to read or that it was bad quality, but because it was so very good that it’s hard to find the right words to do it justice.
I mean, this comic is somewhat transformative. It’s like when I read Watchmen, or Maus, or Asterios Polyp for the first time. These are not just comic books, but comic literature. They are books that deserve to be put on library shelves as tomes of what great heights this medium can accomplish when it’s put in the hands of brilliant creators. And that’s not to malign any of the other books I’ve read over the years, but sincerely there’s no doubt that this book belongs in some sort of rarefied atmosphere and studied for their significance.
So instead of starting this review about what I liked about this book, which would be a much larger list, I thought I’d start with what I didn’t like, as a way to justify the fact that although I just gushed over this book for the opening paragraph about being the second coming of “The Great American Comic Book”, why at the end of this article, I’ll only give it an “A-” as a grade.
The main reason is that the story is super, super dark. Like this is not a book for children even though the main protagonist can’t be more than 12 or 13 years old. In fact, I have a hard time even recommending this book to most teens, as at least from my perspective of a father, there are some severely adult themes in this book which even made me uncomfortable. To illustrate my point without giving too much of the plot away, there are huge chunks of this book which deal with child prostitution and abuse to an absurdly intense degree.
There are also scenes depicting sex slavery, attempted rape on school yards, human sacrifice, drug addiction, intense poverty, and that’s not even counting the scenes depicting the actual rounding up of the Jewish people and the concentration camps of the Holocaust. Yeah, you know when a piece of fiction includes that, it’s really going for the jugular.
Yes, it doesn’t shy away from the realities of these horrors of modern society, and although it in part shields the reader to the atrocities committed by framing some of them to have happened in Nazi Germany in the 1920s/30s, they are still horrific to read about especially to someone like me that’s been blessed with a severe degree of naivety to the world due to having a fairly pleasant upbringing.
That’s not to say that it’s not important to read about these topics, to grasp the monstrosities that can be committed by other humans especially on the young and helpless, as the moral outrage and cold hard truth can be sobering reminders for the virtuous of the world that we have to stand together against such things. But still, it can be overwhelming at times here. Everything is gritty, everything is threatening, in short everything is filled with monsters, and that can overwhelming at times.
I mean even the characters that are supposed to fill us with hope and some degree of warmth, such as Karen’s nuclear family of her Mom and her older brother, Deeze, they too are clouded with dread and despair to certain degree.
With the Mom, it’s not her fault per say as she’s actually the most uplifting character in this book other than Karen, a working class paragon of strength and everyday courage. However, she does get cancer halfway through the book, and as a result, it somewhat taints all that with the overwhelming realization that she will die, and painfully I might add. Again, true to the realities of life, but also a pretty major downer.
Then there’s Deeze, who is so complex as a character, I feel like I could write an entire article just about him. In part, a good soul who does his best to care for his family after being pushed into the male parent role as well as a gifted artist with a soul brimming with passionate uplifting ideals concerning the importance of art to everyday life.
But, in short, Deeze has an incredible dark side, which seems completely dominated by lust, violence, grief, and guilt. Again, I’m not going to go into the mysteries surrounding where these shadowy aspects spring from for Deeze, but let’s just say, as Karen’s main support system, he’s conflicted at best.
However, for those of you that are now completely turned off from reading a book such as this, I feel like all of what I’ve said, also are the same reasons it does get an “A-“. I have read uber depressing stories over the years and some of them have felt my complete and utter wrath. Despite all of what I said above about it being a dark grimy sort of book, that also works to it’s benefit.
Even from the title, you know what you are walking into. It’s a book about Monsters. Of course, you immediately think then to like Frankenstein or Dracula, and it’s wonderful that this book reminds you of that throughout by making Karen a fan of the horror genre, thus that’s how our narrator sees the world, complete with homages to Eerie or Creepy Magazine covers peppered throughout.
But the overwhelming conceit of this book and what makes it so great is that it’s not about the fictional monsters out there, but it’s about the real ones in our everyday lives. Not just those that are obvious in terms of the depraved behavior they commit constantly, but how we are also monsters to ourselves. How the things we do and say, how the world might perceive us, it shapes how we feel about ourselves and sometimes creates a feeling that we are indeed monsters in our own existence. Some of that can be the simple perception that we don’t fit in or are accepted by others, but other times like in the case of Deeze or Anka, it’s because we have involved with or committed terrible things that we’d rather not remember.
This book is so wonderful because it does what great fiction should. It makes you think about yourself and take that hard look in the mirror. Do you see a monster staring back at you? I betcha most of my audience would say that at least once in their lives, they did, and so at the heart of this book, there is that universal connection.
Your favorite thing should be monsters. They are all around us. Our family, our friends, ourselves. It’s the major truth that this book uncovers, and it’s why I would make it a high recommendation for any of my readers out there.
Andy’s Read Pile Grade: A-