It must have been before Thanksgiving when Andy loaned me his copy of My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris. I told him it might take me awhile to get to this, but I never anticipated it taking as long as it actually did. His excellent take is here, but I felt like I needed to add my thoughts if only for my own sake.
The story is a challenge to describe without giving too much away. My Favorite Thing is Monsters is set in 1960’s Chicago. It’s about a 10 year old girl named Karen Reyes, who is obsessed with monster mags and movies. Karen pictures herself as part wolfmonster, part detective, and she sets out to find clues about a murder in her apartment building. From there, things get more and more complicated as Karen deals with her own feelings about her place in the world and where she fits in, compounded by family issues and health problems and a world of other problems and monsters both human and imagined. Each chapter is separated by horror magazine cover homages.
And throughout the book, Karen and her brother would visit museums to look inside the paintings for clues about her mystery case and about herself. It’s wild, wild stuff.
Early on, I would read a few pages at a time and just marvel at the craftsmanship of the pages. The book is set up so that it looks like ball-point pen on classic wide-ruled notebook pages. At any level, that would be tough to accomplish, but factor in the detail that Emil Ferris uses, the way she recreates paintings from the museum with absolute accuracy–it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
I would gleefully carry the book around early on and show people that somehow, this was possible and someone had done it–this was my equivalent of the moon landing. We did it! Except I didn’t really do anything except borrow the book from a generous friend. Emil Ferris does everything here from the art to colors to letters to whatever else you could think of. How she accomplished what she did in this book still astounds me. Even the pages where the technical difficulty level lessens, MFTIM feels like a great underground comix mag. It blends the DIY elements with the virtuoso knockout pages so seamlessly, it’s unlike any book I’ve ever read.
It was strange to me that as much as I loved the book, I genuinely struggled right from the get-go to read it. I would pick it up and read a few pages, and I would wonder how that art even happened. I even showed off the pages to friends who aren’t comic fans but would appreciate the artistic side. Then I would put it down and make excuses to read something else. Pick it up again a little bit later, and put it down almost as soon. Eventually, I realized this isn’t a book that you want to leave around for the kids to find, as there’s trauma galore waiting inside. So keeping it out of site kept it out of mind, too. Eventually, I picked it back up and then powered through the majority of the book in a few days.
This book was such a dichotomy on so many different levels. It’s beautiful to behold, but it’s such an ugly, ugly story. I wanted to linger in the art and pages to keep the book from ending, but at the same time, I could only pick it up when I was in a dark enough place that I wouldn’t let it ruin my whole day. Fortunately for finally finishing the book, we had a run of impeachment and other political events that I felt an obligation as an informed citizen that I should pay attention to–but they consistently ruined my day anyway.
Side note: No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, politics sucks and the main players should feel shame. There is no good side any more.
But, like I said, the plus side is that put me in an appropriate mindset for a story that would keep going down darker and darker paths. Physical illness? This book’s got it. Messed up stuff involving kids? Got it. Sexual identity and acceptance issues? Check. Germany during the Holocaust? Why not put it in! Guns, violence, disfigurement, physical and mental scarring, the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., class warfare, rape, poverty, murder, gangs, prison intimidation–it’s all in there. You name the sensitive, discomforting situation, and there’s a good chance it’s in here. I also get the feeling this book is smarter, emotionally, if not intellectually, than I am. It’s definitely more serious and more important. It goes back to that dichotomy though, in that I would feel smarter and dumber from reading this book at the same time. I’m fortunate enough to live a life where I’m relatively naive to so many of the terrible things in the world, and having to see them made me squirmy. I loved the book and hated reading it at the same time, as it forced me to look at elements that I’m not all that excited to look at and swim around in those worlds.
For a grade, this is definitely A+ work. If you are a fan of the artform, you owe it to yourself to check this out: This is comics as serious art. With that said, the title page lists this as Book One. I am not in any rush for Book Two. Will I read it when it does happen? Eventually. I worry it’ll be like a lot of great movies about really heavy subject matter that I still have on the backburner.
For me, I ran the emotional gamut from whimsical glee at how awesome the art was to really uncomfortable squirming at the sensitive or gross elements of the story. I loved the cover homages; I’m still befuddled by the artistic painting recreations. I feel like I learned a lot, both about art and human suffering. It’s a miserable and beautiful ride; I’m glad I took it.
Until next time, I’ll be trying to cleanse these real world ills with some good ole’ fashioned superhero punching books!