A few hundred years before the Common Era — for the Julian and Gregorian calendars — Aristotle contended that the monster “does not violate nature as such but [is an animal] that exceeds normality.” By the 1500s, essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne – one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance – argued that monsters are not unnatural beings, but simply the results of both human ignorance and human imagination. In the mid-twentieth-century, Michel Foucault — French philosopher, historian of ideas, cultural theorist, and literary critic — asserted that the monster exists to ensure the ongoing emergence of difference.
On a divergent but possibly also parallel trajectory, the first written version of the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ slid itself into print at the dawn of the Enlightenment – the period in the history of western thought and culture, stretching roughly from the mid-decades of the seventeenth-century through the eighteenth-century. The French author, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s ‘Le Belle et la Bête’ (1756) attempted to prepare sweethearts for an orchestrated wedlock that compelled 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 nineteenth-century, it had become a celebration of the civilising power of feminine virtue and its triumph over the base of carnal desire.
Fast-forward a few hundred years and we land at Emil Ferris’ ‘My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.’ Emil Ferris’ epistolary graphic novel is a bildungsroman. Karen Reyes, Emil Ferris’ young narrator, visualises 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 Reyes’ 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 comic novels with hints of monsters, and the covers of these comic novels form an interstitial narrative that interrupts and complicates the main story. While Karen Reyes’ monstrosity makes her feel like an outsider, she also has a deep faith in monsters. To her, monsters are saviours.
‘My Favorite Thing Is Monsters’ insists that it is a primary document. It portrays itself as Karen Reyes’ personal diary, complete with printed spiral binding along its margins and college-ruled blue lining across its pages. Although these details may be scant and seem insignificant, they induce an authenticity to the epistolary form. This is not a book or a work of fiction; it is a female journal, where she divulges her most secret of secrets, where she can cast herself as a monster and feel secure, where she can find refuge.
Karen Reyes needs to find refuge since she exists in a world of discord, bitterness, and darkness. She lives in Chicago in the days surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and Chicago becomes a central character in Karen Reyes’ 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 recognisable place. But Emil Ferris’ Chicago also extends into a fabricated space that is much richer and starker than the place as it really exists.
Emil Ferris’ genre-bending narrative is part horror story, part noir. Karen Reyes makes herself into a detective — donning a trench coat and hat to fulfil the stereotype — when her upstairs neighbour Anka is found dead. Although there is no explicit evidence of foul play, Karen Reyes devotes her time to examine for clues that might support her surmise that Anka was murdered. As an inexperienced sleuth, Karen Reyes 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 blossom: when she visits her first patient, Herr Schutz, she naively thinks that he will show her compassion because of her reasonable panic. She regurgitates and he cleans her, but his mistranslated altruism swiftly changes into punishment. They do not have sex. There is no penetration, but Anka leaves his estate bruised and afraid that she has not satisfied him. Her girlhood intact, she does not understand him, or the persuasions of his desire. Although Anka is still only a teenager, 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 Reyes comes to embody the archetype of the detective as someone who not only investigates a particular mystery but seeks the truth. In the most literal way, Karen Reyes risks danger for the truth by lifting cassette tapes labelled “Anka Silverberg Testimony,” hunting for concealed 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 Reyes 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 Reyes’ adventures, but eventually, she must also navigate her own mother’s death, as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Along the way, she discovers that while some monsters are murderers, other monsters can provide hope in despairing times.
Rather than make companions at school, Karen Reyes would rather participate in an imaginary monster coalition. Even standing before a mirror, she must be aggressively jarred before she can recognise herself as a human girl. There is safety in being a monster, as to see oneself as a monster is to preemptively accept alienation. Before Karen Reyes 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’ recognises — a sign of complacency. The monster is a simple mask and standing in front of a reflective surface, Karen Reyes must recognise herself as a human — and recognise that humans are monsters, too. More so, maybe, than actual monsters.
And yet, monster or not, Karen Reyes is still a child ruled by child-logic. She is full of invention, and creativity ushers in a sanguine hope. Confronted with death and alienation, Karen Reyes 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 Reyes’ quest for immortality is purely unselfish, a form of sacrifice engendered by her mother’s struggle with cancer. Karen Reyes 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. Emil Ferris’ 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-realistic elements and moments, such as Karen Reyes entering a painting at the Art Institute in search of a demon, everything about this novel is purged in the brutality and pain of honesty. From this perspective, the existence of monsters is a coping mechanism, a way for a child to understand the world that is otherwise incomprehensible. The detailed texture and realness of Emil Ferris’ Chicago provide the detached correlative of the tragic dimensions of Karen Reyes life.
So too, the real monsters in the story have human faces. They call Karen Reyes derogatory and teasing names, they ostracise her, they exclude her from fellowship and comfort. The worst of these monsters is Missy. Missy and Karen Reyes were once best companions, strengthened in their admiration of monsters and their identities as monsters — Missy was a bride of Dracula — until their relationship takes a tragic turn. The girl’s touch, they kiss, and Missy is transformed into a different kind of monster: one who abandons Karen Reyes for the popular girls.
Emil Ferris’ story is, without a doubt, anti-beauty and pro-beasts. Beasts, to Karen Reyes, occupy a range of identities, and the politics of identity wind through this book in unexpected and fruitful ways. The story unfolds against the backdrop of the Martin Luther King Jr.’s 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 ordinarily loath: an elaborate dream sequence. But Emil Ferris provides a refreshing turn on an overused trope. In Karen Reyes’ dream, an angry mob scours the streets in search of a monster, her. They fill their guns with silver bullets, and although Karen Reyes is hiding, they find her and shoot her. When she wakes up, alive but shivering, she has an important insight. MOB, she realises, is an acronym for, as she puts it, “Mad. Ordinary. Boring.” To be a monster is to defy these terms, to move beyond outrage, cliché, 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 Michel Eyquem de Montaigne’s hope for imagination. The MOB is the same, and the monster is Michel 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 any other way.
‘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, Emil Ferris’ 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 John Mazzucchelli’s ‘Asterios Polyp,’ and arm-wrestling against Franklin Christenson Ware’s ‘Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth’ and other Chicago-based graphic novels. But despite these resemblances, ‘My Favorite Thing Is Monsters’ resides in a classification all its own: it is a new genre of book that extends beyond the graphic novel, that transcends any attempt at compartmentalization. Alison Bechdel calls it a “spectacular eye-popping magnum opus” and “a visual phantasmagoria,” and Franklin Christenson 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 is a hefty beast, hundreds of pages long — it is 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 favour of the exquisite illustrations. Emil Ferris’ 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 sensorily overwhelming. Emil 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 crystallise 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’ 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 is a book that demands to be read, demands to be experienced, and to the very last page returns you to the beginning — where you fall in love, again.