NEW YORK (CNS) — Emil Ferris’ debut graphic novel, “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters” (Fantagraphics), is an extraordinary work.
Over 350 pages long, it features a rich, remarkable visual style and several interweaving story lines. It will likely be a frontrunner when this year’s awards for the genre are presented.
This is not, however, a tale for children. The book includes adult situations and language, frank portrayals of sexuality, a murder mystery, drug use as well as themes of prostitution, war, illness and genocide
“Monsters” is the story of Karen Reyes, a 10-year-old girl living in Chicago in the late 1960s. Karen is obsessed with classic horror films and magazines, a passion she acquired because of the fact she was born with a facial defect that makes her resemble the Wolf Man.
Karen lives with her mother, who’s just known as “Mama,” and her brother Deeze, an artist who takes her to museums and teaches her how to draw. Karen attends Catholic school where, not surprisingly, her favorite ghoul periodicals — publications with titles like Ghastly, Dread and Arcane — draw frowns from the nuns.
In response, Deeze offers Karen a rather bizarre bit of reassurance. St. Christopher, he points out, was depicted with a dog’s head, and has sometimes been called “the werewolf saint.”
The former statement, strange as it seems, is true with regard to at least a few icons. As for the latter, far more fanciful, claim, it’s probably linked to medieval narratives describing St. Christopher as belonging to a dog-headed race of cannibals whose dietary habits he naturally abandoned after his conversion to Christianity.
One day, Karen comes home to find that her upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, has been shot to death. Would-be sleuth Karen decides to investigate the murder, even donning a trench coat and fedora.
She draws all the neighbors, noting their whereabouts at the time of the crime. She also questions Anka’s husband, Sam, a jazz drummer. In the course of their conversation, Sam reveals that he has audio tapes of Anka telling her life story.
It turns out that Anka, a German-born Jew, suffered two personal disasters in her youth. During the impoverished, morally decadent years of the Weimar Republic, she was sold into prostitution. Once the Nazis came to power, she was sent for “resettlement” — in other words, shipped off to a concentration camp.
Even as Karen is discovering all this, Mama shares the news that she needs treatment for cancer.
The detail in “Monsters” is stunning. Ferris presents the book as Karen’s diary, so the backdrop of Ferris’ art are the thick blue lines of a spiral notebook.
The images in the diary appear to be the accomplished work of a young artist who has studied not only scary movies, but classic portrait composition — as well as famous paintings ranging from Bernat Martorell’s “St. George Killing the Dragon” to Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpieces. There’s also a detectable touch of indie comic legend Robert Crumb’s style.
The pictures in “Monsters” grow out of a story that is well-developed, morally sharp and highly intelligent. Ferris is a powerful writer who has a genuine love for her struggling, all-too-human characters.
The book frequently returns to the main trope of Karen’s affinity with movie monsters. Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and Medusa are companions who help Karen, a kid with a deformity, feel accepted. When her mother is going through chemotherapy, Karen sees the “undead” as superior to humans because, by their very nature, they aren’t mortal.
Discovering how all the threads in “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters” tie together will have to wait — this volume is only Book One.
The graphic novel contains mature themes and explicit depictions of violence, sexuality and narcotics use. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. Not otherwise rated.
Judge reviews comic books and video games for Catholic News Service.