Newsmaker: Emil Ferris

Graphic novelist on monsters and memories

November 1, 2017

Emil Ferris
Illustration: Emil Ferris

Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters (Fantagraphics) debuted in February to wide acclaim. The book won Outstanding Graphic Novel and Ferris was named Outstanding Artist at September’s Small Press Expo. Monsters is the story of Karen Reyes, a 10-year-old girl living in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood in 1968 with her mother and older brother. She likes horror movies and comics and thinks of herself as a werewolf. When her neighbor Anka, a Holocaust survivor, dies mysteriously, Karen tries to solve the crime. The second volume will be released in early 2018.

You worked on this story for several years while recovering from West Nile virus, getting a master’s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and raising your daughter. Then this nearly 400-page book comes out, and cartoonist Art Spiegelman is calling you “one of the most important comics artists of our time.” How do you feel about being a years-long overnight success?

It was an enormous shock to me. I’m really pleased that people love this book this much after being in isolation with it for as long as I was. I developed a kind of fatalism about it. It was kind of my St. Jude [patron saint of lost causes] book, you know? I had no idea if anyone was going to like it or if they would even see it at all. I’ve never stopped knowing how uncertain this is, so this has been amazing.

Karen Reyes is a unique protagonist—a 10-year-old lesbian werewolf detective. Where did this character come from?

My parents brought me as a kid to a party in this old Uptown apartment with about 20 other kids I’d never met before. All the girls started to play with dolls, and the boys went out to get breadsticks from the adult party. It was very traditional. I was appalled. So I created my own character—I found a raincoat in the pile of coats and a fedora, made one of the breadsticks into a cigar, and said “There’s been a murder!” I got their attention, and nobody wanted to play with dolls anymore. I created a body, and we solved a crime together. And I thought, this is who I want to be. I don’t want to be those people; I want to be a detective. I already knew I was a werewolf. So I just wrote from that place.

There are so many historical details in the book—World War II, Chicago in the 1960s, old monster movies, and horror comics—how much of that comes from your own memory, and how much was research you did for the book?

Most of Uptown in the Sixties comes from my memory. But one of the things that I learned is that you have to recover memory when you’re writing autobiographically because you’ve forgotten so much. So I was going back and looking at old pictures, having conversations with people who remembered more than I did, and allowing them to expose me to things. I read a lot of novels written during the Sixties, books about Uptown in the Sixties, books specifically about people who self-identified as hillbillies in Uptown in the Sixties. There were all kinds of interesting things happening there that I forgot. I availed myself of my librarians, too—people who stored little bits of knowledge for me and would give me breadcrumbs to follow. Evanston (Ill.) Public Library was my library of choice for research, plus antiquarian booksellers.

Did libraries play a role in your life as a kid?

Oh, absolutely! My first champion was a librarian at Gale Elementary School named Mrs. Eldridge. She started me competing in the Illinois History Day competitions, and I got to go down to Springfield. I joke about it, but it seemed that I would shake a governor’s hand, and he would be indicted two months later. It happened more than once.

Mrs. Eldridge gave me books to read, and she believed in my ability to write. That’s all a kid needs. The library was terribly underfunded. The books on the shelves were all from the 1950s and battered. There was asbestos blowing out of the radiators into the rooms—we called it indoor snow. We wore our coats inside in the winter. But it had this librarian, and she was good to me.