Defying the norms of graphic novels, 'My Favorite Thing is Monsters' dazzles critics of all stripes

The cover for “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.”
The cover for “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.”
Published May 16, 2017

It's unheard of in the comic book world for something like My Favorite Thing Is Monsters to be sold out everywhere.

But this gorgeous book has been getting buzz since it surfaced at last year's Comic-Con in San Diego. When it finally arrived in stores in February, critics swooned — and not just the kind of reader you'd find in every Kevin Smith movie. Real, bona fide literature-loving critics from the New York Times and London's Guardian called it a dazzling story with beautiful cross-hatched art worthy of a museum.

After the author was featured on a March episode of NPR's Fresh Air, Monsters became the Hamilton of graphic novels — impossible to get your hands on without paying a steep price.

It took me a solid month. I tried every comic and bookstore in town, and every online retailer. I didn't feel like paying three times the $30 retail price. (More than 300 pages of full-color art doesn't come cheap.)

Meanwhile, the story behind this book is another incredible tale.

Author Emil Ferris is 55, and she had never published a graphic novel before. It came about because the freelance illustrator and toy designer got bitten by a mosquito on her 40th birthday. She caught West Nile virus and ended up paralyzed by meningitis, unable to walk or move her drawing hand. In a slow, painful recovery, she eventually regained control of her right side, went back to art school and crafted this story set in the Holocaust and 1960s Chicago.

It centers on a young girl named Karen and her journal, where she draws herself as a werewolf girl with fangs. Karen digs into the mysterious death of her neighbor, Anka Silverberg, a beautiful Holocaust survivor who is drawn in a blue hue.

Karen identifies with outcast monsters like the Wolfman. And in the retelling of Anka's story of growing up in a German brothel and being sent to a Nazi work camp, we see the difference between "good monsters" and bad monsters.

"A good monster sometimes gives somebody a fright because they're weird looking and fangy. … A fact that is beyond their control. … But bad monsters are all about control. … They want the whole world to be scared so that bad monsters can call the shots," Karen writes.

Ferris makes deft use of the simple resources of ballpoint pens, color and cross hatching in the novel. And sprinkled throughout, Ferris re-creates some of her favorite works of art from the Art Institute of Chicago.

She duplicates things like Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and Bernat Martorell's St. George Killing the Dragon. I found myself looking up the masterworks and in awe of Ferris' ability to interpret the work and use it as a way to move Karen's story forward.

Monsters was supposed to be released in October, but the cargo ship the books were on was seized in the Panama Canal by the shipping company's creditors. So it missed the Christmas season and finally hit stores early this year.

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Despite the mishaps, it quickly sold out and was hailed by critics as brilliant. Just last month, Sony bought the movie rights.

Gary Groth, the book's editor, is president of the publishing house Fantagraphics, which has a bit of a hard-luck story, too. He publishes alternative comics and magazines devoted to serious fans. The company has been on the brink of collapse several times since it was founded in 1976.

In a telephone interview from his home in Seattle, Groth said he liked Monsters instantly, though such a sizable graphic novel was "terrifying." But instead of 5,000 copies, he ordered 10,000 in its first run and held his breath. The heavy 386-page book is only Volume 1. The rest of the story comes out in October.

Last month, Fantagraphics ordered 30,000 reprints, the largest in company history. That's a remarkable number for a graphic novel, a genre with few titles that sell more than 5,000 copies.

"This is an unprecedented success," Groth said. "It's what I had hoped it would be."

And this week, a spokesman for Fantagraphics said a third printing of another 30,000 books has been ordered.

Groth took a copy to last year's Comic-Con in San Diego and ran into fellow Seattle resident Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons.

"He actually, like, lifted his glasses off his nose and stuck his face about a half an inch from the paper just to study the drawing," Groth said. "He's a bit of a connoisseur of comics, so there was a sense of vindication."

With Monsters finally in my hands, it has taken a while to read because it is a dense book. You can't just zip through it. You have to linger on the elaborate drawings and take in the story of the monstrous behavior of people throughout history whose terror makes the Wolfman look like a puppy.

"It's really in direct opposition to the zeitgeist," Groth said. "It's not a quick read. It doesn't fit in with dwindling attention spans. But it is so damn good, people can't ignore it."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.