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Nonfiction

Interview: Emil Ferris

Last year, I read a remarkable graphic novel that became more than just a favoriteit absolutely obsessed me. I’m apparently not alone in that, since Emil Ferris’s huge, gorgeous, and horrific My Favorite Thing Is Monsters has gone on to receive multiple awards (the 2017 Ignatz Award, three Eisner Awards, a Hugo nomination, and a Bram Stoker Award nomination), and praise from the likes of Art Spiegelman, who called Ferris “one of the most important comics artists of our time,” and The A.V. Club, which hailed the book as a masterpiece. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters tells the story of ten-year-old Karen Reyes, a young artist growing up in Chicago in the 1960s who prefers to see herself as a werewolf (and is drawn throughout the book as one). When her mysterious upstairs neighbor Anka dies, Karen, aided by her gifted but temperamental older brother Deeze, embarks on an investigation to solve what she thinks is a murder. The book is drawn in a unique style, using ball-point pen on notebook paper; it eschews traditional graphic novel panels, and includes homages to both classic paintings and horror comics.

However, the story behind the book is just as inspirational as the one within: Emil Ferris is a Chicago-based artist in her fifties who began working on the book after barely surviving a bout of West Nile Virus in 2002. Doctors told her that she was likely to be paralyzed for life, but, after her daughter taped a pen into her hand and got her drawing again, she recovered. After completing the book, she received forty-eight rejections until Fantagraphics picked it up, eventually deciding to split the massive tome into two parts (although Book Two was originally slated for release in late 2017, Ferris decided to continue work on it, and it’s now set for a 2019 publication).

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Let’s talk first about your life before My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. You were an illustrator, but did you draw any comics?

I began drawing comics very intentionally a few years before MFTIM, but when I look back at a lot of the artwork I was doing years before, most of it had text.

What were the horror movies that influenced you as a kid? Do you have any favorites?

Bride of Frankenstein, lots of things by Val Lewton, almost every Hammer film, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Suspiria and of course, The Wolfman. On television, I loved The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, The Outer Limits and, yes, Doctor Who.

At a young age you belonged to a theatrical troupe called the Marble Cake Kids, run by a pair you described as “counterculture mavens called Leo and Mila.” Did doing theater as a child influence your art? And are Leo and Mila the hippie couple in the book who give Karen a loaded brownie?

Wow, you’ve done your research! I think theater had a profound effect on me. It was because of those experiences of performing in front of a live audience that I realized that if I believed what I was doing, the audience would also. That’s the kind of benevolent magick that resolves itself in a cathartic experience for the audience. I wanted the book to have some of that kind of magick, also on a practical level—blocking scenes is an extremely helpful exercise for anyone seeking to make a graphic novel.

You’ve frequently discussed your artistic inspirations behind the book (Art Spiegelman, fine artists like Delvaux and Van Gogh), you’ve talked about horror comics and movies . . . but how about literature? Did you have a favorite horror story or book growing up?

I really liked Henry James, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Dickens, ghost stories, Edgar Allan Poe, the Lang books of fairy tales (which could often be really disturbing and sometimes outright frightening).

Why have you for so long been interested in the idea of a young girl who believes she’s a werewolf? Why does she specifically imagine herself as a werewolf and not some other classic monster?

Well, I confess. I toyed with a fondness for vampires during my teen years. Always, though, I go back to the pure exhilaration of a moon-seduced transformation. It just seems so orgasmic.

The use of horror in My Favorite Thing Is Monsters undergoes an interesting change about a third of the way through: prior to the back story of Anka, horror is used in a whimsical fashion, as ten-year-old outsider Karen prefers the company of fictitious monsters to the real bullies and racists around her. But when Anka’s story, as she undergoes a series of increasingly horrific events in order to survive being a Jew in World War II Germany, kicks in, the horror becomes very real. Was that deliberate change always a part of the story?

Pretty much. If we’re all very lucky, we’ll live whole lifetimes wherein movie horror is an unnecessary “dry run,” if you will, for real life horror. Although frankly—these days—one might wonder.

In previous interviews, you’ve talked about using darkness as a way to reveal light. Is that why you (and by extension, Karen Reyes) are drawn to horror? How do you feel about the style of horror that’s bleak and offers no prospect of a hopeful resolution?

I have a really hard time with a vision of anything that is absent the lyricism of hope. I don’t really know what—beyond fear—ultimately holds anyone to such a narrative. Frankly, I don’t think fear is really strong enough. It’s not magnetic in a “drawing” way, it’s repellent. Fear is, at its core, extremely brittle. Now, desire—on the other hand—that shit is enduring and as insistent and incursive as mint in a garden.

Anka’s husband, jazz drummer Sam Silverberg, is drawn as a heavily wrinkled man in shades of blue. In fact, he bears a striking resemblance to Karloff’s Imhotep in The Mummy (and his full-page portrait is placed opposite a mummy comic book). Why did you choose The Mummy for that character?

Similar to Silverberg, the regrets of the Mummy are the true locus of the movie’s horror. I like the way that the icons of horror are metaphorical for a lot of the true human (monster) challenges that we face.

Did you always conceive of the book as being drawn in the ballpoint pen style?

It was the truest choice to make, as it was meant to look like one of my old notebooks, but using a ballpoint pen to create 800 pages is not just a little bit insane.

The covers of the horror comics you’ve created seem much more interesting to me than the horror comics I remember from the ’60s. Are these horror comics the way you wish they’d been?

Frankly, there’s a bit of Men’s Adventure, a dash of The Addams Family, and a healthy dollop of The Twilight Zone in them. So, yes, I guess they are a bit more risky than a lot of horror covers were back then, but there were some pretty great ones then, too.

Some of my favorite drawings in the book are copies of the paintings that Karen sees at art museums. Did you ever feel strange copying these masterpieces?

Well, in a way I always feel strange drawing everything. There’s this unreality to the act that is actually kind of appealing as much as it is off-putting. It always comes down to formal concerns—technical things. But of course that’s the truth for any discipline that relies on technique (the corporeal) to convey the spirit.

As the story advances into Book Two and Karen changes, will her art change as well?

Yes, sadly.

What’s the response been from female readers in particular? I mean, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who read it and thought, “Finally, somebody got that not all little girls wanted to be princesses at Halloween!”

It’s been great. So much so that I really have to wonder at our history, which up till recently was sort of weighted in favor of male protagonists. I’ve personally never understood this.

When you were in the hospital suffering from the meningitis and encephalitis associated with West Nile Virus, you experienced a vision of the Angel of Death as a 1940s filing cabinet. Is your idea of Hell a by-the-numbers bureaucracy?

Hah! I like that! But I can’t say that’s my idea. It’s yours, and what a great thought—especially lately. I will say, though, that since I really loathe shopping for anything other than books (and thrift shopping), I find suburban shopping malls to be a kind of hell.

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.