Local artist and author Emil Ferris's My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a knotty, richly drawn graphic novel that blends memoir, pulp horror, detective fiction, and historical drama. It's set on mock notebook pages—like Syllabus, a recent comic from former longtime Reader contributor Lynda Barry. Ferris uses panels and word balloons in My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, but an equal amount of space is given to illustrations of a type more often seen in children's storybooks. The aesthetic approach pays off for a narrative that balances heaviness and playfulness.
Ferris's story, set in late-1960s Chicago, primarily spills out of quirky, ten-year-old, monster-obsessed kid Karen Reyes. She lives in an Uptown basement apartment with her mother and extensively tattooed older brother Diego ("Deeze"), who has at least a decade on her. The family—whose cultural background is as multitextured as the visuals—has a close relationship with a striking middle-aged neighbor named Anka Silverberg. When she's found to have been shot dead, the murder's impact on Karen runs deep. "She was the most beautiful woman I ever saw," the young Reyes writes.
Karen assumes a detective role thereafter, probing Silverberg's death and a secret in Deeze's past. But Ferris doesn't allow the mystery to play out in linear fashion: the reader gets to know each of the book's characters deeply (even those in the margins); an adjacent narrator's tale shifts the time and locale; and weird, metaphysical trips to the museum during the day lead to Karen climbing into paintings.
Bullied at school for her atypical interests in art and horror, Karen journals and sketches her frustrating days. She's comforted by the similarly eccentric Deeze, a troubled artist subject to neighborhood bigotry for his resemblance to their Mexican father. But Deeze's pronounced widow's peak and lean face more often summon Dracula—in My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, monstrousness and the era's intolerance of otherness regularly mingle. Horror-comics covers, drawn by Karen, introduce new chapters—they mimic 1950s titles like Chamber of Chills or the slicker, eroticized horror anthologies that followed years later. Karen binges on late-night TV creature features, while depictions of her friends resemble Universal Studios horror icons.
Ferris's portraits emphasize distorted features and sunken cheeks, and renderings of the city's architecture are similarly illustrated. Ornate rooflines and sophisticated terra-cotta surfaces are exhaustively detailed in Ferris's penned depictions of Uptown Station, the Uptown Broadway Building facade, and the Riviera Theatre. Karen's written remembrance of Silverberg curls around these spellbinding settings.
The protagonist examines an account of her neighbor's escape from Nazi Germany for clues about her death—but given that this is the first book in a series, nothing's black and white. Nostalgia for the Twilight Zone-like catch-22s that capped off old horror comics is understandable—especially following all of Ferris's splintering chronology and dense characterization—yet for the curious Karen questions linger. "The truth is," Ferris writes, as Karen, "there are a lot of things we don't see every day that are right under our noses." v