Emil Ferris’ astounding graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book One (Fantagraphics, 2017) is a densely layered narrative, drawn primarily in pen on notebook paper, telling the story of Karen Reyes, a ten-year-old outcast in 1968 Chicago, who imagines herself as a monster detective (a play on Art Spiegelman’s “Ace Hole: Midget Detective”). In this guise, Karen sets out to solve the murder of her upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, the woman whose apprehensive face appears on the cover of Book One (a prospective second volume is still forthcoming). Karen explores Anka’s life and death, discovering a trove of recordings that establish a harrowing account of her time in Germany between the wars, including being sold into a child prostitution rings and ultimately being sent to a concentration camp. [This material and its presentation harken back to Spiegelman’s Maus, including the stopping and starting of tapes and the collapse of present and past in interesting ways.]
Karen obsesses over this quest as a way to ignore the issues in her own life, including her attraction to another girl, Missy, her wayward brother Deeze, her mother’s failing health, and growing racial tensions that are ever-present—at a key moment in the narrative, characters learn of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and react with a mix of shock and despair for their community and futures. Some of these threads resolve by the end of the first book, while others linger at the end, hopefully to wrapped up in the future.
I’m particularly interested in Ferris’ use of fine art as a method for Karen’s investigation. Throughout the narrative, Ferris includes redrawn paintings, in part or in full, which directly impact Karen’s investigation. In one early part of her exploration, Karen tries to find a local grotesque, Mr. Chugg, a man with a glass eye, hoping he has information. As she stands at his door, Karen shifts to an image from one of her favorite paintings, Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781), noting that “basements smell… …like Surrealism—cool and sweaty at the same time—which reminded me of nightmares and this guy.”
Her associative logic—important throughout the narrative—allows for an aesthetic interplay between fine art and comics that I think is key to understanding the narrative’s mechanics. Important to Karen is how the incubus in Fuseli’s painting reads and the hidden meanings in each of the paintings that she obsesses over.
On the next pages, Ferris redraws Fuseli in a lovely cross-hatched pen, drawing out figures in the shadows of the original, while retaining the calm creature on the main figure’s chest. These pages are buttressed on either side by explanatory text—an ekphrasis that allows Karen to work through the puzzles she is attempting to confront.
Karen had seen the painting at the Detroit Institute of Arts on a trip with her brother Deeze, who had introduced how to read these works:
Deeze says that it is full of symbols and that it is Romanticism, but doesn’t exactly look like Mama’s romance novels…
There is a swooning lady in the painting—like on the romance covers—but the monstery creature on her body looks way groovier (and more intelligent and more respectful) than the beefy idiots ripping the ladies shirts on the romance novels covers.
My brother claims that the painting is “sexy.”
He says I could think of it as history’s first horror comic cover [which Ferris uses to divide chapters]…
…and considering the whole arithmetic of boobs + monsters = horror, I guess he’s probably right…
According to Deeze this painting inspired one of the first horror writers, Mary Shelley, who later wrote Frankenstein.
Karen reflects (shifting back to seeing the painting in person) that the piece made her think of her neighbor Anka (before her murder): “Sometimes she screams in the middle of the night and Mr. Silverberg comes down and apologizes. ‘Only a bad dream,’ he says, but when I look at the painting I see the way the bedspread looks like… blood, and the way the stitched mattress looks like the ribs of a corpse… Sure, the demon is a problem but something from her past is torturing the lady in the painting.”
Thus, we learn that Deeze has given Karen a method of reading paintings, which Karen extends as part of her process of investigating Anka’s death. (Though Karen doesn’t yet know it, Deeze’s reading of sexuality in these works primes both Karen and readers for later revelations.)
Importantly, the locus of Karen’s artistic interests is the Art Institute of Chicago, which she visits twice in Book One, and whose works appear throughout, both populating Karen’s visual imagination and allowing her investigation to progress. The Art Institute is first introduced via a mathematical exploration of circular sections that Deeze explains to Karen. Drawing two overlapping circles creates a “vesica piscis” or a shape “that is like an eye laying on its side, [from which in Deeze’s words] ‘the whole world is born.’” When she introduces this motif, Karen notes that
every shape that is known comes from the vesica piscis. Deeze looked kind of sad when he told me how Mr. and Mrs. Dot [from the mathematical play] had twins. And how the twins were opposites… one was good… one was horrible… Deeze told me that the pyramids, ancient temples, cathedrals and even the Art Institute were all designed using the good ol’ vesica piscis.
Deeze calls this “the pattern of creation.” He says that the vesica piscis is very ancient knowledge.
And unbeknownst to Karen, it is indeed, laden with religious, sexual, and mystical connotations, popping up in a variety of religious and secular architectures, arts and literature (as in Finnegans Wake) and wacky spiritual settings.
We learn that Deeze has been serving as Karen’s guide to the Art Institute, which she calls her “favorite place”: “The first time Deeze took me there he was twelve and I was still so little that he had to lift me up so that I could see things.”
In a flashback, Deeze and Karen establish that the great lions outside are guardians that “come alive at night protect the art,” and proceed to tour the Institute, reading paitings as they go, or as Deeze puts it, “going to see some friends.” These include a series of intricate drawings by Ferris of Eugène Isabey’s “Shipwreck,” Eugène Delacroix’s “Arab Horseman Attacked by a Lion,” Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Cornelis Saftleven’s “A Witches’ Sabbath,” and Bernat Martorell’s “Saint George and the Dragon.” Each is accompanied by Deeze’s explanation, teaching Karen “not to just see with my eyes, but to hear, smell, taste and touch with them, too.”
When they reach the Seurat, Deeze tells Karen to “go into the painting and see what happens.” Karen experiences the details of the scene, and realizes that all of her experiences came from Seurat’s pointilist dots.
Looking at the Martorell, Deeze reflects, “Sometimes it’s like I’m in the painting… Do you know what I mean Kare?” Karen then reads the painting as a reflection of her and Deeze’s situation, including their ongoing battle with neighborhood bullies. Karen then proceeds into the painting, pulling herself up by its frame so see the gallery from within: “I remember that when I looked at the painting it was as if I could hear the sound of something like laughter coming from inside the cave. I was probably imagining it at that time—after I was just a little kid then—but it felt to me like I had to get a look inside the cave.”
Inside, Karen introduces herself: “Hello, hello, I’m a friend and I just want to talk to you for a sec.” In the cave, she discovers eight-year-old Deeze, who exclaims “I did something terrible!” For Karen, this confirms that these paintings hold not only secrets but also a method for accessing truths about her immediate world, making them vital to her investigation into Anka’s murder.
This investigation continues on a second trip to the Art Institute that Karen makes with her friend Franklin, during which they focus on portraits, self-presentation, and identity. They eventually come to Jacob Jordaens’ “The Temptation of the Magdalene,” which readers might recognize from much earlier in the narrative when it had been associated with her neighbor Anka. In the earlier scene, Karen had looked up to be acknowledged by Anka:
…but today Mrs. Silverberg didn’t look out of her window at me while pounding a “shush finger” to her lips. Instead it was like she’d forgotten all about me…
…like she was waiting for something or someone… And there was a strange sort of… dead think about her. She reminded me of the painting in the museum. Not that Anka looked like the Magdalene holding a skull in her lap… no… it was something about the darkness… the shadows that hung heavy above them both. It made me smell the damp odor of the basement… The secrets of bones and other buried hidden things.
I should mention that this seeing/smelling thing happens a lot to me. I’ve learned to pay attention to it. I sense that there is something else in that painting that I need to see. Something I’ve forgotten…a clue.
Standing in front of the painting with Franklin, Karen realizes she had “forgotten how bored the Magdalene looked… I supposed that her boredom did remind me of Anka because Anka was kind of a shut-in…” Franklin wants to talk about the Magdalene’s dress and the odd skull, but Karen remembers that the painting holds a “creepy guy” demonic figure in the shadows: “…I remembered how happy Deeze had been years back… when I’d first noticed the hidden demon…”
The half-hidden figure moves to the fore in Ferris’ art, and addresses Karen, saying “…it’s been a while.” And then Karen finds herself inside another painting, looking out at the gallery. She tells one of the denizens of the painting that she’s “totally freaked. I need to ask the demon a thing or two.”
While the Magdalene and her temptress go on break, Karen and the demon converse:
Karen: This friend of mine died recently and just before she was… killed I could swear I saw something or someone standing in the darkness behind her… could it have been one of your kind?
Demon: I’d love to take credit for her death but… I might be able to help you better if you described her death… Be sure to include any gore and all the sordid details!
Karen: You are a total creep, you know that?
Demon: Yes, thank you. I do my best. Scouts honor! It’s much more likely to have been one of you than one of us. We work on people’s guilt… Now if she had guilt we’d have had a representative on staff for sure…
This exchange is followed by a formal and stylistic break, with the next page produced not with pen but marker, the style hastier and less refined. The demon goes on to chide Karen: “I get the strong sense that the reason you’re here talking to me now is that you know very well who you saw in the darkness behind your murdered pal…” Karen realizes that the demon wants her “to wonder if Anka was murdered by Deeze… or even… or… even…” to which the demon completes her thought: “can’t even say Mama, can you, honey?”
This exchange is followed by two pages that are a jumble of sketched faces, including Mr. Silverberg’s, Karen’s mother’s, Deeze’s, and others. Another page that mixes marker and pen, with the demon receding back into the shadows, intoning to Karen, “You will have to enter hell to solve your mystery” (which Karen rejects), before he pushes Karen out of the Jodeans painting to the gallery floor.
Landing back in the gallery, Karen tries to explain what just happened to her, before receiving more clues from other paintings, such as Francisco José de Goya’s “Friar Pedro Shoots El Maragato as His Horse Runs Off.“
Thus, Karen establishes an associative, experiential, and ekphrastic method of engaging with the fine art around her to solve the mysteries of the every day. This carries on through book one, but it troubled at the book’s close.
At the end of the first volume, Karen has a vision of Anka with a “View Mistress” that allows Karen to look into Anka’s bullet wound, revealing more paintings that she can traverse: John Rathbone and George Morland’s “Landscape with Figures Crossing a Bridge,” Frédéric Bazille’s “Landscape at Chailly,” George Inness, “A Marine,” Claude Monet’s “Rocks at Port-Goulphar, Belle-Île,” Harald Sohlberg, “Fisherman’s Cottage,” and Gustave Doré’s “Alpine Scene.” Earlier, Karen had seen in her mother’s eye “a patch of deep green… that I call Green Island” and it is through these final paintings that Karen travels, each a supposedly calm, natural location, in hopes of finding the Green Island.
But instead these works do not quite align with her hopes, her method of reading paintings to solve her problems seemingly troubled by the first volume’s somewhat confounding conclusion. It remains to be seen how this might resolve in a second future volume, but for book one of My Favortie Thing is Monsters, Ferris has found a unique way of juxtaposing and interconnecting the worlds of comics and the fine arts to reconcile the problems her main character, Karen Reyes, faces.