Drawn in multicoloured Bic pen and markers on lined paper, this extraordinary graphic novel flits with mindwarping self-assurance between 1960s Chicago, 1930s Germany and the lawless territory of an artist’s imagination. Although partially based on the childhood of its author, Emil Ferris, it’s a work of fiction of the most adventurous stripe, throwing a gender-skewed Bildungsroman, a murder mystery, a historical fiction, a horror pastiche and narratives of countercultural life into a story that heaves and twists to strange rhythms of its own.
The art moves between lavish naturalism, caricature, hasty sketches and stick figures; the pungent text demands to be read vertically, sideways and upside down. It’s a racing certainty for the best comic of the year, even if this hefty volume is only part I.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters follows Karen Reyes, a ten-year-old living in an apartment in uptown Chicago with her mother and brother Diego. It is Valentine’s Day, 1968, and the Reyes’s upstairs neighbour Anka Silverberg is dead, shot in the heart but tucked neatly into her bed. “Because they found the front and back door bolted from the inside,” writes Karen in the notebook-cum-sketchbook that this comic, with delightful implausibility, pretends to simulate, “the police declared her death a suicide… but I don’t believe it!” Who better to investigate than Karen herself, a misfit loner in a Philip Marlowe trenchcoat who subsists on a diet of magazines such as SPECTRAL and GHASTLY (Ferris’s covers for these fictional publications are a gruesome delight) and lurks outside at night hoping to be turned into a werewolf?
But Karen has other concerns. Her mother is dying of cancer. The bullying she suffers at school has an edge of sexual violence. Her brother Diego is pursuing a relationship with the local mob boss’s wife. Soon, too, Karen discovers a tape left by the murder victim, which tells the story of a young Jewish woman forced into child prostitution in Nazi-era Germany. Her “notebook” becomes a phantasmagorical mixture of images from past and present, where cattle cars packed with people, Satanic rituals and the pageantry of Nazism criss-cross with the characters on her Chicago block, who themselves could have walked out of a William S Burroughs novel: Beardy Jesus, Jeffrey “The Brain” Alvarez, Mr Chugg the ventriloquist. Where Karen appears in the story, she is drawn as a sad-eyed ogre with a hat and a fanged underbite.
The intricate cross-hatching of Ferris’s art makes My Favorite Thing is Monsters an astonishing sight, but she holds it together with shrewd writing and a charmingly wild way with narrative. The book deals with monsters real and imagined, but its story, as the central “wannabeast” tries to parse the adult world through the lenses of her obsessions, is affecting and often very funny. Finding out who really dunnit will have to wait until part II. Until then, this superb debut offers plenty to be going on with.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters
Fantagraphics, 386pp, £35.99
This article appears in the 08 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship