Interview: Emil Ferris

By: Geeks OUT
Nov 21, 2016

For anyone looking for a comic full of terrifying monsters both real and imagined, Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters can’t be recommended highly enough. Set in Chicago in the 1960s, it tells the story of a young girl named Karen Reyes, investigating the death of her upstairs neighbor, and learning about herself and the horrors of the real world in the process. One of her main sources of comfort and support is her best friend, Franklin, the most overtly queer character in the book. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters has rightfully garnered a lot of critical acclaim, and its impact on the medium is impossible to overstate.

Chicago native Emil Ferris is a fascinating person. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is her first graphic novel. The second volume is due out next year, but Ferris was kind enough to answer some questions via email about the first volume just in time for monsters to walk the street.

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Devin Whitlock: Franklin is one of Karen’s best friends and understands her better than most of the other characters, and she sees a beauty in him that the rest of the world ignores. Can you describe how you came up with the character of Franklin and the role he plays in the narrative?

Emil Ferris: Franklin evokes many people whom I’ve known, people whose true identity you might not recognize at first glance, but whose great beauty becomes evident as you “unfold” them.

Franklin was the very first character I saw in my mind’s eye. I was in a screenwriting class, and I had this vision of Franklin—a gorgeous but terribly scarred Jamaican man—opening his raincoat and giving shelter to a little Hispanic werewolf girl. “That was odd,” I thought, and then proceeded to write the first story of My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, a scene which ends up occurring in the second book.

Franklin figures more prominently in the second book as well. He and his mother sort of adopt Karen. They run what we once called a “drag club.” It’s very much an underground establishment and a place that Karen feels very accepted within, especially when she gets out her notebook and begins transposing the faces and costumes of the club.

DW: Karen describes Franklin as Frankenstein’s Monster, which is reinforced by his name and appearance. Was this also meant as a subtle comment on his intersectionality as a black queer man? That he is composed of more than one marginalized identity?

EF: In the book his intersectionality—as you so perfectly identify it—is addressed, with special emphasis (as he tells his story) in the second part. I have a really sad memory of a young black queer man coming out and being utterly rejected by his family. It’s one of the most painful things I’ve seen, and sadly it still happens in lots of families/communities.

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DW: The sequence of Franklin commenting on the fashion in the paintings Karen shows him at the Art Institute of Chicago is wonderful, and an excellent display of the different styles of art that you employ throughout the book. This juxtaposition again reinforces the theme of unlike elements coming together, and Franklin’s perspective provides an insight that Karen hadn’t previously considered. At the same time, he has this perspective because of the very traits for which others try and condemn him. Does this relate to how there are “good monsters”?

EF: I LOVE MONSTERS and there is nothing more freely and beautifully monstrous than a person living at the complete height of their humanity, personal expression, freedom, and passion. Franklin has his issues—how could he NOT have them, being who he is in 1960s America?—but he has a fierce kind of sagacity and a survivor’s heart. Monsters, like people, do not often choose the circumstances of their birth or their creation, but they can live out their plight with an ennobling kind of grace and humanity. As Karen records in her notebook, Franklin glows with his own unique manifestation of wisdom and elegance. Franklin teaches Karen to accept her circumstances and— whether despite those circumstances OR BECAUSE of them—to be the most amazing monster possible.

DW: The scene in the subway in which Franklin is informed of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death but slandered by another black man is gut-wrenching, and foreshadows the advice that Deeze gives Karen about staying “hidden.” It also echoes some of the angry-mob mentality that one sees in monster movies, but also reflects the attitudes that led to Dr. King’s death. Did you intend for this scene to be a culmination of so many of your book’s themes?

EF: Absolutely. I remember being attacked for difference, and I remember observing it happen (subtly and overtly) to others. I remember the way people hid their identities and the way it was sometimes impossible to hide. These themes were things I first identified within the monster movies that I watched as a kid.

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DW: Franklin clearly understands Karen on a level that the rest of the school does not, having been the only one who found her Valentine’s Day cards funny. Would you say he’s drawn to her because he can sense that they have a sexual orientation in common? Or does it begin more out of a shared outsider status?

EF: Franklin is a very capable observer and has seen Karen’s unrequited love for Missy, who has subsumed herself into the popular girl crowd. This is something Franklin understands. Franklin doesn’t think too highly of the way that Karen clothes herself, outside of a begrudging appreciation for her individuality, but Franklin LOVES Karen’s ability to transfer the world into her notebook. Karen is at first simply curious, but she finds Franklin’s perfume enticing. Their shared outsider status might be obvious, and does unite them, and perhaps in a wordless way they sense each other’s orientations.

DW: Much the same way that Frankenstein’s Monster was a number of people stitched together, you blend many different genres (noir, horror, coming of age, historical fiction). Does Franklin serve as a commentary on My Favorite Thing Is Monsters?

EF: That’s such a great question, Devin! Yes, I think that Franklin does something within the narrative that no other character really does. As I’m writing about him, I realize he’s one of the few characters who is aware that Karen is keeping this notebook. Karen realizes within the first 20 pages that Franklin is completely aware of her, although initially he gives no indication of his awareness. He’s the one who gets her “ventricle” joke. He has a dark turn of mind and, like Karen, he plays his cards close to his chest. I think that although the book puts itself out there—how could it not do that, with every page being drawn, right?—yet still the book isn’t being explicit in certain ways. It’s what it must be (like Franklin, like Karen) and if that defies defining, well, the book and its characters make no apologies about that.

Among all the emotional states, passion is by nature monstrous. Knowing this and knowing that we are the monsters, passion wills out!—even if the result is idiosyncratic, obsessive, fetishistic, and just plain weird. Creative freedom is required at this sad moment in our history. We thirst for it, with a vampiric thirst! Weirdness? The more the better, I say.

Ferris views her novel as a monster form itself. Unpublished art from the original submission package for MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS (copyright 2017 Emil Ferris, used with permission)Ferris shows how her novel’s form mirrors its content. Unpublished art from the original submission package for My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. (© 2017 Emil Ferris, used with permission)

DW: Crime comics and horror comics are your two most obvious inspirations from the medium, and a casual reader might think you overlooked romance comics, the other genre that dominated the industry before superheroes made a comeback in the Silver Age. However, so much of your framing in the art and story of Karen and Missy’s friendship reflect certain story beats from romances, particularly in the stairwell scene at Missy’s party when they embrace (albeit presented as a wolf monster and bride of Dracula). Was this intentional?

EF: I remember those comics, and perhaps I “absorbed” those as well as Noir and Horror (although I kind of hope not!). The set of pages that you mention is one of my favorite two-page spreads in the book. I loved drawing Karen and Missy in their monster forms, because their intimacy summons that from them and, in that moment, they crave and accept each other. I remember inhabiting that liminal space in regards to my attraction to girls and women. It was painful and quiet and kind of beautiful, and recently I really recalled that feeling while watching the movie Certain Women, a quiet, perfect film that really spoke to me.

DW: When Karen introduces Jeffrey “the Brain,” a young man with thick glasses, she pictures him seeing her as a giant caterpillar. Is this possibly a reference to the Golden Age comic villain Mr. Mind?

EF: Yes, I was thinking about some of those great cerebrally-oriented comic book tropes, and it’s cool that you picked up on that one, and now I’m going to have to go and educate myself about Mr. Mind, in specific.

DW: Your work has been described as Dickensian and your definition of monsters evokes Sherwood Anderson’s idea of grotesques as people who hold to one truth about themselves and let it warp them. Did you have any literary influences for My Favorite Thing Is Monsters?

EF: Yes, actually, Charles Dickens was one of my first literary influences. My grandmother—a great reader herself—sent me her collection of antique illustrated Dickens one book at a time. I not so much read them as absorbed them. I love that Sherwood Anderson quote. His idea of the grotesque is fascinating.

DW: One of the ways the past informs the present of the story is through Anka’s recorded interviews, but there is a raw emotional quality to your storytelling and an imminence to the events depicted. Did this blending of past and present inform the stream-of-consciousness style you employ for the narration? To what extent did current events inform your story and storytelling choices?

EF: The stream of consciousness was a tricky choice, and not one I was sure would work, but since this is a diary of sorts, it was what worked best.

In regards to current events, the weirdest thing of all maybe was that these present circumstances weren’t the events that were current while I was writing the book, and nobody could be more surprised than I am that this is the case.

That said, I will admit that while I was making the book, I experienced fear for a society wherein history is simply not being taught as it should be. In elementary education, it isn’t even called history; it’s a watered-down, toothless, grit-less concoction called Social Studies! (Whatever in the name of all that’s Holy that is, I don’t have a clue!) So, we’ve taken the fangs out of history—which could have been a tool for creating understanding and reflection—and made it something oblique and simplistic at best, but lying and propagandistic at worst.

Our actual history is fascinating, disappointing, and inspiring, and always challenges us to do better. It’s emboldening. But what we have now must not be all that engaging for young people. I’m certain there are good books out there, and extremely gifted teachers, but I doubt they’re in the majority. So, we wonder at the way that anger and fear and a sense of being cheated has overtopped the tolerance, empathy, and observational capacities of so many. Sadly, we must contend with people who are being manipulated to champion leaders who do not have their best interest at heart. They are being manipulated by faux news and outright lies that are thrust forward by a financial/militaristic sector that very cannily seeks to divide and conquer. This is something one might be able to have picked up on, provided one had any sense of history at all, but that isn’t at play here, and we must not allow ourselves to be steered into darkness by people who refuse to see.

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DW: Reflections, and especially eyes, are a recurring motif in your book. In fact, the only time we see Karen as she truly is, and not in the fanged visage she imagines for herself, is in a reflection at which Deeze forces her to stare. However, this allows her to be honest with herself and Deeze about her own sexuality. Would you say that a reflection or a persona has more truth than we would ascribe to it?

EF: I think that reflections and the fictions we create (or even the lies we tell) sometimes reflect more accurately on the truth than we realize.

As a writer, it’s interesting to be so omniscient that you can peer down into your characters’ souls and see the places wherein they delude, distract, or even lie to themselves. The question then becomes, “why?” And of course that’s such a great question to ask, because what follows is the story or—in the case of characters—the backstory of which the collisions (or stories) are created. It’s a lot of responsibility, and it makes you more aware of your own foibles and flawed nature. Hopefully it lends humility to a writer’s life.

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