Book Review: Emil Ferris tackles big issues through a small child with a monster obsession

There are two types of monsters: Ones that simply appear scary and ones that are scary by their cruelty. Karen Reyes is the former, but what does that make her troubled older brother, Deeze?

Emil Ferris has finally followed up on her visually stunning, 2017 debut graphic novel with its concluding half, “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters Book 2.” It picks up right where Book 1 left off (spoilers for Book 1 … now), with 10-year-old Karen in a fever dream as she processes her mother’s death from cancer and the revelation that she had another brother named Victor before his twin Deeze killed him.

For the uninitiated, the story is essentially Karen’s diary as she dons a detective hat and oversized coat to solve mysteries — like who killed the upstairs neighbor and where her emaciated classmate disappeared to — in 1968 Chicago, featuring historical events like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and Vietnam War protests. Karen, a monster-loving Catholic school student who identifies more with werewolves than with girls, sketches her experiences in lined notebooks. She has an astounding ability to capture people — a technically skilled artist who also sees through her subjects and depicts their nature alongside their features. And she’s gay, something her beloved Mama definitely did not approve of and which she must now reconcile with the society she lives in.

“Monsters” may be narrated by a kid, but it is definitely an adult book with adult language and themes. Ferris raises complicated issues ranging from the patriarchy’s role in homophobia and America’s role in eugenics to the merits of capitalism, socialism and communism. Along with why school sucks.

And I cannot give Ferris enough accolades for acknowledging the depth of children, who often see and understand more than most adults want to admit.

Ferris revels in gray areas and often calls taboos and moral lines into question, using Karen’s elementary-age perspective as an opportunity to see people not as their profession, race or sexuality, but as people — or, in any case, monsters, but equalizing regardless.

Although Book 2 has an introduction and brief callbacks to remind readers who’s who and what happened, it’s really best to read or reread Book 1 first. There are tons of characters at play and it’s a multi-faceted story that requires deep reading. The recaps are decent reminders, but they can’t possibly capture the nuance from Book 1 in just a page or two.

If Book 2 seems almost too familiar, that’s because it follows the same basic plot arc as Book 1, even down to starting and ending with wild dreams. But unlike its prequel, the plot jumps around with considerably more frequency and suddenness. Ferris leans on her readers to read between the lines and apply the same techniques for viewing her art that her characters use when they visit the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Monsters” is an incredible feat of both storytelling and artistic achievement that makes for a brag-worthy coffee table art book, as well as a compelling story with a seriously intense moral and philosophical workout. Ferris is a must-have for any comic-lover’s collection.


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