Posted by: Kevin Coyle
There has never been a debut graphic novel quite like Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. The 55-year-old artist’s first published work, which came out last week, is a sweeping 60s-era murder mystery set in the cartoonist’s native Chicago. It’s composed of ballpoint pen drawings on wide-ruled notebook paper and is the first half of the story with the second volume out in October. Before she began work on Monsters, Ferris paid the bills with freelance work as an illustrator and a toy designer, making figurines for McDonald’s – she sculpted the Mulan line of Happy Meal prizes for one of the fast food behemoth’s subcontractors – and for Tokyo toymaker Tomy, for whom she worked making the Tea Bunnies line of dolls.
But in 2001, Ferris contracted West Nile virus. At the time a 40-year-old single mother, Ferris’s work was all freelance, she said – with the effects of west Nile hindering the use of three of her limbs, her work dried up, and she looked for another outlet, in part for her creative output, and in part to exercise a dominant hand damaged by the effects of the disease. She went back to school and produced My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, which draws on her own childhood and on the experiences of family and friends who survived the Holocaust. But when her book was finished the Chinese company shipping the copies from the printer in South Korea to the United States went bankrupt and the whole print run was held hostage at the Panama Canal by the shipping company’s creditors along with the rest of the cargo on the ship carrying it.
Now, it is finally here.
When did you start drawing?
Probably when I was an infant, because my parents were both artists, and it was necessary to draw. My parents met at the Art Institute of Chicago as students, and somewhere in there they procreated off to the side and created me. My mother’s line was always, “I met him, and I said, ‘If you’ll stretch my canvases I’ll clean your brushes.’”
Did you spend much time at the institute?
Going to the Art Institute was like [the way] most families go to church. You went there for your religious education. We sort of memorized paintings the way other kids memorized Bible verses. We had to know what was in the right quadrant.
Your parents were both artists?
While [my father] was in high school he began making eight-pagers of Minnie and Mickey – he was an enterprising young man – and he was copying them out on the school’s mimeograph machine, and he got caught. And they were in the process of expelling him because these were highly pornographic, and the art teacher happened to see it and said, “Well, you could expel him, but I think he has talent, so let me have him.” He was a great man. He was one of the great people. He taught me stealth drawing, which was where a lot of the information for the faces [in my book] comes from. So we would get on the L train and he would take out his sketchbook, I would take out mine and we would find a person to draw unbeknownst to the person.
When did you contract West Nile virus?
I was a single parent at the time and I was trying to support my daughter so I was working at night and taking care of her during the day. It was pretty rough. Then when she was six or seven years old, I was bitten by a mosquito, and I contracted West Nile virus, and within three weeks I was completely paralyzed from the waist down and I lost the use of my right hand. So that’s what happened, and that’s why I ended up in school [for writing at the Art Institute], because I realized I didn’t have the ability to draw any more and I had to keep on going. I had to find something else.
What was the biggest effect it had on your work?
The hardest thing is in terms of the drawing, because, you know, I really have to work to keep my hand fluid and I’ve done a lot of recovery, but it’s not the same as it once was. There’s a lot of joy in drawing the book, because I started the book still with some difficulties from paralysis, and the book was part of what helped me recover.
Have you always used storytelling in your life?
When I was a child I had this severe disability, so I was the kid in the playground who wasn’t running. I had a spinal curvature, some amount of hunchback, two different lengths of leg, but I learned – and this is what’s so interesting about the world – I learned the my story-telling [of] horror and ghost stories would get a crowd of ten kids around me. So I was not alone. I learned how not to be alone in the playground. They would all show up for the next installment – of course I would always leave it hanging anywhere I could, so I could be assured that the next installment would be something they were looking forward to, because I didn’t want to be alone.
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