August 6, 2018

Owning Midnight: Matt Vadnais explores Self-Monstrification in Emil Ferris’s MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS

In her 2011 collection of poems and essays, Songs and Stories of the Ghouls, Alice Notley examines the corrosive power by which canonical literature has traditionally used an overlapping vocabulary to define monsters, women, immigrants, and people of color. Notley’s poems and essays mention a number of monstrous character but focus primarily on the child-murdering Medea, a 2,500-year-old character marked by Euripides both as a raced immigrant and as a woman who fails to be appropriately feminine. By examining the durability of the Medea story and our resistance to accepting an ending in which the children survive, Notely locates monstrosity and otherness as codependent categories. We are more inclined to believe Medea killed her children because of her immigrant status and her failures to properly perform Athenian womanhood. For Notley, modern fear and loathing of outsiders is the fruit of trees planted by our canonical authors. The terms by which outsiders are defined as monsters and monsters are defined as outsiders are baked into our narrative traditions. For Notley, such valences cannot be escaped through conventional narrative forms or even sentence structure: language shaped by a colonial legacy cannot help but to reify a worldview that accepts, as its most basic fact, the notion that difference is evil. Stories about monsters exist primarily to codify power in the hands of elements of society who – in a white-supremacist heteropatriarchy – aren’t supposed to have it as coterminous with monstrosity. Notley populates her text with ghouls, real and fictional people who exist in an undead space because they were written wrong by history or literature; any hope ghouls have for something like life lies with witches, whose job, Notley tells us, is to break time, a construct she defines as the relationship between language and the history it inscribes and is inscribed by. 

Emil Ferris is, by Notley’s definition, a witch. 

Ferris’s acclaimed 2017 graphic novel, My Favorite Thing is Monsters, features Karen Reyes, a queer, interracial child investigating the suspicious death of a neighbor armed only with what she has gleaned from monster movies and horror comics, genres that, when understood through the lens of Notley, are over-determined to define monsters by terms that apply much more easily to Karen than the white citizens of her native 1967 Chicago. However, Ferris hasn’t simply created a character in Karen Reyes who justifiably identifies with a monstrosity that is feared and reviled in many of the same ways that she is. 
The genius of My Favorite Thing is Monsters lies in the way that Ferris uses – and, as a Witch, breaks or ruptures – the technologies inherent in comic books to grant Karen Reyes, as the book’s implied author, the ability dictate the terms by which we understand her as a monster. Throughout the book – with two exceptions – readers only see Karen Reyes as a wolfgirl, a hybridized form that retains markers of her identity but adds fangs and an Eddy Munster haircut; more importantly, though, because the graphic novel begins with a cover that marks it as the journal of Karen Reyes, the reader sees Karen exactly how she has drawn herself. 

On the one hand, Karen’s artistic rendering of herself as a wolfgirl speaks to the power of the media she has consumed, stories in which mobs of “normal” citizens hunt down and exterminate deviant creatures that lurk in the moonlight. We see this in the opening scene of My Favorite Thing is Monsters where, in her “villager dream,” she listens to the Troggs, transforms from the wolf-girl to a full-fledged werewolf as defined by horror comics, and emits a howl that causes white neighbors to leave their houses with torches and domestic implements – irons and spatulas – to “smoke that freak.” On the other hand, however, Ferris creates the book, using journal entries, sketches, and drawing, to imply Karen is solely responsible for all of the art through which she is defined. When Ferris draws Karen recovering from the dream in which she was a mindless, keening wolf – with the implication that it is Karen who drew herself – she is not a little girl curling up with her mother: though the wolfgirl form she returns to after the dream is less threatening than the wolf terrorizing Chicago’s west end, Karen still depicts herself as a monster. By allowing Karen Reyes to subvert conventions of horror comics, Ferris offers self-monstrification as a means by which Karen is not only able to position herself as a protagonist in a story involving forces of oppression much older than she is, but is also able to modify the traditions by which her monster story is told so that her identity as “monstrous other” becomes more than a category deserving of the hegemony’s fear and pitchforks, it becomes a cite of self-fashioning and reclamation. 
From the beginning, Karen’s dreams, fears, and regular life are all contained and defined by her ability to create artistic renderings of them. Surreal horror, including the villager dream, is juxtaposed with more mundane realism. Next to all of the monster drawings, the reader gets a full-page depicting a still-life of the burger and fries that Karen is supposed to be eating. She draws the meal while eavesdropping on the conversation happening between her brother and mother that lays out the suspicious facts regarding the supposed suicide of her upstairs neighbor and Holocaust survivor, Anka. Though these two scenes do much to initiate a semi-conventional detective story with Karen at the center, the fact that they are rendered on lined notebook paper – complete with metal spiral and holes for a ring binder – draw attention to the collapsed space between Karen’s experience of these events and her artistic rendering of them. 

From the outset, through the drawings of the wolf and hamburger, and through the creation of mixed-media Valentine’s Day cards that feature painted macaroni noodles as the ventricles of a heart, Ferris defines Karen as an artist; it is this role that allows her to draw, and therefore define herself, as a wolfgirl. However, My Favorite Thing is Monsters also begins by positioning Karen in two additional roles. First, she is a critical consumer of horror comics, commenting directly on ways that traditional formulas – “monster + boobs = horror” – create the category of the monstrous. Second, she is positioned as a kind of art historian, explaining visual theory to the reader and reinterpreting – by re-drawing museum pieces in her notebook – famous paintings. Beyond simply occupying these roles the way a character in any book might, Karen inhabits these roles explicitly through the formal capacity of the text: readers experience her burgeoning insights as a critic through her own artistic renderings of herself, horror covers, famous paintings, and – once she starts listening to audio recordings of Anka’s life story – flashbacks that bring Anka back to life as Karen illustrates Anka’s words several pages at a time. 
The potency of Karen’s wolfgirl form – not simply as a culturally constructed cite of monstrosity consistent with her stepping on the “cootie step” that her classmates use to identify the tainted but also as an artistic rendering of that monstrosity – is developed through the formal innovations that create My Favorite Thing is Monsters, innovations that, because of the conceit of the notebook, are attributed not just to Ferris but to Karen herself. Despite never having published MFTiM serially, Ferris breaks the narrative into chunks that look a lot like single issues, complete with cover art. However, these sections – which appear to be single issues of fictitious horror comics, all created by Karen – are not of uniform pagination, suggesting that Karen isn’t just rendering her life according to the rules of an accepted genre, but modifying those rules as she pleases. Likewise, the absence of traditional panels gives Karen additional power to modify the form in which she is rendering the exploits of herself as a werewolf detective. These deviations are ways for Ferris, through Karen’s pen, to answer Alice Notley’s call to break the structures that hold story. 

Through her own artistic intervention, Karen not only monstrifies herself in an act of self-creation and delineation, she alters the entire world of MFTiM: white Chicagoans are depicted with distorted, animalistic mouths and eyes; Karen’s brother, one of the only characters whose faces is colored in a way that suggests he is fully alive, is presented with a body inscribed by language and story in the form of tattoos interpolated by Karen’s rendering of them; finally, the murdered Anka – othered by Karen initially as “insane” – is rendered blue throughout the text and eventually given a bloody teardrop and marked as mythological creature. Karen is not just the protagonist working to solve a mystery that is of no interest to the Chicago Police Department, she is the creator of the world in which she is doing so. As the story progresses and she learns things about her brother that he fears will cause her to hate him, it becomes clear that part of her power as creator of her own story is not only to dictate the terms by which she is monstrous, but to do the inverse, creating a visual and narrative language by which the monstrous or deviant might be understood as fundamentally human. 
The terms of Karen’s self-monstrification and its ironic power to humanize are best understood in a scene in which her brother – desperate to get Karen to face the reality of their mother’s cancer and impending death – forces her to look at herself in a mirror. She draws the two of them together, herself as a wolfgirl, for several panels while he uses language to strip away the illusion and she finally sees/draws herself as a girl. In the next panel, Karen immediately reverts to her self-created form and says, “You’re the one who always says that people should get to be the people they are! Not who people tell them they are!” In this juxtaposition, it is the human face that is dismissed as a construction; it is no accident that, immediately upon returning to her real form – itself an artistic rendering – Karen confronts Deez with the fact of her queerness. Though he responds to her coming out with kindness and never resumes his task to de-wolf her, he tells her to be careful with whom she tells her secret. 
In addition to this coming out scene, Ferris demonstrates ways in which outsiders can use art to humanize themselves and other outsiders throughout the extended sections of the graphic novel in which Karen collaborates with Anka’s voice recordings to tell a story that happened years before Karen was born. Anka’s intersectional identity as a young survivor of the Holocaust sex trade is mitigated and made real by the same pen that allows Karen to inhabit and navigate her fantastical, mundane, and horrifying rendering of Chicago. Through the process, Karen comes to understand her dead, blue neighbor and their different-but-related identities and experiences serve as foils. 

When Karen’s mother dies and her relationship with her brother is strained, Karen has so fully internalized Anka’s story that it is Anka who visits her dreams to provide advice and revelation as she leads Karen into Hades and the literary trope of the katabasis. In the underworld, in the final “issue” of the first volume, Anka reveals that the monsters Karen has turned to for help and guidance – embodied most fully by the Werewolf Saint who is demonstrably Catholic – have deceived her and have “a hidden agenda” consistent with Notley’s depiction of monstrosity as a hegemonic agent of oppression. Anka warns Karen to “Never let anyone’s darkness provoke you into your own midnight,” but Karen intentionally mishears the emphasis of the sentence and loves the idea of a midnight that belongs to her, a proposition of power that induces her to a murderous spree as she stakes, shoots, and otherwise smites the monsters from other midnights. Even as these actions result in her being able to confess fears she had been avoiding for hundreds of pages – an act of accountability that readers have been taught to associate with humanity and adulthood – she does so as the werewolf detective. Destroying monsters, here, is not a rejection of the monstrous so much as it is the vanquishing of one particular source of monstrosity: Karen survives the encounter in a better position to solve the mystery of Anka’s death and her brother’s involvement by understanding that she has always been the source of her own wolf. 
Throughout My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Ferris breaks time by conjoining two historical stories, neither of which is a part of history as it is usually taught. Weaving two seemingly unrelated narratives together is hardly a new one; Ferris’s innovation is that both threads of the woven story comprise Karen’s drawings. Ferris further breaks time by disrupting the narrative conventions that typically govern comics. First, she implies that a character is responsible for its art. Second, she allows that character to experiment with issue length while making up her own rules for panels and lettering. As a physical artifact, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is large, beautiful, and a little unwieldy. One should expect no less of a tome created by witchery.
Matt Vadnais has taught college literature and creative writing classes for twenty years. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver and a contributor at For more comics coverage and the occasional tweet about Shakespeare, follow him @DoctorFanboi. For short takes on longboxes, subscribe to his channel of video essays. 

No comments:

Post a Comment