Emil Ferris is an artist and lifelong fan of monsters. After honing her skills at the Art Institute of Chicago, she began professionally producing art, animation, and comics influenced by monsters and her city, Chicago. Building on her talents and a lover of storytelling, Ferris has created the graphic novel, My Favorite Thing is Monsters; which is already garnering critical acclaim. Wanting to learn more about Ferris’s career and what went into making My Favorite Thing is Monsters, she was kind enough to allow me to interview her for Sequart.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, when did you know you wanted to make a career in the creative world? Were there any movies or stories that you think pushed you the most in this direction?
E.M. Ferris: My parents were both artists and for me there was never any question that I would choose to make art for a living. I recall seeing The Horse’s Mouth with Alec Guinness and its portrayal of the artist’s life appealed to me.
Yanes: Given that the title of your work, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, what were your favorite monsters as a kid? As an adult, has your taste in monsters changed?
Ferris: I LOVE how you phrased that… “has your taste in monsters changed?” Not really. I was always very fond of the Wolfman, Dracula (and all of his extremely sexy Brides), Frankenstein, and the Mummy, and I still am fond of them. Part of what I loved about monsters was their unique monster dilemmas. I felt great empathy for them and great respect for how they often bore their lot in life with dignity and purpose.
Yanes: You went to the Art Institute of Chicago. How did this education impact you? Were there any specific lessons or instructors that influenced you the most?
Ferris: The School of the Art Institute was a pretty fabulous place to be. I had numerous excellent instructors, most of whom were masters in their craft. If I mention any specifically I’ll be leaving someone out who I love, but in regards to getting a handle on sequential art, I had Anne Elizabeth Moore as an educator and she was just a solid badass, very demanding, devoted, and a champion. But there were so many others. One early supporter was Amy England, a wonderfully imaginative poet and dreamer, and my model for Marvela Reyes.
Among the greatest assets to an education at SAIC is the world-class museum beside the school.
Yanes: Your art style stands out in a crowd and blew me away when I first saw it. How did your style develop? On this note, who are the artists you think inspired you the most?
Ferris: Thanks, Nicholas! That’s really nice of you to say!
As a kid I regularly cut high school to go to the Art Institute, (good thing art skills made me an excellent forger of my mother’s signature … heh.) I spent whole days in the prints, etching and lithography wing of the school devouring (and living between) the black lines of the etchings, imagining myself inside the worlds created by the greats such as Dürer, Goya, Rembrandt, Daumier, Homer, Grosz, and Dix. I studied them and copied them and thought a lot about the time they lived and what it meant to create a drawing that might be reproduced and seen by many people.
Of course I was already in love with the artists of EC and Mad Magazine as well.
Yanes: What was the inspiration behind My Favorite Thing Is Monsters?
Ferris: That’s a great question but difficult to answer. Many many years ago I took a screenwriting class and I kept having visions of this ‘Werewolfy’ outsider of a lesbian, part-Mexican girl, befriended (and protected from the ‘villagers’) by an equally monstrous ‘Frankensteinish’ Jamaican trans kid.
I’ve thought a lot about those people whom I (and my protagonist, Karen) would call ‘good monsters’ – artists, writers, thinkers, non-hetero or non binary folks – who manage to live outside the scope of the larger culture and yet regularly produce art that provides the larger culture with the flavor of life for which it hungers.
Yanes: The story is told from the perspective a 10-year-old. Why did you think a child would be the best point-of-view character for this narrative?
Ferris: Well, Nicholas, I wish I was intentional in that way but really as a writer I’m a creature of profoundly insistent impulses. Some writers say that their characters decide how the story must be told, I guess I would say the same. Karen required things of me and so did the focus of Karen’s longing and curiosity, the ‘murdered survivor’ – Anka Silverberg.
Yanes: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters follows the fallout of a Holocaust survivor being murdered. Given how important it is today to remind people about the horrors of the Holocaust, how does it feel knowing that your book is so relevant?
Ferris: When I was a kid I dreamed of becoming a history professor. Well, a monster who also taught history (to be honest monster was always my number one career choice … and still is, actually).
I’ve never fully understood the decision in American public education to rebrand ‘History’ into ‘Social Studies.’ Kids aren’t as excited by history as they would be if they’d been offered the real thing, down and dirty with all the human experience that makes it fascinating. For so long it was taught as a series of epochs predominated by ideologies and it was taught – in the US – from an entirely European-dominated slant. That’s changed some but it’s less clear right now whether ‘inconvenient truths’ will, in the future, be excised from our kids textbooks.
A friend recently told me that American college students had a low (maybe 5%) knowledge of what the Holocaust was. This to me is a harbinger of catastrophe. While I was writing the book I often wondered if what I was doing was relevant (in some ways I had hoped it wouldn’t be, frankly!), but now I see that my mental boat was further upstream than I’d realized.
Yanes: Given that the look of My Favorite Thin Is Monsters is so unique, did this project encounter any unique production problems?
Ferris: Absolutely and the production folks at Fantagraphics are brilliant and figured out how to make it all work. Genius designer Jacob Covey had to go full-on badass tech wizard to ‘Macgyver’ a way to bring the book to press. Preston White and Paul Baresh also worked on this – and worked damn hard. They are all my heroes in the tech trenches.
Yanes: When people finish My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, what do you hope they take away from it?
Ferris: Beyond my hope that they’ll want to finish the series (Monsters is the first of two books) I hope they are stretched beyond their own lives. I hope they look up historical periods mentioned in the book. I hope they research Weimar Berlin and the Vietnam War. I hope they’re re-engaged with history.
I hope also that they feel empowered to tell their own stories, as well. There are a lot of people out there who have gotten diverted from their calling. In the six years of working on the books I did not watch television (and rarely cleaned anything either) because I was driven by a certainty that my time was better spent working on the books. If people were living within their engagement, ‘mission,’ giftedness, I think they’d be happier and less concerned with the vagaries of celebrity culture.
Yanes: Finally, what are you currently working on that people can look forward to?
Ferris: I’m working on Book 2 and a few other graphic novels that will come behind these. I might even clean my apartment…(but probably not.)