No less genre-busting is the author: Ferris started work on Monsters when she was a 40-year-old single mom, partially paralyzed by West Nile virus: no longer able to work as an illustrator, she taught herself to draw again by creating the first volume of Monsters over six long years.
Monsters is in firmly the genre of girls' crisis memoir — among such titles as The Diary of Anne Frank, Butler's Parable of the Sower, Womack's Sensless Acts of Random Violence — but it is also about six kinds of love note, to different obsessions and diversions.
So on the one hand, Karen narrates a gruesome and sorrowful life in poverty-wracked Chicago, where Puerto Ricans, displaced southern African Americans, and recession haunted "hillbillies" live in crowded and violent conditions, where a young girl's innocence is impossible to maintain, between public liaisons between sex-workers and johns, street harassment and violence, organized crime and grinding poverty.
On the other hand, it's a tribute to — and critique of — the classic monster comics and magazines of the era, which Karen is obsessed with, and through whose visual styles her story is told. It's a tribute to fine art and the pieces hanging in the galleries and museums of Chicago where Karen and her mysterious, womanizing, tattooed older brother Deeze brings her. It's a complicated story about friendship among girls, about gender identity and queerness, about family.
It embeds the Holocaust narrative of the dead upstairs neighbor, a Jew who escaped concentration camps through sex work and complicity, and whose murder is the Macguffin on which the story turns.
It's a page turner from start to finish, and visually unlike anything else I've ever seen. The emotional and visual palettes are dense and intense, and smart and subtle. Everything about this is amazing, except that it ends on a cliffhanger and part two won't be here until next March.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters [Emil Ferris/Fantagraphics]