Thoughts & life experiences of a Chicago area graphic artist

14 June 2017

Acclaimed Graphic Novelist, Emil Ferris: “Always dream and believe in your dream.”

A conversation with Emil Ferris, Graphic Novelist of "My Favorite Thing is Monsters", hosted by Christopher Borrelli at the Chicago Tribune's Printer's Row Literature Festival 2017. Photo © by O. Douglas Jennings

It’s become a tradition for me and my sister Alicia (who is a high school librarian) to attend the annual Printer’s Row Literature Festival in Chicago. I was excited that an artist/author whose book I had recently read would be interviewed this year.

Emil Ferris wrote and illustrated the phenomenal graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters. A combination coming of age story and murder mystery that takes place in 1968 Chicago. Ferris’s drawings are exquisitely cross-hatched and intricate. Printed with soft-cover binding made to look like a school notebook, the hefty tome is a delight to read, view, peruse and savor as the compelling story unfolds.

Like her semi-autobiographical main character, Karen, Ferris grew up in Chicago and currently lives in Evanston, Illinois. She appeared at the Lit Fest on Saturday for a scheduled conversation with Chicago Tribune’s Christopher Borrelli.

The author/artist was dressed all in black with a broad-rimmed, black hat accented by a gold-colored pendant. She explained her hat helps protect her eyes which, due in part to her hours of fine-line crosshatch drawing, are painfully sensitive to neon ceiling lights.

Most of the 30 or so attendees (all ages) to the conversation held in a classroom at Jones College Prep School had read the book (or were in process of reading it). Mr. Borrelli often would hold up an open spread to refer to specific pages from the book which depicted numerous Chicago landmarks, including the Art Institute and some of it’s paintings.

Ms. Ferris described the process of writing as “making rope bridges into suspension bridges” and spoke of her youth in Chicago visiting the Art Institute, Hull House and the city’s historic cemeteries. Her mother was a fine artist and her father, designed toys and games (“Simon” is one that he’s credited with creating). She added, “Dad was a comic book guy”. In fact, in response to a question by host Borrelli, she admitted that as she grew up, she sensed some tension between her mother’s “high art” in the classical tradition, and her father’s more pop-culture “low art” appreciation of toys and comics.

Telling of her childhood fraught with physical disabilities but also blessed with loving family and friends (the latter she describes as “impoverished but brilliant”), Ferris shared a rather upbeat message: “If you’re an aspiring writer and you have awful things happen to you, thank your lucky stars!”.

A scholarship student at the Art Institute of Chicago, she was told by a well-meaning teacher “There’s no future in this”, referring to Ferris’ more “comic book”  style of art.

Ferris spoke of her struggling times, before she was published, when she conducted imaginary interviews with NPR’s Terry Gross which eventually became a reality. “Do what you love but “audition”, prepare [for your success]”, she encouraged.

The first twenty-four pages of “My Favorite Thing is Monsters” was her Art Institute Thesis. The rest of the book, she describes as being developed more organically. “I didn’t have everything mapped out. I didn’t know what the ending would be early on.”

“The drawing informed the writing and the writing informed the drawing. It was a fusion.”

The road to completion of “Monsters”, Ferris’ first book, was arduous. When she was 40, she contracted West Nile virus which left her with some paralysis. She had lean years, but quipped, “Evanston is a great place to be poor. The rich always throw away good stuff!”

Another odd roadblock was that as the 1st printed copies of "Monsters" were being shipped by boat to the U.S., the boat's crew abandoned their ship and cargo at Panama due to disputes over not being by the shipping company. This delayed the debut of the book.

In spite of her hardships, Ms. Ferris was determined to encourage aspiring writers/artists. “Use everything that has happened to you. Use it like Macgyver! —To get out of the “box” you’re in. Do not give up!”

“Always dream. And believe in your dream!” she added.

She said for the art in her book, she used ball-point pen (sometimes of different colors) and Flair marker pens.

When asked, “What is a monster?”, Ferris thought a moment and responded, “We are. I am. We’re overcomers that are strong but also both good and evil.”

Her typical day begins with coffee and listening to music. Recently she enjoys the song “Insane Asylum”.

“I listen to it and have visions.” she explains. “Honor your imagination and tell yourself stories. Refuse to sign up for everyone’s crazy…. And get rid of TV!”

Emil Ferris' book, "My Favorite Thing is Monsters" is on Entertainment Weekly's list of Top 10 books of 2017

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