Emil Ferris has been drawing since before she could walk, and she’s always loved monsters.
But it wasn’t until a mosquito bite infected her with West Nile virus that Ferris — one of the guests of honor at the 17th annual Olympia Comics Festival — combined those passions to create “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters,” her critically acclaimed first graphic novel.
“She’s brand new” on the comics scene, said festival organizer Frank Hussey of Danger Room Comics. “I only read her book two months ago, and I’m just blown away by her work.”
He’s far from the only one. “Monsters” has attracted attention far beyond the world of comics. Entertainment Weekly gave the book an “A.” In a review for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” John Powers wrote, “She's produced something rare, a page-turning story whose pages are so brilliantly drawn you don't want to turn them.”
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The detailed drawings are presented as the journal of 10-year-old Karen, who sees herself as a werewolf and is a painstaking observer of all that surrounds her.
Part coming-of-age story, part mystery, the book explores the political, racial and sexual complexities of life in 1960s Chicago and also depicts life in Nazi Germany, in a story within the story. Graphically, the book recalls B movies and pulp magazines. It’s nearly 400 pages long, and part 2 is due out in October.
Ferris, now 55, was a 40-year-old single mother when her life was interrupted by the virus, which left her paralyzed from the waist down and unable to use her right hand. She taught herself to draw again, taping a pen to her hand. She’s since regained much of her mobility but still lives with pain and uses a cane to walk.
Ferris talked with The Olympian about her life, her art and, of course, monsters.
Q. Were you always interested in comics?
A. I didn’t walk until I was almost 3 years old, but I started drawing when I was 16 months old. My mother would cut out the “Li’l Abner” strips, and I would copy them. I couldn’t write, but I would try to make it look like I had written something in the balloons coming out of their mouths. So I was doing comics before I could walk.
Q. Before you got the virus, you were working as a fine artist. Were you doing comics then?
A. I wasn’t satisfied with images that I would create because they didn’t have text attached to them, and there wasn’t a clear story. I found myself writing text into drawings and paintings. I just couldn’t stop doing it. I needed there to be a textual component, and that’s when I realized I was doing comics, and that was probably 20 years ago.
And I wanted to make everything sequential. I wanted to do another painting and another drawing and add and add and add.
Q. So when you became ill, it opened up the opportunity for you to shift your focus to a continuing story?
A. I got to a point where I wanted to tell stories. I realized the stories were really important to me. They were as important as the images. I thought if I could combine these two, I could really speak. The irony was that at the time when I had massive brain damage, my ability to speak had been damaged. My right hand had been profoundly damaged. That was the time I decided to do a graphic novel, when all the equipment I needed to do that had been damaged.
The great mercy in life is if you get old enough, you get a little bit of wisdom about yourself. The wisdom allows you to become who you really are. It was a tremendous mercy to me that I figured this stuff out before it was too late. I’m very thankful.
Q. Growing up, did you keep a visual journal, as Karen does?
A. Yes. I am really replicating what I did as a kid. I drew everything, and I wrote about these things. I wrote about everything — so many experiences. A lot of those journals unfortunately were lost, and in a way, this re-creates that experience.
Q. How much is Karen like you?
A. There are so many elements that are like me. I was a watcher. I was a really quiet kind of a kid. I had my own inner world. I wanted to be a monster more than anything else.
We have slightly different circumstances. I like to use the quote — it’s based on a Mary McCarthy quote — “I use real eggs to bake an imaginary cake.” She said, “I use real plums,” I think, but nobody uses plums to bake a cake anymore.
Q. What did being a monster mean for you?
I think it was a matter of being able to retreat into this very potent powerful darkness, of still having this ability to see the human life but not having to grow up in it. … A monster can be a watcher of humanity, and I thought that was the best thing to be.
Plus you’d have the drama, the superpowers, the challenges. You’d have to find a way not to eat people. Maybe you’d eat certain people.
I thought everything about it looked good.
Olympia Comics Festival
What: The 17th annual festival celebrates alternative comic artists with a stage show, an expo, panel discussions — including one on “Making Comics as Part of the Resist Movement” — and more. The stage show will include stand-up comedy, interviews with the guests of honor and a slide show of ’50s romance comics.
When: Expo and panels from 11 a.m. -4 p.m. Saturday, stage show 5-7 p.m., book signing 7-8:30 p.m.
Where: Expo and panels at The Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. NW, Olympia; show at the Capitol Theater, 206 Fifth Ave. SE, Olympia; book signing at Danger Room Comics, 201 Fourth Ave. SE, Olympia.
Tickets: $6 suggested donation for the stage show, free for other events.
More information: 360-705-3050, olympiacomicsfestival.org.
Olympia Comics Festival Preview Night
What: Get a preview of the festival, and meet comics artist Peter Kuper, one of the guests of honor.
When: 6:30-8 p.m. Friday.
Where: Olympia Timberland Library, 313 Eighth Ave. SE, Olympia.
More information: 360-352-0595, trl.org.
Guests of honor
Each year, the festival features three guests of honor — comics artists who participate in the stage show and panel discussions. This group is particularly well known and diverse, said festival organizer Frank Hussey. “It’s a really strong, really appealing trio,” he said. “They each have their own distinct audience.”
• Emil Ferris: “My Favorite Thing is Monsters,” Ferris’s debut graphic novel, has gotten attention well beyond the comics world.
• Simon Hanselmann: Hanselmann is known for his comics about a stoner witch, a cat and an owl. “He’s part of that younger generation of cartoonists that is very popular with people in their teens and 20s,” Hussey said. “His work is a lot about the harsh realities of life — how messed up this world is, how powerless people feel — and yet it’s hilarious.”
• Peter Kuper: Kuper is the co-founder and editor of the left-wing political comic magazine World War 3 Illustrated. He’s also been drawing “Spy Vs. Spy” for more than a decade. “He has become one of the great old men of lefty cartooning,” Hussey said.