It was only a couple of years ago that a virtual nobody from Chicago made a quiet entry into the world of comics. The initial response to her manuscript did not set the graphic narrative publishing world on fire, but Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth, who had had a look at the sample pages, thought it was unusual. And so Groth, who has an uncanny knack of picking up talented cartoonists from the void, accepted The Favorite Thing is Monsters for publication. That was the best Emil Ferris could have hoped for.
A fifty-something woman in a field dominated by young people – both as readers and creators – cannot really expect a rousing welcome with her first work. But that was just what happened when the book hit the bookstores in February 2017. Ferris became the toast of the graphic novel world overnight. Everyone wanted a piece of her backstory – her struggle as a single mother, scarred by a deadly attack of West Nile virus that left her crippled, her indomitable spirit to re-learn drawing and face hardships head-on, and many other details. Even the best reviews of her work, of which there were many, had large portions dedicated to her remarkable personal history.
In fact, some reviewers allowed this to overshadow the brilliant work, which is considered a game-changer in comics – much to Ferris’s discomfiture. With time, however, the quality of her work and her sheer talent started dominating conversation. Ferris had created a crossover work that would further the cause of comics arts in the hallowed world of serious literature.
Then came the nominations and the awards by the dozen. In 2017 Ferris became the comics industry’s person of the year. Before the year was out she was translated into Spanish, French and Italian. The impact was stunning, to say the least. The second part of her remarkable debut is slated to be published later in 2018. How has so much adulation and attention affected a private person like Ferris? I the Chicago comics sensation opened up to Scroll.in, even if only a little bit. Excerpts from the interview:
One year after the publication of My Favorite thing is Monsters, how has life changed for Emil Ferris?
I’m grateful for the attention but I am a recluse, so it has taken quite a lot of adjustment.
Now that you are the toast of the comics world, how do you look back at the days when your life was hanging by the proverbial thread?
There is a discrete freedom to knowing that nobody cares a whit about whatever one might think of anything. I remember that anonymity with some fondness (although the many financial difficulties I encountered in creating the book I do not always remember as fondly!). Since readers do seem to care regarding my thoughts, I feel a great deal more responsible about being attentive to, and perhaps even careful in, the ways I express myself. I am also aware that my attention and admiration for other artists might be meaningful to them, so I try – as much as I’m able – to let them know how wonderful I find so much of the work being made right now.
Can you now dream of earning a living from comics alone?
I dream and have always dreamt of only making art in order to live, but by no means is this a less rigorous work-life, as I spend as many waking hours as my body will tolerate working on stories. For me this is an act of giving, sharing. I hope whatever I’m offering will find a home in the hearts of readers to the same or perhaps even a greater degree than has Monsters.
After the success of your work, who or what are the new monsters in your life?
Time and its inherent constraints are the great new monsters in my life.
As a creative person what are your biggest worries now? How are those worries influencing your work?
Worries! Yes! I have them. I feel a sense of responsibility to a readership that did not exist during the creation of the first book. I want to be sure that I give people who resonated with Book 1 as much of a positive experience as I possibly am able within the pages of book 2.
Now that you are constantly in the public gaze doesn’t that scare you? How do you like to engage with the hordes of new people – fans, publishers, journalists and more?
I am a very retiring person. I think most writers and artists are. We prefer to be the silent observers in the corner of the room. As a matter of fact, I think our artistic pursuits are best suited by this quality of careful silent remote observation. Therefore, I find my nature very much at odds with the new demands placed upon me. I try to reorient my thinking in such moments, and I ask myself what I’m bringing to people. Reimagining myself as a vessel for something, as opposed to being the thing itself, takes the onus away from me. It makes the attention I pay to each individual and my listening to them much more important than my “appearance”.
The way you have created the character of Anka Silverberg, it appears that you shared or experienced a similar kind of pain. Was there anyone (or more than one person) you knew who became Anka in your work?
Unfortunately, or fortunately perhaps, we are all beginning to share in the realisation that the world can be a very difficult place for women and children of both sexes. We know that predation of all types occurs and we know that women and children are much more prone to being victimised by it. I share in this past. Many people – both women and men – do as well. I sorrowed for Anka while writing about her, but I was also so proud of her strength. For people who have been mistreated in these ways, even the act of rising each day with a benevolent heart, even that is a victory and should be seen as such.
Do you lament the loss of private space? For instance, do you still get a chance to sketch on the L (rapid transit system in Chicago) without being recognised?
I do. There are some places wherein I might be recognised – a comic con for instance – but just recently I went to hear the symphony and drew while listening and as the audience was generally above the age of my standard readership, there were a few comments but nothing more. It was Wagner and it was heaven!
How has your relationship with your daughter changed after Monsters?
My daughter is the most wonderful person and I’m so proud of her! Other than that, I can’t say, although she does seem to be proud of me as well.
What are your next projects (please do not be too evasive)?
Completing book 2 was primary. I have many other books in partial completion, which I’m excited to bring forward. One is set in Chicago in the 19th century and it haunts me...well, I guess it should, as it is a ghost story!