For its 13th year, the MSU Comics Forum snagged a monster of a keynote speaker.
Looking much like one of her own grand, defiant and magnificent characters, comics creator Emil Ferris did her best to draw out the monsters lurking inside a packed room at the MSU Library Friday night.
“We are the monsters,” she declared. “We are the monsters. Isn’t it cool? The problem is the villagers. They don’t get it.”
Ferris juxtaposed her own life, including a series of catastrophic illnesses, with the story told in her 2017 graphic novel, “My Favorite Thing is Monsters.”
She urged the audience, many of them students with stories to tell, to embrace their whole being — broken pieces included — and get to work.
“Go to your studio and make art,” Ferris said. “The energy you produce as an artist, a writer, a creative person who organizes and makes beauty in the world — that shit is important. It is what we’re made out of. It’s what elevates every single one of us.”
“Monsters” is a passionate, often dark story of a girl who comes of age in the ’60s in Chicago. Like Ferris, the character obsesses over classic movie monsters, especially the Wolf Man. She struggles with sexual identity and stumbles upon a murder mystery with very dark roots in the Holocaust.
Art is the crucial lifeline for both Ferris and her protagonist. In a series of bravura images, the girl climbs into her favorite paintings at the Chicago Institute of Arts and interacts with the figures within.
Ferris’ story is told in the unique format of a spiral bound notebook bursting with lush and dynamic images drawn, via elaborate cross-hatching, with humble Bic pens. The images seem to gush directly out of the girl’s fevered mind, weaving an intimate diary with epic ambition.
“Monsters” has won a slew of international awards and was named one of the most important of the decade by The Guardian.
“I’ve never seen anything like this book,” Comics Forum Director Ryan Claytor said.
Claytor, a professor who teaches MSU’s comics studio course, could hardly believe his good fortune at luring Ferris to campus. (Claytor got nowhere with Ferris’ agents, so he approached her in person at her artist’s table at the San Diego Comic-Con.)
Friday’s keynote festivities were sweetened by the presence of MSU Special Collections Bibliographer Randy Scott, vault keeper of the worlds’ biggest collection of comics at MSU.
Scott received a lifetime achievement award “for his unparalleled achievement in the field of comics studies” at the Forum Feb. 22. Ferris even drew Scott into the forum program cover, in the guise of a bearded wizard.
Ferris’ love affair with monsters began with “Bride of Frankenstein,” as incarnated by actress Elsa Lanchester. In the film’s witty introduction, Lanchester played another of Ferris’ idols, Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein.”
“I found out that I can be a writer and I can be a monster,” Ferris said. “And it seemed to me there was not a whole lot of difference.”
But she almost didn’t live to create her masterpiece.
In 2002, at her 40th birthday party, Ferris was bitten by a mosquito and contracted West Nile virus. She suffered brain damage and was paralyzed from the waist down.
Years later, Ferris told this harrowing story in comics form, lacing the pages with dripping, bloody letters and black humor. The mosquito at the party samples her blood and gives a review: “Vintage 1962…a good year…complex and playful, with dark notes of crazy.”
For Ferris, the worst part of being sick was a paralyzed right hand. She duct taped a pen to her hand and used her arm muscles to draw her first post-illness self-portrait.
In the early stages of the illness, while close to death, Ferris had the overwhelming realization that she had something to give to the world — her art.
Gradually, she worked her way back to health.
“I wheeled down to the Art Institute and ended up getting a degree there,” she said. A $10,000 grant from the Toby Devan Lewis foundation gave her six months to work on a proposal for “Monsters.”
Owing in large part to Ferris’ brush with death, every page of the book burns with vitality and urgency. She artfully weaves a feminist defiance into the fabric of monster love. Ferris is determined to give one of the most feared and loathed of all monsters, the Medusa, her due. Ferris showed the MSU audience a drawing of herself, sewing the Medusa’s head back on after Perseus cut it off. Perseus, Ferris declared, was not a hero, but a “dick.” The mythic Greek woman with snakes for hair, whose gaze turns men to stone, is revealed as an obvious projection of male fear and hostility.
“She’s all alone, somebody comes to visit her, and she watches them slowly turn to stone,” Ferris said of the Medusa. “She probably just wanted to talk to people. Do we ever have empathy for the monster?”