2017-02-17 13:19:09
First, Emil Ferris Was Paralyzed. Then Her Book Got Lost at Sea.

Like many of the best monster stories, Emil Ferris’s true-life horror tale starts with a bite. But more about that in a moment.

First, a word concerning Ms. Ferris’s blood-tingling debut graphic novel, “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters,” which oozes with the secrets and hungers that shadow childhood. Set in turbulent, late 1960s Chicago, it braids vintage monster imagery with the preternatural curiosity of a 10-year-old named Karen Reyes, who fancies herself a wolf girl.

According to Art Spiegelman, creator of “Maus”: “Emil Ferris is one of the most important comics artists of our time.”

Now, about that bite. It came 15 years ago when Ms. Ferris, who is 55, contracted West Nile virus from a mosquito. “I woke up in a hospital room three weeks after being admitted,” she recalled in a phone interview. “I was paralyzed from the waist down. I couldn’t speak. And I’d lost the use of my right hand, so I couldn’t draw.”

At 40, she found herself in a wheelchair, with a 6-year-old daughter, Ruby, to raise. But Ms. Ferris, like her stubborn heroine, doesn’t give in. She taught herself to draw again, received an M.F.A. in creative writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and eventually plunged into “Monsters.” “The virus both impelled and scared me at the same time,” she said. “I honed my focus and determination, and the book saw me through.”

“Monsters,” from Fantagraphics, takes the form of a sketchbook diary as Karen tries to solve the murder of her stunning yet mysterious upstairs neighbor, Anka. Ms. Ferris’s ferocious Expressionistic art, with its Crumb-like crosshatching, nails the grit-in-your-mouth feel of her home city.

And monsters are more than a metaphor for Ms. Ferris. “I still do love monsters,” she said. “And when I was a kid, they were really important to me. I couldn’t wait for Saturday night.” Because Saturdays meant the local creature double-feature and fright-fests like “Carnival of Souls” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

Ms. Ferris says those film terrors provided a crucial counterpoint to her own life: “This was the ’60s. I watched protests being broken up by the police. I saw bigotry. It made me think about our own inner monstrousness.”

Then there’s the beast of work. Ms. Ferris, who, despite chronic pain, often grinds out 16-hour days, said, “I live like a mole in a hole.” That mole, though, does get out and about on her canes. “I do a lot of drawing on the El and in cafes.”

Of the passion needed to complete a 400-page graphic novel — a second similarly scary tome is almost done — Ms. Ferris wrote in an email: “For an impetuous-minded artist the requisite devotion and rituals of creating a graphic novel are a bit like a hair shirt, a cat-o’-nine-tails (and a chastity belt, certainly).”

Ms. Ferris has worked in a range of media, from animation to painting, but “Monsters,” with its rainbow hues, is almost wholly drawn in Bic pen, complemented by Flair markers. She started out drawing it on actual white, lined notebook paper. “But then I started to do it in layers, because it was so hard to make corrections.”

There are still days when Ms. Ferris needs to hole up. “When I’m too worn out or in pain I lie in bed and write in my mind,” she said in an email.

Her dreams often pick up the slack, and they helped her create one of the book’s grisly delights. “Monsters” is sprinkled with covers of terror mags that never were: Ghastly, Gory Stories, Ghoulish and more, inspired by movie posters and classic 1950s EC comics like Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror.

Ms. Ferris has lived mostly in Chicago, and that intimate knowledge shines through in her Dickensian drawings of city life. Born on the South Side, she grew up in the Uptown neighborhood on the North Side. “We lived in this beautiful old building that was in great disrepair,” she said. “We were all from somewhere else, and living in these castles.”

Ms. Ferris has spent her life as an artist, but she has also waited tables and cleaned houses. And she still hasn’t put that hand-to-mouth life behind her. “As we speak,” she said, “I have $14 and a bag of pecans. I’m basically still stealing bank coffee.”

But her inner life has always been rich because of her love for art. “It’s a delicious thing, to think about the artists you love,” Ms. Ferris said. “I tend to taste chocolate.”

Those who conjure sweetness for her include Otto Dix, George Grosz and Aubrey Beardsley. Among cartoonists she cites R. Crumb, Alison Bechdel and Mr. Spiegelman.

“When I read ‘Maus,’ I realized you could tell a story of tremendous import using the graphic novel.”

Mr. Spiegelman, for his part, praises her approach. “She uses the sketchbook idea as a way to change the grammar and syntax of the comics page,” he said in a recent phone interview. “And she came out of nowhere. Until recently, no one was aware of Emil — including Emil.”

The cartoonists crossed paths a few months ago at the Miami Book Fair. “When I met Art Spiegelman,” she said, “and he grabbed my hand that’d been paralyzed, I cried.”

And then, after West Nile and all those years of hard, anonymous work, Ms. Ferris’s book was lost at sea. Really.

“Monsters” was originally scheduled to come out in October. But the cargo ship carrying the 10,000-book print run from South Korea to the United States was seized at the Panama Canal because the vessel’s owner was deep in debt.

A Fantagraphics spokesman said the book was essentially “arrested.” “Monsters” finally got set free, but too late for fall release. Throughout the bizarre episode, Ms. Ferris stayed upbeat: “I had gone through so many twists and turns in my life — and with this book — that I knew something good was coming. I just trusted my monsters.”

That’s what Karen does, too. Throughout “Monsters,” there’s the subtle hum of her sexual confusion. She knows it’s easier to be a wolf girl than to unveil her deepest self. “There’s Karen’s desire to be a monster, rather than a hetero woman,” said Ms. Ferris, who says she’s a bisexual whose longest relationships have been with women. “And basically, Karen is Emil.”

But, she added: “I never quite became the monster I wanted to be. I feel mostly monstrous as I more become myself. Because the more you become yourself, the more it disturbs other people.”

Ms. Ferris paused — and it wasn’t clear whether she meant the mosquito that gave her West Nile, some seductive vampire or the rapture of art — and declared:

“I want that bite.”