OF ALL the new and emerging comics talents who will be featured at this weekend’s Small Press Expo in suburban Washington, debut graphic novelist Emil Ferris might have had the longest, most harrowing road here.
Nearly 15 years ago, Ferris contracted West Nile virus from a mosquito bite — a perilous event that has exacted a lasting toll.
“I woke up in a hospital bed paralyzed from the waist down, having lost the ability to speak and move my right hand,” the Chicago-based artist tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs via email. But she used the crisis as a crucible to stoke her profound talents.
Ferris, then 40 and the mother of a 6-year-old, relearned how to use that drawing hand so that she could tell her story. (She now uses canes to help her get around.) And she pursued a creative-writing MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The painstaking creative result of that journey, “My Favorite Things Is Monsters” (Fantagraphics), her debut graphic novel, has received head-turning praise from such comics giants as Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and Alison Bechdel — the last of whom calls the work a “spectacular eye-popping magnum opus.”
Ferris calls the critical reception “surreal.” All for an epic — illustrated in Bic and Flair pen lines of lushly cross-hatched characters in a sketchbook diary format — that centers on a wolf-loving Chicago girl growing curious about a neighbor’s murder.
“I kept notebooks as a kid, and they were important to me,” says Ferris, whose cartooning influences ranged from Daumier, Hogarth and George Grosz to Lynda Barry and Spiegelman himself. “In many ways I was re-creating that aesthetic.”
Growing up, Ferris also loved watching creature features on the screen — an affection for monsters that remains powerful.
“Monsters are a departure from ‘reality’ in a way that allows for a range of fantastic possibilities,” Ferris says. “I mean this within the world of literature as well as in regards to art. When I sit down to draw, I’m energized by the possibility of creating a monster. That is where I find beauty and pathos.”
Ferris is among dozens of featured rock-star guests at SPX 2017, a convention of indie authors and exhibitors that will also spotlight such creators as Gilbert Hernandez (“Love and Rockets“), Jillian Tamaki (“This One Summer“), Eleanor Davis (“How to Be Happy“), Tillie Walden (“Spinning“), Shannon Wheeler (“Sh*t My President Says“), Nate Powell (“March”) and Gene Luen Yang (“Boxers & Saints“).
The international guests include Toronto’s Ethan Rilly and Chris Kim; the Venezuelan-born cartoonist Alexis Ziritt; and Eisner-nominated Albert Monteys from Spain. Such political cartoonists as Politico’s Matt Wuerker and The Washington Post’s Ann Telnaes will also speak during two days of programming and two dozen panels, in addition to nearly 300 exhibitor tables.
Ferris will be in conversation with Comic Riffs on Saturday. Small Press Expo runs through Sunday at the North Bethesda Marriott Hotel and Convention Center.