TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. President Trump has been in office for only a month. But there's been so much news it's hard to keep track of it all. So we've asked Mark Mazzetti to guide us through some of the national security issues he's been covering at The New York Times. Mazzetti recently became the Washington investigations editor for The New York Times, after having worked as a national security correspondent there for 10 years. He shared a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington's response. He's also the author of the book "The Way Of The Knife" about the secret wars waged by the CIA and the Pentagon after 9/11.
Mark Mazzetti, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Describe for us what your team is covering.
MARK MAZZETTI: We're trying to take a broad look at the sort of upheaval that's going on in government right now with the new administration. And when I say upheaval, some of it is by design. The Trump administration has come into Washington with a design to change how the government operates, what the government does, what the government doesn't do, change American foreign policy.
We are trying to examine all aspects of it, not only the questions around President Trump and Russia but also questions about the Trump businesses and how it - they disentangle themselves from government policy. It's a - really an effort to slow things down a little bit, I'd say, where the pace is so frenetic at the moment with the news. We are trying to at least dive a little bit deeper - as deep as we can given the news cycle - and examine these subjects in greater depth.
GROSS: There are so many investigations going on right now. The intelligence community is doing investigations of Trump's ties to Russia. Trump wants investigations of leakers. Can we break down what's going on now in terms of who's investigating who? Let's start with the intelligence community. What are some of those investigations going on now?
MAZZETTI: The Trump administration began at this extraordinary moment where you had intelligence agencies and law enforcement and now the Senate Intelligence Committee examining the efforts, as they say, by Russia to sabotage the last election through cyberattacks, propaganda, etc. About a month before President Trump took office, you had this assessment by the intelligence agencies that Russia had carried out these attacks. That was met with a great deal of resistance by, then, President-elect Trump who dismissed some of the conclusions.
And so you began the administration with this tension between Trump and the intelligence agencies. But it's not going away because, as I said, you have these ongoing looks at exactly what Russia did in advance of the election and also investigations into any ties that existed between the Trump team and the Russian government or associates of the Russian government. And it's the beginning of all this. So it's really unclear, at this point, where those investigations go.
GROSS: Now, Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general, has close ties to Donald Trump and people in his administration. Can Sessions block any of the congressional investigations?
MAZZETTI: It would be certainly hard or impossible for Sessions to block a congressional investigation. They are independent and value their independence and would not at all take kindly to a administration, whether it's Republican or Democrat, interfering with a congressional investigation.
GROSS: What can he stop?
MAZZETTI: Well, it's - he's in a tricky position. As the attorney general, he has oversight over the FBI. So in essence, Jim Comey does answer to Jeff Sessions. At the same time, there is a long history of the attorney general at least trying to preserve independence of the Justice Department as it conducts its look into - especially if they're looking at the White House. So he could intervene on these investigations, but it would be politically dangerous.
And the FBI certainly would have problems with the attorney general intervening to try to block an investigation. And this is certainly not a new situation. We've had it in the past. And it does create tension between the FBI, the Justice Department and the White House. It's happened in several administrations.
GROSS: So some people think that Jeff Sessions should recuse himself when it comes to any investigation of the Trump administration because he was just appointed by President Trump. He has close ties with people in the administration. Can you talk about that question?
MAZZETTI: Sure. This goes back to the issue of the independence of the attorney general but also the complicated role that the attorney general plays. You know, the attorney general is naturally, usually, someone who comes in, who has a relationship with the president and the president trusts. At the same time, the attorney general, by overseeing the FBI, has to maintain a degree of independence from the White House because sometimes the investigations are into White House advisers or other parts of the executive branch.
You know, it appears that Attorney General Sessions is resisting recusing himself, although we will see exactly how that plays out. I mean, for instance, we take - if you take one case, we know that there is an ongoing investigation into Paul Manafort, who was the Trump campaign chairman last year, into work he did for the Ukrainian government several years ago. That's an ongoing criminal investigation. And so given the role Manafort played in the campaign and given that Jeff Sessions was a campaign adviser, there is pressure from Capitol Hill for him to recuse himself. But it's unclear what's going to happen.
GROSS: And President Trump has also appointed Stephen Feinberg, who's a co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management, which is a private investment firm - he's a billionaire. So he's been appointed to lead a review of American intelligence agencies. What is this review supposed to be?
MAZZETTI: It's a good question exactly what Feinberg's role would be, whether it is to examine the structure of the intelligence agencies and determine whether things work well - is it to look at specific topics and look at intelligence analysis? You know, certainly, anytime a president does something like that, it creates a degree of concern in the intelligence community about exactly what the role of this White House adviser would be. Is it to challenge the conclusions of the intelligence agencies or to do something more? The - recall that more than a decade ago, the intelligence agencies went through a certain degree of upheaval when they created the director of national intelligence. So this new job to oversee all intelligence agencies is the job that didn't exist before.
Now the question is, is there now someone going to be in the White House overseeing that whole structure? It's unclear what Feinberg exactly would do. But the fact that someone would be a close White House adviser to the president looking at this issue causes concern in the intelligence community because, exactly, it would be an amorphous job. It would be someone who has the ear of the president, who also might have a dim view of the intelligence agencies, and that causes concern.
Now, if you just take the CIA, it is an organization that sort of prides itself for having a direct line to the president, that no matter what structure is put in place above the CIA, the CIA always likes to think that they can get the ear of the president, that they are the president's top intelligence adviser. If there is another person in the White House who is playing that role, that is going to cause concern not only at the agency but also other intelligence agencies. So there would be concern that Feinberg, as not a person running the CIA but someone in the White House, might exercise some influence over the president that the CIA couldn't quite grasp or understand.
GROSS: You mean, like, instead of accepting the CIA's recommendations, he'd goes his own way?
MAZZETTI: Right. Or he might be getting input from other people. He might be getting input about analysis or intelligence collection from other sources that the CIA or other intelligence agencies don't quite, you know, they don't know what the sources are. You know, the question is who is telling the president what? There is a system in place, as we know, where the president gets a daily briefing of intelligence that's put together by primarily the CIA. And he gets the briefing.
And so the question, I guess, within the intelligence world would be in addition to this daily briefing and other briefings the president gets, what is he also hearing from his advisers that the CIA may not have much visibility into?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Mazzetti. He's a reporter for The New York Times. He's now overseeing the Washington investigations unit. He's the editor of that new unit. He covered national security for The Times for 10 years and recently wrote a book about the CIA. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Mazzetti. He's the Washington investigations editor for The New York Times. This is a new investigative unit covering government and Washington. He covered national security for 10 years. He's also the author of a book from a few years ago about the CIA and its changing role in warfare. So is it fair to say that the intelligence community and the Trump administration are kind of at war with each other right now?
MAZZETTI: I think it would be overstating it to say at war because the, you know, the president is getting his intelligence brief. The CIA is doing its work. The other intelligence agencies are doing their work. But it is fair to say that the Trump administration came into office with this sort of unprecedented tension between it and the intelligence agencies. I don't know of another example of a president coming in who was so openly dismissive of the intelligence world, the agencies themselves. It was really extraordinary to see through, in part, the tweets that President Trump sent out criticizing the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
You know, going back, it's - the agency, the CIA, you know, prides itself on having this relationship with the president. It hasn't always been smooth. It's sometimes been rocky. But it is pretty amazing to have the president publicly call out the intelligence agencies even before he became president for having an agenda, for having an agenda to try to make him look bad or to question the validity of his election. And that was why this period in December before he took office was really amazing to cover and watch.
GROSS: So let's talk about Mike Pompeo for a second, the new head of the CIA. What's his reputation? What's he best-known for?
MAZZETTI: Mike Pompeo really made his name as a member of the Benghazi investigation on Capitol Hill a few years ago. He was a very outspoken critic of Hillary Clinton. He was seen as one of the real hawks on the committee in terms of the role that Hillary Clinton might have played in that, always suspected that her role was far deeper than she was letting on. And he put some really tough questions to her directly during the public hearing on Benghazi. So he was certainly known as a partisan on that issue and a reliable Republican partisan on a number of issues.
So there's no question that Mike Pompeo comes to the CIA as, at least in the beginning, one of the, you know, most overtly partisan CIA directors. Now, that in and of itself is not necessarily a problem. You know, CIA directors have political views. You know, they get appointed by presidents for a reason. The real question then is what, if any, way would the CIA change its analysis because of that? And I don't think there's yet any evidence that, you know, because Mike Pompeo has views, political views, there that that's going to color the CIA's analysis on issue X, like Iran or terrorism.
That's going to be something to watch, how Pompeo works with the rank and file at the CIA. You know, there are early reports that he's working hard, that he is trying to get to know the agency that he didn't know well even as a member of the Intelligence Committee and to try to get a sense of how the place operates and not just come in as an outsider saying, hey, I'm here to shake this place up.
GROSS: Since he has been partisan in the past, would it be possible for him to decide that the CIA shouldn't be investigating anything related to the Trump administration's ties or the campaign's ties to Russia?
MAZZETTI: Well, is - what we know now about these investigations, as I said, the FBI's taking the lead but will need to have some support from CIA and other intelligence agencies. I mean, yes, certainly Pompeo could try to limit the CIA's role in that or be less than helpful to the FBI in its investigation. I don't have a sense that that is happening or that he has tried to limit the CIA's involvement in that. But again, they would not necessarily have a major part in it anyway because they're not an investigative body.
They're an intelligence organization. Law enforcement and the FBI are the ones who are leading it in part because it involves, you know, U.S. institutions, it involves U.S. people. And, you know, by law, the CIA's not supposed to be involved in any investigations involving U.S. persons.
GROSS: Three key people now in the Trump administration are from the military, three generals - Jim Mattis, secretary of defense; John Kelly, secretary of homeland security; and H. R. McMaster, national security adviser, replacing General Flynn. So this is unprecedented - right? - to have so many military leaders in positions like this?
MAZZETTI: I don't know the precedent or whether there's never been so many former generals - or current generals at that level before. But it certainly is a sign of how President Trump sees the world, that he sees the military as people who can get jobs done, who can, you know, follow orders, who are responsible, who can give him advice that he trusts. He talks about the generals a lot and his interaction with the generals. So now he's got a lot of generals who are advising him.
It's also a, I think, a sign of the extent that the civilian national security establishment he doesn't trust and they don't trust him. There were so many of the household names of Republican national security establishment that signed letters opposing Trump, the so-called Never-Trumpers. And there really was a, to some degree, a litmus test put to these positions - that it couldn't be one - any of those people who signed a letter. So if you're one of the dozens of people who signed that letter and you're not in the administration, you've got to look elsewhere. And so I think that's another reason why you're seeing so many military men take these positions.
GROSS: So each of these three men have been described as smart and independent-minded, willing to challenge common wisdom, willing to challenge authority. Nevertheless, what are some of the concerns about three military leaders in positions usually held by civilians?
MAZZETTI: Yes, they all have good reputations, respected by their peers, both in the military and outside of the military. They're believed to be thoughtful people, as you said, independent people. You know, the concern would be that there's just this overall - there's already been concerns about the militarization of foreign policy, that, you know, since 9/11, the United States government has seen all of - seen the rest of the world from a sort of martial point of view, that it is - there are military solutions and those are the only ones that, you know, might work, whether it be on terrorism or anything like that. And it concerns the State Department, for instance. So to have so many current or former military people at the top, you know, certainly reinforces the idea that this will continue or could, at least, continue.
The other concern, of course, is that having a, you know, former general run the Pentagon after being only out of uniform for a couple years, there's not enough distance from his time in uniform to be able to see the world differently than when he did as a man in uniform. So, you know, there was a reason there's a period of time that, by law, requires a person to be out of uniform before they become secretary of defense.
General Mattis got a waiver because he'd only been out of office - out of uniform for a few years. You know, Congress overwhelmingly gave him the waiver because they respect him, and they think that he was a good choice. At the same time, it does reinforce these concerns that the president will only get military advice. He will only see answers to problems through the lens of how the military does business.
GROSS: My guest is Mark Mazzetti, the Washington Investigations Editor for The New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. And John Powers will review a new graphic novel that reflects on race, class, gender, horror films, Nazi Germany and more.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Mark Mazzetti, the Washington investigations editor for The New York Times. He spent 10 years covering national security for the Times. He shared a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington's response. He's also the author of the 2013 book "The Way Of The Knife," about the secret wars waged by the CIA and the Pentagon after 9/11. We've been talking about national security issues and the Trump administration.
Let's talk about Steve Bannon. He's been staying pretty well-hidden from public sight. But everyone in the know seems to agree he's very powerful behind the scenes. What do you know about what his role is now and has been in the Trump administration?
MAZZETTI: I mean, by all accounts, Steve Bannon has a real outsized role here in the beginning of the Trump administration. He has a hand in all sorts of different policies, whether they be domestic, like the immigration ban, or national security issues. Remember, he was initially put on the National Security Council that raised concerns about whether Mike Flynn, the previous national security adviser, was going to be able to be independent.
Clearly, President Trump trusts Steve Bannon a great deal. He is one of a very small, very small group of advisers that the president seems to sort of trust implicitly. And so we're still trying to get a sense of exactly what Bannon will be doing. But there's no question that his hand is in a lot of the early moves by the Trump administration.
GROSS: Is Bannon in conflict with the intelligence agencies?
MAZZETTI: Not that I can tell at the moment. I think that, you know, Bannon, like a lot of people who don't have a background in the national security world, come in with a degree of skepticism, not only about the intelligence world but, to some degree, the military. And that's not, in and of itself, a bad thing - to have people challenging assessments by the intelligence community, by the military - that's the reason for civilian leadership of government.
There is, I think, a bit of a pattern where both Bannon and General Flynn did have a built-in skepticism about some of the analyses of the CIA, in particular, and whether, you know, they always give the president the best advice. I mean, General Flynn certainly - it's been well documented - had a real rivalry with the CIA during his time in uniform. He didn't think the CIA was very capable in its analysis. They didn't get out into the field. He trusted the military far more than he did the CIA in giving assessments about war zones, etc.
So I think that there's a little of that worldview in Steve Bannon. And that, as I said, is not in and of itself a bad thing. It's good to be skeptical. We'll just see whether that leads to any real tension.
GROSS: You know, Steve Bannon had been the head of Breitbart News, which is famous for truly fake news (laughter) and for spreading anti-Semitic, misogynistic, Islamophobic points of view. So he is now on the National Security Council's Principles Committee, which gives him a pretty important seat in national security. Do you think he'll be able to keep that seat under General McMaster, the new head of the National Security Council?
MAZZETTI: It's unclear, and there were some reports yesterday that President Trump had given McMaster assurances that he can make the decisions about who's on the NSC and who's not on the NSC - that he wants to make sure that McMaster comes in with a long leash to be able to do what he wants to organize the council as he sees fit without outside interference.
Now, as we've said, Steve Bannon has a lot of support of the president. So how those two men are going to interact - it's going to be interesting to watch. I mean, even if Steve Bannon officially is not on the National Security Council, you can be certain that he will still be advising the president on some of these issues. I just think that's the way it's going to work, at least for the immediate future in the administration.
GROSS: So what are some of the larger concerns about Steve Bannon, given his background, having such an important place in national security? I imagine he's going to be hearing a lot of national security secrets.
MAZZETTI: Sure. He already has a full national security clearance. And so he will be able to be read into, presumably, almost all of the programs that the CIA, other intelligence agencies, the Pentagon, are running.
GROSS: So for somebody who was a purveyor of fake news, what are the implications of that?
MAZZETTI: (Laughter) I mean, he's now - I mean, it's pretty well-documented what Breitbart Media was and is. And Breitbart Media under Steve Bannon did put out a lot of fake news of - had a bent - an Islamophobic bent. It had a lot of different agendas. That's one of the things that we're all trying to figure out in terms of how Bannon - who is no longer in that role, who is now one of the top advisers to the president of the United States - whether that continues, whether that worldview he was promoting at Breitbart makes its way into Trump administration policy.
I mean, you certainly have seen the criticism that the - you know, the Muslim ban, the immigration ban on the seven countries that, you know, this was something that was directly out of the Breitbart worldview. And it's not just Steve Bannon but some of the president's other advisers who see, you know, not only a terrorism problem but a problem with Islam. And there's certainly evidence that the early administration's policies or - sorry - the administration's early policies have reflected some of that.
GROSS: When you say a problem with Islam, some people within the administration see Islam more as a political ideology - a bad political ideology rather than as a religion.
MAZZETTI: They certainly see a reticence by the previous administration to identify a terrorism problem as a problem - at its heart, as a problem with Islam. They see - you know, famously, people have criticized President Obama for not saying radical Islamic terrorism and that this is something that this administration says quite frequently - that they say, you know, United States should not run away from the fact that a lot of the terrorism is carried out by Muslims and should not be politically correct about it. You know, you're seeing a sort of pull-no-punches approach, in this administration, to dealing with the parts of the Muslim world that you didn't see with the Obama administration. And, you know, it's not hard to draw a direct line from, you know, some of - if you just look at Bannon's role, certainly, some of the stuff that was in Breitbart News prior to the election - or at least during Bannon's time there - and some of the rhetoric now coming out of the White House.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Mazzetti. He's the Washington investigations editor for The New York Times. He covered national security for 10 years before that for the Times. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Mazzetti. He's the Washington investigations editor for The New York Times, so he's overseeing investigations at The Times of many Trump administration-related stories. He covered national security for The Times for 10 years before that. Let's talk about General Michael Flynn for a moment. He is out. He resigned from his position as national security adviser. This was officially for lying to Vice President Mike Pence when Flynn said that he didn't speak to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about issues other than the logistics of arranging phone calls with the Trump administration.
So he's out. But is he still being investigated for what communications he may have had with Russia during the campaign about the election?
MAZZETTI: It doesn't appear that General Flynn is under any kind of real investigation for talking to the Russian ambassador during the transition period. In fact, President Trump said last week that he has no problem that General Flynn made those calls to the Russian ambassador and discussed various policy matters. He said he was doing his job. As you said, the firing offense for Flynn seemed to be lying to the vice president. So it, you know, raised interesting questions about exactly what General Flynn and the Russian ambassador were talking about, how much they were trying to lay out the Trump administration's foreign policy before there was a Trump administration.
And it got into questions of, you know, just how much a president elect and his team should be on the phone with leaders sort of trying to undercut the policy of the current administration. There's no question that General Flynn saw that the United States needed to develop better relations with the Russians. He was on record many times saying it. He - there's many reasons for that. General Flynn's worldview, and he wrote a book about it, is very much colored by the idea that the primary threat to the United States is Islamic terrorism and that this is a guy who spent years on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
And it did color his idea that terrorism is the number one problem that the United States faces. If that is your worldview, then you're going to look at other - anyone who you think can be an ally in that fight as someone who the United States should do business with. That's one of the reasons that General Flynn - you saw General Flynn, not only recently but during his time as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, try to develop better relations with the Russians. He saw the Russians as more helpful than harmful on the issue of fighting terrorism, that United States and Russia basically saw the threat the same.
So it wasn't a new thing and it wasn't a thing that just happened after he joined the Trump campaign that General Flynn saw the need for developing better relations with the Russians. When he was the head of the DIA, he went to Moscow, he met senior intelligence officials in Moscow in part with that message that the United States needed to work more closely with the Russians. It should be said also that it's one of the things that put him at odds with the CIA and has for several years.
The CIA in its heart and its DNA is hawkish towards Russia and the Russians. It has been since its beginning in the '40s. It was begun during the Cold War. And that will never, I think, be taken out of the DNA of the Central Intelligence Agency. You know, CIA officers in Moscow are constantly doing battle with Russian intelligence officers. Yes, there's some coordination. But for the most part, it's a combative relationship. General Flynn saw this as sort of foolish. He saw these, you know, spy games as something that was counterproductive.
And he was, you know, a military person - from a military point of view saw these civilian intelligence agencies at war with each other, the U.S. and the Russians. He saw the whole thing as counterproductive. And that's another reason why he wanted to develop better relations with Moscow.
GROSS: When you look at the month that President Trump has been in office - and it's really only been a month - what do you find most remarkable, most different from what you've seen before?
MAZZETTI: I mean, it's hard to think of any one thing. Everything is different. The way that decisions are made, the process by which, you know, executive orders are made and quickly put out seems to be different than previous administrations. You know, it should be said that, you know, all administrations come in with a sort of skeleton crew where they can't - they don't have their people in place so it's hard to get policy done. But this administration came in with a skeleton crew and right off the bat were determined to show they were at work, they were doing all these executive orders.
They were - the pace is particularly frenetic. And I think, to some degree, that is, you know, Steve Bannon's influence as well, the idea that, you know, we're going to make good on these promises immediately. The interactions with the press are different. It is, you know, openly, you know, it's openly hostile in many cases. There's a combativeness that you didn't see - to a degree you didn't see in previous administrations. The fact that we wake up every morning to a tweet storm by the president of the United States - we have not had that before.
So we find ourselves every morning, you know, literally scrambling to keep up with what Trump has tweeted about and decide, you know, what we need to follow and what we don't need to follow. You know, just as you said, it's only been a month. It feels like a lot longer.
GROSS: President Trump tweeted the fake news media - failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN - is not my enemy. It is the enemy of the American people. So as a reporter for The New York Times who's heading this new investigations unit, how do you deal with a statement like that? You've been called the enemy of the American people by the president of the United States.
MAZZETTI: Yeah, it's pretty shocking. And it's something that you have to take note of, and we did, but also not necessarily get baited into responding to directly or feel the need to, you know, go tit for tat with the president about the role of the press. You know, it's stark language. It is dangerous language in my mind. But I think our job is clear. And all we can do in the face of that is just keep doing our jobs. And I think that the role of the press is very well-established in the United States over a couple hundred years.
And I think that it's - despite people's concerns about the media, people understand the importance and the role of the free press.
GROSS: But surely you must be worried when the president says that the media is lying.
MAZZETTI: Sure. If the president of the United States uses the power and influence of his position to decry all the stories that he doesn't like, that does not help the overall, you know, credibility of the news media in the sense that, you know, people who are his supporters and diehard supporters who already don't like the press, many of them don't like the press, this is going to even reinforce that. And I should say that, you know, this goes - this could go to a dangerous place if you have the president of the United States continually remarking about how the press is the enemy, the press is dangerous, the press is lying.
Some people, you know, might take that to heart. And that's a volatile situation.
GROSS: So I'm going to share an impression with you. Tell me what you think. My impression is because things have gotten so charged between President Trump and the press, because the president has made so many accusations that the press, including the failing New York Times, is - they're really purveyors of fake news, that the leakers are criminals, that this is all a terrible thing, I feel like I hear an extra note of caution in your voice in trying to be, like, so fair and so trying to be exemplary and not offering anything that's opinion (laughter) that goes beyond, like, fact that you can document in a really neutral way.
So I'm wondering - I guess my question is what impact is President Trump's accusations about the press having on you personally in your life as a reporter?
MAZZETTI: I mean, you can't deny that the atmosphere now is, as you said, very, very charged where it's combative so quickly to such a great level that it's hard to know, you know, where it leads with the president, you know, citing individual news organizations as purveyors of fake news. You know, investigative reporting involves, you know, exposing things that are either exposing wrongdoing or just shedding light on things that for various reasons powerful people have tried to keep secret. That creates tension.
And so I guess what I'm saying is that the - you can't ignore that we are in this unprecedented climate now where the White House and the president himself actively questions the role of the press and has declared them enemies. That is the truth. But what I'm saying is we have to figure out - we have to respond the right way. And in my mind, it's continuing to do stories even if it's things that he might not like or the administration might not like.
GROSS: Mark Mazzetti, thank you so much for talking with us.
MAZZETTI: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Mark Mazzetti is the Washington investigations editor for The New York Times and formerly covered national security for the times. After we take a short break, John Powers will review a new graphic novel called "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our critic at large, John Powers, has a review of the new graphic novel "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters" by first-time writer Emil Ferris. It tells the story of a 10-year-old girl who loves horror films and tries to solve the murder of a lovely upstairs neighbor. But the book does a lot more than just that. John calls the book a true revelation.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: These days, almost every new movie, show, album or book feels so anticipated and prepackaged that we're already tired of it by the time it's released. This makes it especially thrilling when something dazzling just appears, like that alien spaceship in "Arrival," startling even those whose business it is to be in the know. That's what happened with "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters," a new graphic novel just out from Fantagraphics Books. The first of two volumes, the second comes out this fall, is the brainchild of a 55-year-old Chicago illustrator Emil Ferris.
Until she sent off the manuscript, nobody in the comics world had ever heard of her. I certainly hadn't. But this extraordinary book has instantly rocketed Ferris into the graphic novel elite, alongside Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel and Chris Ware. You see, she's produced something rare, a page-turning story whose pages are so brilliantly drawn you don't want to turn them. "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters" is set amid the political and racial swirl of Uptown Chicago in the late 1960s.
It presents itself as the journal of Karen Reyes, a precocious, inquisitive 10-year-old of Mexican, Irish and Cherokee ancestry. Karen lives with her mother and her older brother, Deeze, a tattooed womanizer facing the Vietnam draft, who teaches her about art. A social outcast, Karen loves and identifies with monsters, even romanticizing herself as a werewolf girl with fangs protruding from her lower jaw. Largely friendless, Karen spends her hours drawing, watching horror movies, going to the museum and visiting their upstairs neighbor Anka, a lovely but reckless Holocaust survivor, who reminds me of Isabella Rosselini in "Blue Velvet."
When Anka is murdered, Karen sets about trying to find the killer, a search that sends the book back to Nazi Germany and leads Karen to suspect everyone from Anka's jazzman husband to their ventriloquist neighbor to - and could it be possible? - her own beloved brother. If this sounds like a wild story, so is the tale of how Ferris came to write it. She was a 40-year-old single mom who supported herself doing illustrations when she was bitten by a mosquito. She contracted West Nile virus, became paralyzed from the waist down and lost the use of her drawing hand. Fighting chronic pain, she taught herself to draw again, then reinvented herself as a graphic novelist spending six long years creating what's clearly an emotional autobiography.
And, man, does her commitment show. Breaking away from the panel format customary in comics, Ferris's densely imagined, crosshatched images explode with a visual freedom I've not seen in a graphic novel. And she uses that freedom to give us, well, everything. We see Karen's inner and outer world, which is just bursting with stuff, her gothic dreams, her family's story, the murder of Martin Luther King, ruminations on race and class and gender, portraits of kinky sex in Weimar, Germany, hand-drawn copies of classic paintings complete with art history lessons and even spectacular magazine covers for imaginary horror magazines with titles like ghastly.
Ferris uses all of this to explore the idea of monstrousness, from the small-scale cruelties of schoolyard bullying to Nazi death camps. Along the way, Karen learns to see a difference between what she calls good monsters, who are scary because they're, quote, "weird looking and fangy" and so-called bad monsters. They're scary because they want everyone to be scared so they can control them. For all its stylistic tour-de-forciness (ph), "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters" is filled with emotion. And while the material is often dark, the book is strangely affirmative.
This is partly because of its affection for oddballs, which harks back to the work of R Crumb and partly because its pages brim with Karen's genuine love for her mother and her brother, for her gritty neighborhood, for monster movies and for the magic of art, which lets her transform and transcend her often hard daily life. Ferris clearly knows all of Karen's emotions from deep within. Every page feels like it's been secreted from the very core of her being. In one of his essays, Montaigne wrote I have never seen a greater monster or miracle in the world than myself. Ferris would surely agree.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters" by Emil Ferris. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be comic, writer and director Neal Brennan. He co-created and co-wrote the sketch comedy series "Chappelle's Show" and co-wrote a sketch for the night Dave Chappelle hosted "Saturday Night Live" just after Trump was elected. Brennan also directed episodes of "Inside Amy Schumer." He has a new Netflix comedy special that includes personal stories about depression, his family and comedy. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS PERFORMANCE OF BILLY STRAYHORN'S "TAKE THE 'A' TRAIN")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
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