To the world at large, people remember Jeffrey Dahmer for one thing: killing 17 men and boys, making him the most notorious serial killer since Jack the Ripper. But for good or bad, there’s more to a person than their best-known exploits, and Dahmer is no different. Cartoonist John “Derf” Backderf has carried with him the true story of going to school with a young Dahmer in the 70s, and after over thirty years of gaining success with his indie-flavored comic strips like the long-running The City, he decided to tell his own story of Dahmer.
Released earlier this year from Abrams’ ComicArts imprint, the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer covers Derf’s teenage years in relation to his friendship with Dahmer. From their first meeting in junior high to their formidable years in high school sharing classes, friends and car rides, Derf’s cartooning gives a haunting yet humanizing portrayal of the man who would become a serial killer. In addition to covering the time period which they knew each other, the artist also delves into his own reactions when to learning Dahmer’s fate. For Derf, the idea to do a comic on his experiences came soon after Dahmer’s crimes came to light.
“The idea for My Friend Dahmer came to me just a few weeks after the news broke,” Derf tells PWCW. “After the initial blast of media feeding frenzy died down a bit, I got together with two of my friends, Mike and Neal in the book, both members of my inner circle in high school who befriended Dahmer. We met at Neal's house, which just so happened to be about 200 yards from Dahmer's boyhood home, which was still ringed with yellow police tape as forensic investigators sifted through the property looking for bone fragments.”
Just steps away from Dahmer’s home, the three childhood friends commiserated over the crimes and speculated on how Dahmer reached that point.
“None of us had seen Jeffrey since high school. It was all very troubling and disorienting, as you can imagine,” the artist reveals. “And as we sat around sharing stories, I heard some things I hadn't heard before. Now, we had gotten together periodically over the (then) 13 years since high school, and usually talk would turn to old times and often Dahmer would come up, and we'd recall certain things and laugh at the re-telling and wonder what became of him. But the events of July 1991, when he was arrested and confessed all, had echoed back through our personal histories and re-defined all those stories. Now we had clarity, and suddenly these goofball tales had a new, utterly chilling meaning. And there were other stories that each of us had never shared, because they just seemed random or pointless. These too had new meanings, and suddenly they were worth telling. So I started writing stuff down in a sketchbook I had with me. I filled like 20 pages, and as I was doing so, I realized, wow, this is a great story.”
When the news broke, Backderf was working at the nearby Akron Beacon Journal, and it gave him a unique perspective as a working journalist, a working cartoonist and someone who knew the killer as an adolescent.
“I was privy to all the reporting of the story, which was great. All that stuff about Dahmer’s young life that was originally reported by the media, that all first came out of the Akron Beacon Journal and was later picked up by the national press,” explains Backderf. “But even as it was all unfolding, no one was really telling the story I wanted to tell. So after those first few weeks of media frenzy, I clammed up. I decided to keep this story myself and wait for my opportunity, on my terms.”
His initial attempts at putting his story into comics form in anthologies and mini-comics led to him doing it entirely from his point of view, but when it came time to create a full-length graphic novel version, the cartoonist/journalist revisited his high school memories as a reporter, looking for corroborating sources.
“I interviewed dozens of contemporaries, neighbors, teachers, even the cop who pulled him over the day after his first murder—a particularly chilling scene in the book,” says Backderf. “The other members of my inner circle I interviewed for untold hours over many long hours of phone calls and dozens of emails over many years. I dug through the FBI files (now in the public domain and easily acquired), picked through news reports and transcripts of the many interviews Dahmer gave to profilers and psychologists, mined them for insight and clues. I spent years, whenever the opportunity arose, collecting photo reference for the scenes I knew I'd have to recreate in the book. I didn't work on the project constantly over 20 years, I don't want to give that impression, but I worked on it regularly. I did so much homework that when I finally sat down to write the book, I did it in just two weeks! That's how clear it was in my head by that time.”
Almost twenty years in the making, it was an entirely separate struggle for Derf to get publishers to consider publishing the book given the subject matter.
“The first time around I pitched the book as a proposal: a sample chapter and a typed synopsis. What I learned is that this book can't be pitched, because someone sees My Friend Dahmer and what they think is; murder, necrophilia, cannibalism, heads in the refrigerator, no thanks,” explains the artist. “Now my book is about none of those things. In fact, there's no violence to speak of at all! All that looms ahead, but as foreshadowing only.”
It wasn’t until Derf completed the entire book that publishers began to take it seriously.
“So when I produced, at long last, the final incarnation of the book, I sent out the completed first draft. It was essentially done,” Derf points out. “Because I knew, once someone started to read it, they would get swept up in the story. And that, in fact, is exactly what happened. First with my agent, Matthew Carnicelli, and then with my editor at Abrams, Charlie Kochman. He didn't even want to read it, but Matthew convinced him. And once he did, that was it, he wanted it.”
Since Dahmer’s crimes were revealed to the public in 1991, Backderf has dwelled on his former classmates deeds on an almost continual basis. When asked if reliving this both personally and for a graphic novel has changed how he thinks of his high school memories in general, Backderf says it took some time.
“You know, I've long ago dealt with any emotional baggage. I can't say I enjoyed high school much,” Derf explains. “But I liked my friends and we had a lot of good times, and I still recall those things fondly and realize now that I was having a much better time than I thought I was having. And remember, the Dahmer thing blew up 13 years later, so I was in my early 30s. Had he been caught right after high school, being as close physically to that first murder as I was, it would have been more of a trauma, just because I wouldn't have been mature enough to deal with it.”
One of the points Backderf brings up in My Friend Dahmer is that, according to the artist, Dahmer’s path to becoming a murderer wasn’t inevitable.
“The story itself led me to that conclusion,” he says. “It just seems to me that at every crucial point on his march to the edge of the abyss, it was an adult’s failure that propelled him along the way, or at least didn't slow him. I'm not saying this was anything purposeful, obviously not, but as you read this book, at points you just want to scream aloud that someone didn't intercede.”
When asked if he, as friend and classmate of Dahmer, could have done anything to change the events that sadly occurring, Backderf is undecided.
“Hard to say. I didn't speak out, and I'm pretty honest about that,” admits Backderf. “Some have written that I'm hard on myself, but I don't really see it that way. It was what it was. Had I known what I know now, sure I would have. But kids in that era just weren't wired that way. Besides, if you're counting on the actions of a 17-year-old, small town band nerd to somehow stop the most depraved serial killer since Jack the Ripper, well, I'd say his fate was inevitable.”
If you’ve been following Derf’s comics work up until My Friend Dahmer or look back on his previous books after reading this graphic novel, you’d be surprised at just how different this his with his other works. The artist himself admits it’s a bit of a swerve, but is fine with that.
“I'm essentially a humorist,” Backderf says, “and, I think, a pretty good one. I've known all along that My Friend Dahmer is the one book I'll be most known for, and in a way, that's a drag, as it's nothing like the rest of the work I've done, or will do moving forward. But the way I figure, it's better to have a best-known work than not to have one at all.”
The cartoonist points to the expansive oeuvre of the filmmaking duo the Cone Bros. and their diversity between No Country For Old Men and The Big Lebowski as proof that audiences can comprehend entirely different kinds of work from one artist.
“No matter what they do, they all feel like Coen Bros. films. They have the same style and visual palette,” says Derf. “That's what I try to emulate. So even though Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, my last book, and My Friend Dahmer are totally different in tone, they share similar storytelling traits. That's how I approached it.”
When asked if his next book will follow along the trend of My Friend Dahmer, Backderf steps back in his answer.
“It won't be another dark book, that's for sure,” he says. “But it will be another Derf book, and I hope that my fans—and hopefully there'll be a lot more of them after My Friend Dahmer—will follow me.”