Derf Backderf’s new graphic novel, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, which will be published in April by Abrams ComicArts, is a meticulously researched, emotionally gripping account of the era-defining tragedy of its title.
On May 4, 1970 four unarmed college students were shot and killed by the Ohio State National Guard during a student Vietnam War protest on the campus of Kent State University. Nine other people were seriously injured as well. As the 50th anniversary of the event approaches, Backderf, a veteran cartoonist and author who grew up in Richfield, a small town near Akron, Ohio, tells PW that he has carried the story of the shootings around in his mind for years as a potential book. “I followed the court cases,” he says. “And the cover-ups.”
Indeed, Backderf meticulously documents the mounting college anti-war protests in the period before the shootings. He examines the anti-communist paranoia and the fear of local and state authorities in the wake of previous local clashes with the Students for a Democratic Society (and its violent Weather underground chapter), as well as the targeting of student organizations by FBI undercover agents.
Looking through Backderf’s past work reveals a penchant for mixing, to varying degrees, autobiographical elements of his into his storytelling. Discussing the making of Kent State, Backderf reports that he always felt connected to the university, due to its close proximity to Akron, and more importantly, to the city’s vibrant music scene: “I was a teenage punk rocker,” he says.
Known as “The Rubber City” (four major tire companies were founded there), he says that Akron, “had a surprisingly lively scene that spawned some important acts: Devo, the Cramps, and Chrissie Hynde.” Backderf continued to be a part of the scene while attending Ohio State in Columbus during the early 1980s, a time in his life filled with idealism: “It was our time and we felt like we were changing the world. Ah, the optimism of youth.”
“The music, the clubs, the energy of a generational moment like that; it sparked something in me,” he reflects. “Although it took a few years for it to manifest itself in my comics. In the mid-1980s, that’s when I found my voice.” He also cites 1980s alternative comic anthologies Weirdo, founded and edited by R. Crumb, Aline Kaminsky-Crumb and Peter Bagge, and Raw, founded by Art Speigelman and Francoise Mouly, as important inspirations.
Backderf began cartooning in earnest while attending Ohio State, spending three years drawing political cartoons for the student paper until he was fired, for “general tastelessness,” he says, with a laugh. Then in the late 1980s he began his weekly comic strip The City, which ran in a total of about 150 alternative/independent newspapers. It was a gritty comic, often relating true incidents taken from the city streets and it was filled with jagged, wiseacre punk humor and recurring satirical characters such as “White Middle Class Suburban Man.” He credits the feature for solidifying his creative path: “I found my voice with the strip.” But Backderf ended the comic in 2014, as alternative press venues declined, and he opted to focus his creative energies on book-format graphic novels.
Backderf’s first book, the well-received Punk Rock and Trailer Parks, was published by Slave Labor Graphics in 2008, but it was his 2012 graphic memoir My Friend Dahmer that propelled his career to new levels of popularity. A chilling account of Backderf’s uneasy high school friendship with a strange young man who would grow up to be the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the book received near-universal acclaim and racked up several industry nominations and was awarded the Angoulême International Comics Festival's Prix Révélation award. A well-received film version, of which Backderf says he approves, was released in 2017.
Backderf noted that the book was initially rejected by every major comics publisher before Abrams signed the book. The big success of My Friend Dahmer, so deep into his career, was an amazing feeling, he said, and turned "a big negative personal history into a positive."
His next book was Trashed (2015), a gleeful, no-holds-barred mix of semi-autobiographical fiction about earning a living as a trash collector (which Backderf did for a year after high school), and a skillful journalistic investigation into our country’s checkered history of waste management. Backderf said working on the book was fun after the darkness of My Friend Dahmer, and he credits his miserable time working on a garbage truck with finally getting him "laser focused" on his art. Trashed earned Backderf an Eisner Award in 2016.
In Kent State, Backderf adds a dash of autobiographical material at the outset, as “my way into the story.” Though he was only 10 years old in 1970, he depicts his and his family’s fearful uncertainty of seeing armed national guardsmen on the streets of his suburban neighborhood.
Backderf is also careful to document the racial dimensions of the story, an aspect that is often omitted in other chronicles of the event. He shows that an African-American campus organization, Black United Students (BUS), opted out of any of the protests once the National Guard arrived. “The BUS kids, you see, had experience with the Guard,” Backderf explains.
“They were mostly from inner-city Cleveland and Akron and had lived through the big civil uprisings in ‘67 and ‘68 in those cities. The governor dispatched the Guard to their neighborhoods, in overwhelming force, to restore order. There were cities in flames, houses and stores shot up, and tanks rolling down city streets. The BUS leaders knew full well what the Guard could do and sent out the word that black students were to stay in their dorms and avoid any protests.”
Tragically the white student protestors, most from quieter parts of those cities, or from suburbs or small towns, had no first-hand experience with the Guard. “They didn’t even think their weapons were loaded!” Backderf exclaims. “So, there was a good measure of naivete to this tragedy. Most of the white protestors thought the Guard was a joke and failed to realize how deadly serious the situation really was—until bullets started flying.”
Backderf is blunt about the relevance of Kent State to today’s political moment: “What we’re going through today circles right back around to the 1970s, with its us vs. them mentality.” When discussing the aftermath of the shootings, Backderf does not mince words: “It took Kent State a half a century to finally own this history.”
The most wrenching sequence of the narrative is obviously the shootings. “That’s the reason I recreate them in such detail," Backderf saID. “To counter that strain of reactionary invective. These images have never been seen before. We have photos of the Guard opening fire, then of the grisly aftermath five minutes later, but not the actual moments of impact, because all the photographers were wisely diving for cover,” he said.
“Here’s what it looks like when copper-jacketed bullets over an inch-long tear through flesh and bone, fired from a combat rifle so powerful it can send a bullet straight through a foot-thick tree trunk,” he said. “The horror of students being shot in the back, and most of them were, will hopefully take the air out of the ‘shoot ‘em all’ argument.”
In addition to his commitment to showing the unvarnished brutality of the shootings, Backderf takes great care to methodically recreate the lives of the four slain students in the days approaching the shootings. His account serves as a tribute to their humanity and as a rebuke to those that had smeared them as anti-American in the aftermath of the shootings.
Backderf claims creating Kent State was not cathartic, at least not in the way My Friend Dahmer was. But he does offer: “I gave it all I had. I was totally spent by the time the book was turned over to production.” He will spend much of the next five months promoting the work in advance of the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings.
“The news media will be all over it leading up to May 4th, but afterward they will move on. And the book will have to make it [on the basis] of comics alone. Hopefully, it will.” Asked if he considers himself a comics memoirist and a journalist, Backderf said “ultimately, I’m a storyteller.”
“I’ve always made the comics I wanted to make, how I wanted to make them, and I’m proud of that,” he said. “Now, you pay a price for that, and I did for many years. I’ve been fired from gig after gig, heard a lot of no’s for 20 years, and was consigned to the outskirts of comic-dom. Mainstream opportunities were completely denied. I came up through the alt-press and self-publishing because I had no other choice. It worked out in the end.”