It’s strange to think that serial killer/cannibal/sexual predator Jeffrey Dahmer had friends growing up. Right? I mean, it’s possible that he could have had a few close friends who shared his morbid interests in anatomy and alcohol. More probably, he was that weird, loner freak that kids avoided like a cootie plague. Or maybe it was somewhere in between. Comic artist Derf Backderf was one of those high school “friends” but we’re keeping the quotes around that particular term. Backderf (best known for his long-running weekly strip “The City”) attended the same junior high and later high school as Dahmer. That makes him more than qualified to give us the graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer—a detailed and researched account of Dahmer's teenaged years in rural Ohio. Backderf uses his own memories and those of his friends plus hours of videotaped FBI interviews, radio, tv and print media to construct his story.
Derf categorizes Dahmer as a “true nobody,” a strange adolescent: lost, forgettable and easily ignored by most students and teachers. Dahmer was on the outside of Derf’s tight circle of high school pals, but he certainly didn’t go unnoticed by them. His social awkwardness and sense of humor (usually mean-sprited) earned him admiration from Derf’s gang. They even formed the tongue-in-cheek Dahmer Fan Club in his honor. Derf recounts Dahmer's fascination with roadkill and dead animals, his binge drinking all through high school and his lack of empathy towards others. He gives us a glimpse into a deeply troubled young man who needed someone to step in and do something. Derf is amazed and a little dismayed at how the adults at their school and in their community—Dahmer's own parents!—were not able to pick up on some obvious red flags. Backderf doesn’t deal with Dahmer's life after graduation. He doesn't go into the details of his crimes or offer any explanations or answers. There are none. He simply offers an account of the adolescent years of a sociopath.
It's quite evident that producing a full-length graphic novel has helped Derf improve as an artist, a fact he readily admits in his intro to the book. Those familiar with Derf's weekly strip will notice his drawing style in Dahmer has more depth and contrast and his characters are less exaggerated. This is a serious work and Backderf's drawing and storytelling chops are up to the task in this fascinating yet decidedly non-sensationalist book—Chris Auman
Read the Reglar Wiglar interview with Derf.
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