Derf Backderf: My Friend Dahmer Surprises Both Audience and AuthorA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
One of the most interesting and intense graphic novels I've read in a while is Derf Backderf's My Friend Dahmer. The book was a tremendous surprise to me, as it apparently has been for many of my fellow readers -- and seemingly for Derf as well. I really didn't expect the book to make me feel empathy for one of the most evil men in the history of the US, but My Friend Dahmer did the impossible. In telling the story of his friends, including, for at least part of the book, Dahmer himself, Derf accomplishes the impossible.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: The original "My Friend Dahmer" received a pretty decent amount of notoriety over the years. What made you decide to revisit the story and retell it as a long form graphic novel?
Derf Backderf: That was always the plan!
The history of this project goes back even further. It started out as sketchbook drawings and notes, immediately after Dahmer's arrest in July 1991. The story languished in sketchbook form until after he was killed in late 1994. Only then did I start drawing stories, six short stories over the next two years. One of these wound up in the anthology comic ZeroZero in 1997.
This generated some buzz in the comix press, so I then wrote a 100-page graphic novel. This wasn't much like the new book, which is over twice as long. It was very episodic, just a collection of short stories really, that documented what I knew at that time. I hadn't done any research at all. It was just a straight memoir written off the top of my head. I then spent four years trying to pitch this book to publishers. No one would greenlight it. I didn't even get a nibble.
So that's when I put out the little self-published comic in 2002, not as my final word on the story, but as a promotional sampler in the hope of attracting interest from a publisher in the larger work. Turns out that didn't happen, and my editor at Abrams had never seen the comic book before buying the project! But the original comic book, much to my surprise, turned into something of a cult classic.
Its cult rep, however, was far greater than its distribution. It wasn't seen by many people, maybe a couple thousand tops. I always knew I'd come back to My Friend Dahmer, but I got sidetracked by other projects. I didn't plan for it to take this long. Time kind of got away from me. That's ok, since if I had I done it earlier, there's no way it would have been as good. I didn't have the skills then that I have now.
CB: I was moved by the very ordinary way that you and your friends dealt with Dahmer when you were in high school together in the '70s. At the time, how much did you realize that "Jeff" was so crazy?
Backderf: We knew he was a freaky kid. There were chunks of this guy's humanity that were missing at a very young age, and I noted that at the time, without really understanding what that meant, but I didn't realize that he was a dangerous kind of freaky until the end of our friendship as high school wound down. And that was mainly because of the drinking, which was very dark and disturbing. At that point, I pushed him away, as did, one by one, my other friends. I'm grateful for those instincts, as unformed as they were!
CB: I understand from your comments in the book that you had been thinking about it for a long time. Did you feel in some sense haunted by Dahmer?
Backderf: Not really. This was a story that dropped from the sky into my lap. How could I not tell it? The only motivation in putting this book together was to tell this incredible story to the best of my ability. The emotional baggage was dealt with long ago. I've had, after all, a couple decades to process it all.
CB: You did exhaustive and extensive research on this book. Did anything you found in the research really surprise you?
Backderf: Yeah, there were a few revelations, which haven't been brought to light before. I recount these in the book. The most surprising thing was how much I knew at the time. I just didn't connect the dots. No one did. Clarity is all in hindsight.
CB: Looking back, is there anything that you or your friends think you could have done to help Jeff?
Backderf: Oh, that's hard to say with any certainty. I think if his fate was solely in the hands of a group of small-town, teenage, band nerds, then his future was inevitable. The question I ask, and have always asked, is: where were the adults?
CB: You really did a nice job of recapturing those days of the '70s; aside from the research you did into Jeff's crimes, how did you create the setting for the story?
Backderf: That setting was Jeff's world, yes, but it was also my world! I have the intimate knowledge of that time and place because I was there, walking those same halls and classrooms and driving along those same country roads. That's the really unique aspect of this book, that it's a first-person account. A writer coming into this from the outside, no matter how skilled, would never be able to paint an intricately-detailed portrait like I have. That's the difference between telling a story and living a story.
I'm glad this struck you. I spent a lot of time on the background details, simply because I was trying to make the book fun for me to produce. This is a very dark tale, not my usual fare at all, and the thought of spending over a year drawing it was not particularly attractive. But then I lighted on an unusual solution. Once the book was written, I just detached emotionally from the story and concentrated on recreating my teenage world, the school I attended, the mall I hung out in, my first car, all that stuff. And that was fun for me. So there's actually two stories going on here -- Dahmer's, of course, which is in the foreground and is what most readers pick up on and are interested in, but also a secondary story taking place behind the main figures in the scene. And that narrative in the rear is my life, and my friends' lives. A reader [from the outside] couldn't comprehend that fully, but a lot of people have intuitively picked up on it, or at least are aware there's a lot of detail in the background. The result, by happy coincidence more than intent, is a work that has some depth.
CB: What do you think motivated you to tell this story? All of your classmates and friends knew him, but you told the story. Why is that?
Backderf: I'm a storyteller. It's what I do. My friends aren't. They're all very successful in other fields, but none of them had the skills to tell the story. I do.
CB: You have a very unique way of drawing people. How did you evolve into that art style?
Backderf: I bubbled out of the alt-comix underground, so aesthetically, I come from a completely different place than most comix creators. The comix biz, we all can agree, is depressingly rife with imitation and derivative styles of writing and drawing. Too much so. I started out fairly mainstream myself and wasn't breaking any new ground at all, but by my mid-20s, I didn't like the rut I found myself in and scrapped everything and started over. In fact, I dropped out of the comix and cartooning biz altogether for a year just so I could gestate on my own.
My drawing style isn't really based on anything I saw in comic books. Maybe some Robert Crumb. Maybe some Don Martin or Will Elder. But those influences go way back to when I was a kid fanboy. This is my comic strip work I'm talking about here. The comic strip came first, years before I attempted long-form graphic narrative. Some probably recall tripping over three-foot-tall stacks of these free weekly papers in the doorway of every coffee shop and music store in a big city. My strip ran in a bunch of these, over 100 total.
When I first emerged in these weekly rags in the early '90s, my drawing style was shaped by how I was living at that time. I was doing post-grad work in Germany and traveling in Europe a lot, and I was fascinated by the expressionists of the early 20th century and stylistically drew a lot of inspiration from them. I loved the heavy blacks and jagged lines and tortured perspective that was characteristic of expressionism. And how they drew what they saw. It was the first urban art, as well as the first overtly political art. And many of them paid a price for that. At the same time, I was neck deep in the post-punk music and culture scene here in Cleveland, which was really wild and vibrant. I was a participant in the first wave of punk in the '70s but was too young to offer anything intellectually or artistically. But by the late '80s, when the counter-culture started to gain steam again as Gen X came of age, I was [more capable]. So my drawing style is really no more than Expressionism smushed together with post-punk visuals. Sounds preposterous, but it worked for me. Whether you think I suck or not, there's no one who writes like me and no one who draws like me. That's something I'm proud of, although it's probably cost me, in a commercial sense.
Later, when I started doing graphic novels and longer form comix, I had to refine that style. It needed to be less goofball and more pliable so I could tell more complex stories. I didn't think this would difficult, but it proved to be harder than anticipated. But I'm happy with where I am stylistically. My problem is now a reverse one: I no longer seem to be able to conjure up the goofball comic strip style! Oh well. Newspaper comix are done anyways.
CB: What is it that you think makes people so interested in hearing the real story of what a person like Dahmer was like?
Backderf: People are fascinated with the monsters that walk among us. How many books have been written about Jack the Ripper? What makes Dahmer particularly intriguing is that his origins are so very normal. Nice home, happy upbringing, at least when he was young, good schools, a quaint little hometown, everything. Yet from somewhere deep in his psyche this evil gurgled up and took over his life completely. There was no reason for it. He could have been you or me.
CB: This book seems to be extremely popular, based on the comments I've seen about it. What would it mean for you if the book really does well?
Backderf: It's selling like crazy! Amazon already sold out its stock once. It's early, but it certainly appears My Friend Dahmer is both a critical and commercial hit. That's very gratifying and proves that my instincts about this story were right during all those years of struggle and rejection. And the eBook has just been released and I'll be curious how that performs, since we're on the cusp of the grand digital comix changeover and all. The eBook has tons of extras, including some of those earlier stories and source material. And also three additional or deleted scenes. It's a real nice package.
Obviously a hit book will lead to opportunities, moving forward. My Friend Dahmer is nothing like anything I've done in the past or anything I'm likely to do in the future. I always knew it would go down as my best-known book. In one sense that's a drag, but the way I look at it, it's better to have a best-known book than to not have one at all!
I'm also hoping that people will find their way back to my earlier books. Because they're good books and they should have a larger readership, damn it!
CB: How did your previous work in comics prepare you for this GN?
Backderf: I couldn't have produced My Friend Dahmer without first having done my last graphic novel, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks. That was my plan when I started PR&TP. I always had my eye set on My Friend Dahmer because I knew I only had one more shot to get it right. So I threw myself into PR&TP with the goal of forcing myself to master the craft of graphic novels. I took on every writing challenge and every artistic challenge -- stuff I never would have attempted in the past. And it paid off. Not only did I produce a good book, but I grew enormously as a storyteller.
My first book, Trashed, was important, too. But that came out 10 years ago, so the connection isn't as strong as the one to PR&TP. The reason for that long gap between books is that I got sidelined by cancer right after Trashed came out. And then later by radiation damage from the treatments that beat the cancer! So I lost a lot of time to life-threatening illness and recovery. Trashed is a great book and one I'm very fond of, don't get me wrong. It got me my first Eisner nomination. But if you look closely at it you can see how much better the storytelling gets as the book progresses. That's really not how you want a book to read.
PR&TP, which came out eight years after Trashed, on the other hand, is consistent from front to back. And a lot more complex and detailed. I wasn't producing long stories during that gap. I just didn't have the gas, but I was thinking a lot about the kind of stories I wanted to make.
CB: How do you think this book challenges readers and changes our perceptions of the man and his actions?
Backderf: It humanizes Dahmer, which is something that hasn't been done effectively before. His dad wrote a book back in 1993 that attempted to do that, but the reaction to its publication wasn't good. I think a lot of people felt at that time -- and maybe still feel -- that Lionel Dahmer was partly responsible for his son's crimes. My story, told as a contemporary, which is a perspective very different than that of a parent, doesn't have that baggage.
I don't think we do ourselves any favors when we write off people like Dahmer as "monsters." He certainly was a monster, but, as I show in the book, that wasn't always the case. It never is. Even Hitler was a little kid once. With the label "monster" comes a sense of inevitability, as if nothing could have been done to prevent that. I don't buy that. That absolves all the adults who could have intervened, and didn't, for whatever reason. The only one who made any effort to help Jeff was his dad, Lionel, but his attempts were almost comically amateurish and ineffective, if the result hadn't been so tragic, that is. Lionel's solution was to force Jeff into the Army! As if boot camp would straighten out a kid who was being devoured body and soul by madness! The adults that had training in mental health, from the schools to the cops to the justice system, did nothing. Their disinterest, year after year after year, is the really shocking part of this story in my mind.
Maybe it was inevitable that Dahmer did the horrific things he did. Maybe not. It sure would have been nice if had someone tried to help him.
CB: This book is getting a lot of attention from the "mainstream media." How would you like the press to perceive comics?
Backderf: I'll just let the work speak for itself.
There was some early blowback, before the release, from the local TV-news types and AM radio screamers in Milwaukee. One radio guy called me a "disgusting creep." He went off on his little rant without, of course, having bothered to read the book. But since the release, I haven't heard a peep out of these guys. What I strongly suspect happened was that they got ahold of the book, read it and said, "Oh crap. This isn't a piece of sleazy garbage. This is really good." And so the hysterical news event they hoped for ended right then and there.
Whatever someone thinks this book is about at first glance, it's not! You read the title and you think murder, necrophilia, cannibalism, heads in the refrigerator. My Friend Dahmer is about none of those things. In fact, there's no violence to speak of in the book. Those grisly deeds are there as foreshadowing only, and yeah, they loom large off camera, but this is the story before the story that everyone knows. It's the tale of a troubled boy who marches inexorably into madness and despair as the adult world stands there and does nothing. And that's a story worth telling.
Read Comics Bulletin's five-star review of My Friend Dahmer here.