Given my occasional dips into the realm of darkness aka serial killers (that I do share with good company), I stumbled over Derf Backderf’s „My friend Dahmer“ and boy, it’s great (I already swooned over it on one of my work-blogs in German but it would feel weird not to include an ode on my own blog).
There is something about a proper Graphic Novel that always makes me giddy, as much as I love a comic series, a contained story that revolves outside the usual hero/action/fantasy laden world of comics and deals more with our world, will always win me over, especially if it’s being done in such a visually stunning way and with such a great and unforced narrative.
My Friend Dahmer: 20 years in the making
The book depicts anecdotes that Derf collected about Dahmer over a span of about 20 years from friends, schoolmates, teachers, interviews etc., starting with the news in 1991, when Dahmer was caught for killing 17 young men. Over the years, the ideas and the comic itself grew into a novel (although he did release a skinnier version early on) and the recently released volume contains 221 pages that try to connect two seemingly disparate images: that of „Dahmer“, the serial killer and „Monster of Ohio“ as he was called a few times – and that of „Jeff“, the kid that went to school just like every other kid but got caught up in a darkness that none of his schoolmates ever would have suspected.
The artwork is black and white and is especially striking in the clean outlines and the balance or imbalance of light and dark, whatever the mood requires. If you do a comic in black and white, you better do it like Derf, it never looks messy or cluttered which easily happens when an artist tries to overdo it with shadows and details.
There are one-page panels within the novel that create an atmosphere that seem to set the following scene and therefore nearly act like an underlying soundtrack to the anecdotes, especially two images of the road towards Dahmer’s house (one at the beginning and one at the very end) seem to conjure up the transition from normalcy to inner chaos.
Ballancing suburbia with personal demons
Throughout the novel, Backderf tries to mirror Dahmer’s isolated and broken life at home with his own teenage years in a „typical“ family and it becomes clear that the always communicated „normal childhood“ of Dahmer never existed. Thanks to a very well researched approach (quite possibly better researched than many official books and texts on Dahmer), there is nothing that comes off as overly dramatized, even if there are scenes that are more based on speculation but serve the story and therefore have every right to be there.
„My friend Dahmer“ is not gore, nor tries it to create a suburban Thriller or anything remotely “Omen”-esque. It’s essentially a great depiction of High School mingled with this tragic story of a kid who never fit anywhere and always just slipped in and out of people’s lives. Despite creating the „Dahmer Fan Club“, Derf and his friends (the bandgeeks, gnihi) never really included him in their activities and treated him more like a novelty mascot. But whereas the reader might see that as cruel, one only has to remind themselves of High School and even present relationships. If someone strikes you as odd (and not in the charming but rather disturbing way), you hopefully won’t bully that person but you also won’t put much energy in befriending them. Let’s face it (and this is not even assumption it’s pretty much scientifically proven): Teenagers are pretty self-centered and it’s a miracle that many of us at some point realize that and at least try to change it as adults.
The main question in the book is, though, where the adults where. You can’t expect a couple of teenagers caught up in their own lives (and hormones) to see the symptoms of an obviously disturbed mind but you could expect a school full of responsible adults to detect obsessive alcohol abuse, you could expect parents to realize that their kid is never happy and you could expect them to not abandon their kid amidst a very intense divorce.
As Backderf says it himself, it’s a tragedy.
„My friend Dahmer“ is beautifully drawn, Derf has a way with great faces and very entertaining details in the panels.
Despite the grave topic, it can be funny, extremely funny at times, this is something that I noticed as a huge difference in independent and mainstream comics: mainstreams hardly ever write dialogues that feel realistic, well, Derf writes in a way that you actually hear the people talking.
And – for a risky topic as this – it is very empathic towards the (yet) innocent kid that Dahmer was at that time.
In a way, it reminds of stories like „Stand by me“, „Mean Creek“ and in atmosphere even the Graphic Novel „Black Holes“ by Charles Burns. Amidst a small, seemingly safe community, the cracks are obvious and take on terrifying forms as if they are about to swallow everyone coming close.
It is a relief that the humor of the novel even holds up till the last page (which actually offers one of my favourite – albeit most morbid – jokes of the entire story) because otherwise „My friend Dahmer“ might just as well leave the reader in a state of despair over society’s inability to protect its individuals from trauma, abuse and insanity.
I also encourage anyone to check out his homepage, blog and other books. I haven’t read „Trashed“ nor „Punk Rock and Trailer Parks“ (which is a fictitious punk odyssey of a high school nerd) but they are already on my wishlist. The Online strips for “Trashed” are fantastic, it’s about his experience as a – guess what – trashman and it’s hilarious (my co-workers must think I do jack-shit for work because looking at online comic strips and laughing your ass off is usually not considered research).
Also: His comics might be the greatest collection of comic sounds I’ve ever seen. Now, I always envision everything I read as a movie, so it’s a joy to hear „Aaack!“, “Baaah!” and „Boosh“ roaming through my head.