Friday, July 20, 2012

My Friend Dahmer

When faced with the fact that their friends or neighbors are murderers, we often hear people on the news say things like, "I had no idea. He mostly kept to himself and seemed like a nice man..." The author of this book used to joke that his high school acquaintance Jeff probably turned into one. This book treads a fine line, making us feel some empathy for an adolescent who would go on to be a serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Using copious news stories, investigation notes, and interviews as a guide, this graphic novel delves into his adolescence, showing how a world of childish antics, pranks, strange fascinations, casual alcoholism, and family strife could lead to madness. The author is not asking the reader to feel sorry for Dahmer; he is merely documenting what happened. As he writes very clearly in the introduction, "Once Dahmer kills, however -- and I can't stress this enough -- my sympathy for him ends."

Derf Backderf, the Eisner-nominated creator of this graphic novel did indeed graduate high school with Dahmer. He has been a cartoonist for more than two decades now, and he has also published the graphic novel Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, the comic memoir Trashed, and a 24-page comic book also called My Friend Dahmer that is something of a draft for this book. He talks more about his work on this volume in this interview.

I have been a fan of Derf for decades now, first reading his comic strip The City in the Boston Phoenix while I was in college, and I have never noticed until now how his art style is so reminiscent of Spain Rodriguez's. That is not a bad thing, in my book, because the mix of staid realism with cartoonish faces, bodies, and postures plays to great effect here. The exaggerated grimaces of Dahmer imitating seizures for laughs, the dark moments with faces hidden in shadows, and the generally blank demeanors of the majority of people in the book make for great contrasting scenes where emotion and sensations come through. Not only do we get a strong sense of the characters but also the geography, with its claustrophobic woods and overwhelmingly hilly roads.

Derf also used pacing to great effect in the book. The first few pages, with a telegraphed image of Jeff walking on the side of a street and coming upon a roadkill, really set an ominous, borderline quirky tone for the story.  There are a couple of other sequences, when he takes a neighborhood dog to his private spot in the woods and when he picks up a hitchhiker later in the book, that are quite deliciously tense and suspenseful. Every event and scene deliberately moves toward a dark, inevitable end, and even though I knew how it would end I still thought the journey this book took me on was compelling and very affecting.

The scariest part of the book (and there are several tense sections) for me was just how mundane and additive Dahmer's descent into madness and depravity was. He was not an outcast, mostly a joker on the fringes of class who was not really friends with anyone. Add to that he felt he had to hide and repress his homosexuality in a time and place with little chance of acceptance. He turned to alcohol, which was not so out of place in the more lax attitude toward substances and the lower drinking ages of the 1970s. That no one got close enough to him to notice how much his family life was affecting him is horrific and yet utterly understandable; most people are uncomfortable sticking their noses into others' business. Yet somehow all of these factors combined to lead into a deadly, terrible, and unthinkable series of events.

Reviews I have read of this book have been very positive. The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Karen Sandstrom wrote that the power of this graphic novel is that it "allows the reader to mourn and pity the killer's own wasted life while never losing sight of who's to blame for what he became." The Comic Journal's Brandon Soderberg called it "the definitive piece of literature on the notorious murderer" and added that it is "also about what it’s like to be 16, self-involved, and lack the faculties to empathize." Time's Lev Grossman wrote of the power of the book, "It’s a great thing when you feel that you recognize yourself, deeply and movingly, in a work of literature. It’s kind of unnerving when that work of literature is a graphic novel called My Friend Dahmer." Kirkus Reviews gushed in a starred review, calling it "an exemplary demonstration of the transformative possibilities of graphic narrative."

This book was published by Abram ComicArts. Here is a preview available from The Beat.


  1. Tucker Stone has an excellent review of the book here as well:

  2. A later alum from Revere High School on reading this book: