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My Friend Dahmer

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks

You think you know the villains. You think you understand their evil, think you can comprehend the darkness in their souls, think you can somehow imagine what might be going on inside their heads. Sure, you've seen all the movies about serial killers, watched all the TV shows about murderers, read lots of true crime books.

But you don't know the villains.

You can't. You don't want to.

You don't know them. You can't want to know them. You don't want to know about their horrific family life, their pathetic attempts to make friends, their petty fantasies and their deep and profound loneliness. You don't want to know about their awkward banality, their pathetic place in the social ladder in their middle and high school, and, maybe worst of all, the blind eye that everybody with authority gives the villain when they start to see him acting out.

Because there, for the grace of God, could be you.

Derf Backderf went to junior high and high school with Jeffrey Dahmer in rural Ohio in the 1970s. It was a pretty great childhood for Derf, as his friends called him. Derf was pretty much a regular guy, a comic reader who had a lot of friends, a happy family life, liked to party, and had ambitions to escape the boring small town in which he lived.

For Jeffrey Dahmer life was very different. We learn very early on in this book that Dahmer was "the loneliest kid [Derf] ever met." Dahmer's life was an endless torment. He was a deeply strange kid, seemingly without hobbies and filled with bizarre sexual obsessions and a completely odd sense of humor, and who had a family that practically defined the term dysfunctional. He had no real friends and was deeply, painfully lonely.

In high school, Derf saw Dahmer as just a very strange kid, a weirdo at the very bottom of the social ladder. Pretty much everybody did. It was the way of the time. People in school pretty much kept to themselves, and Dahmer was able to get away with missing endless classes while drinking in the schoolyard every day. Nobody paid much attention to him.

Among the many tragedies of this story is that nobody paid much attention to what was going on in this strange kid's head. Nobody in a position of authority thought to ask Dahmer about his family life -- heck, none of his classmates did either. Dahmer fell into this role in school where he deliberately played an outsider, strangely enough, mocking the suffering of his own very sick mother as a way to get some pathetic laughs from his classmates. 

Imagine the kind of kid who would mock his own mother just to get a few laughs at school. That really is the banality of evil.

What makes this graphic novel remarkable is that Derf Backderf really does cast aside his aversion and attempt to get inside the head of one of the most infamous men of the 20th century, a man whose name has come to represent pure evil. We can never appreciate Dahmer, and we can definitely never want to crawl inside the man's skin. But Backderf does a remarkable job of making readers feel some empathy for Dahmer, of making us appreciate on some level the kinds of hellish experiences that shape a man like him.

This book is diligently researched by Backderf, and he includes 17 pages of notes about every scene that's presented in the story. He assembled the book from interviews, news articles, FBI records, memoirs and other materials which allowed him to try to understand life inside the head of the killer. That depth of research shows on every page, as we see the banal and pathetic details of Dahmer's adolescence played out, step by painful step.

Backderf's art fits his story perfectly. His figures have a cartoonish, almost brutish rectangular feel to them, all right angles and awkward faces. There's a feeling to Backderf's characters as being almost frozen in time and space, looking like complicated, suffering creatures just trying to get through life.

Dahmer is the most complex character that Backderf draws. Dahmer was a stone-faced kid who learned to hide his emotions from his abusive parents lest he suffer their wrath. Backderf draws Dahmer with just a few small variations, but as the story moves along, we start to see small variations in the way that Backderf draws his protagonist that show some of this strange evil man's emotions.

Derf Backderf did what so many of us are afraid of: he stared into the face of pure evil and did not blink. In doing so, he created a remarkable and haunting new graphic novel about life, friendship, the 1970s, and the horrible, pathetic existence of one of the worst murderers of the 20th century.  


Read Jason's interview with Derf Backderf here.


Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him at jason.sacks@comicsbulletin.com or friend him on Facebook.

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