Graphic Language | A Review of 'My Friend Dahmer,' A Graphic Novel by Derf Backderf
My good and long-time friend, Jerry, who has been a comic book fan as well as a voracious reader and English scholar for as long as I've known him - and who also knew who Harvey Pekar was long before the Cleveland graphic novel pioneer and American Splendor legend ever appeared on David Letterman - he has been giving me - or offering - comic books to borrow and read for years, to which I have always demurred. Maybe next time.
Meanwhile, on a parallel trek, I have been following Derf's career - Cleveland-born and based artist and cartoonist John Backderf of The City fame - since his initial days in the Cleveland Edition, among the first national wave of alternative weekly newspapers that served as a Sid Caesar's Show of Shows for many renowned writers. Derf was the perfect visual complement for the Edition, a nice trine to Greg Paul's iconic design and Bill Gunlocke's ensemble of distinct and evocative writing voices, many of whom have gone to distinguish themselves in various writing genres and media.
So one day, Jerry hands me Derf's much-heralded new book, 'My Friend Dahmer,' and I could feel my default reluctance kick in almost immediately. Until, that is, I held the book in my hand and experienced it's tactile craftsmanship, the nice package that is Derf's novel.
I have and have had no interest in the world of Jeffrey Dahmer. I'm at a point in my life where I think I understand a little more how ignorance truly is bliss and so I avoid the specifics of surgeries or secretions or stories of trauma. I've had the pleasure of such and similar experiences. I'd rather talk about last night's rerun of Mary Tyler Moore on ME-TV.
But then, there's this book about Dahmer. And Derf knew him. And his experience with Dahmer...Hm...
Immediately, the Derf style of illustration is a recognizable siren, something to be seduced by, this world of big boxy-headed people with animated eyes (even those eyes projecting dimness and despondency and often dashed dreams - think Cleveland sports fan). There's the dark-tinged Derf humor lampooning homogeneity and futility; the Derf world, something to enjoy on a weekly basis wherever you might find it. Something perhaps to sit with for an extended couple hours and experience. That had some appeal. And so one afternoon a couple weeks back, I did...
Perhaps it's being preconditioned to smile at the site of a Derf character - the memory of white middle-class suburban man, big-haired rocker chicks, the stooped-over, beaten-down Cleveland sports fan (with a pennant proctologically protruding like a tail feather). You anticipate laughing at some point, no matter how dark and brooding the landscape. The Derf world of the late 1970s, even with the lurking menace of the awkward kid Derf knew as Dahmer, is no exception
Much of the story is more that of young John Backderf and his friends, Revere High School class of '78, and the universal travails of teen awkwardness and angst. It deftly Derfines the landscape of the increasing 1970s suburban blanding of the landscape with malls and fraught with divorce and the sense of isolation that exists among broken-home and latch-key kids, even the kids who feel part of a group, though never fully or wholly.
This isolation plays out in minor moments of alienation and suffocating self-awareness for the average high schooler - the cinematic Derf-drawn close-ups in some frames, the perspective and silhouettes in others - with compelling drawings and residual humor. Yet, there is always the foreboding ramifications of this isolation playing out to the NTH degree of human endurance; and because it plays out in real life so close to Derf's relatively 'normal' world, it has an especially eerie quality.
That Dahmer did indeed skulk the woods of Summit County, himself feeling lost and alone, the demon seed gestating within, creates a dramatic arc that doesn't feel sensational or voyeuristic; it is the arc of human suffering and degeneration and because it's filtered through the vision of Derf it is an artistically engaging experience unlike any other.
There are some exceptionally tender moments, as well, instances of Derf's insight into the loneliness of the young Jeffrey Dahmer and a sense of compassion regarding it. His art enables a reader with no interest in the sensation or gore of Dahmer's world to nonetheless experience this loneliness and alienation that must lead to such awfulness and even feel a sense of human compassion toward it.
In the end, 'My Friend Dahmer' is gratifying thing to experience and a terrific way to be introduced into the visual world of Derfdom. It'll likely be my last experience with Jeffrey Dahmer. But I also consider it my first experience with checking out and enjoying the world of the graphic novel.
Matthew K. Weiland
Matthew K. Weiland is the founding editor of the Rockport Observer