Comic-strip writer and artist Derf Backderf thinks it’s time to make a graphic novel about something other than the Akron, Ohio, area. And he knows it’s time to put aside Jeffrey Dahmer.
In addition to the ongoing satirical strip The City, Backderf has written three graphic tales: “Trashed,” about his work as a garbageman in Richfield, Ohio; “Punk Rock and Trailer Parks,” a semi-fictional look at music and adolescent life in Akron in the late ’70s; and what may be his magnum opus, “My Friend Dahmer,” about Backderf’s school-years acquaintance with the notorious serial killer.
Backderf knows the “minutiae about Dahmer.”
“That’s OK. … When I took on this book, and maybe one of the reasons it took so long, is that I resigned myself to talking about Jeffrey Dahmer for the better part of a year after it came out. But, after that, I’m done. After that, when someone asks me — as they always do — you knew Dahmer, what was he like, I’ll say, read the book. It’s all in there.”
And what’s in there is his latest look at the area where he grew up, not that far from where he now lives in Cleveland.
“Everything I’ve done is really set in the same 20-mile radius,” he said with a laugh. “Which means I should probably do something else with my next book. Akron’s not that interesting,” he said, laughing again. “Although it’s been pretty fertile so far … and I know that landscape so well.”
Dahmer, especially, has been fertile and familiar territory, a blending of the story of young Dahmer and of junior-high and high-school life in that period, and the way everyone around Dahmer — including Backderf — either failed to see someone spiraling into deeper and more awful trouble, or just ignored him.
“He was so good at flying under the radar that he even to a certain extent flew under mine,” Backderf said. Indeed, when Backderf’s wife, reporter Sheryl Harris, called him to say one of his classmates had been accused of those grisly crimes, Backderf at first guessed it was an entirely different classmate.
“My Friend Dahmer” began as a short story in 1991, not long after Dahmer was exposed; that story was expanded into a 100-page account in 1998 that Backderf could not sell, then shrank to 24 pages for a version Backderf self-published in 2002.
“The response from that little, self-published book, even though it only sold a couple thousand copies, was enough that it reaffirmed in my head that, dammit, if I get this in front of the right people, it’s going to be a book that’s gonna be something special,” he said. “And I was right.”
The proof came after he re-researched, rewrote and redrew “My Friend Dahmer” for an elaborate, 224-page version published by Abrams ComicArts to general raves. While some names have been changed, the book scrupulously identifies all of the published and anecdotal sources of the information. Backderf said, “I built the book off the footnotes.”
It has already sold out its first printing, Backderf said recently, and a second printing has been ordered. “We’re not talking ‘Hunger Games’ numbers here,” he said. “But it’s everything I hoped it would be. The important thing is I was able to do the book that I wanted to do … and I, to a ridiculous degree, just wouldn’t give up.”
Asked whether he hadn’t purged himself of Dahmer when he wrote the first version, Backderf said, “It didn’t really get out of my system because I had only told a fraction of the story.” Although the 100-page version came closer, he is now relieved that it wasn’t published because the newest version “is 10 times better than that book would have been, just because of how much I’ve grown as a graphic novelist. That first version was my first graphic novel, and now I’ve done two others.”
Indeed, he says in the new “My Friend Dahmer” that it contains his best drawing to date (and hopes that readers pay close attention to the visuals), as well as the work as he had long envisioned it.
“It was a lot tougher transition than I thought it would be, going from comic strips, which I’ve been doing for a bajillion years, to long-form storytelling,” he said. “I thought it would be easy, out of ignorance or arrogance. But it proved to be a lot harder than I thought. I had to learn how to manipulate pace and visuals, and tie stories together, and have multiple threads going on at the same time. It was pretty complex stuff. You know, instinct takes over at a certain point, but you have to do it before you really get it down.”
In contrast, he said, “The City” is more like “a joke-a-day, joke-a-week type thing. And now I’ve found it’s really hard to go back to doing strips. I’m having a lot of trouble doing that. I’m just so used to having this open-ended canvas where I can go anywhere. I really dig that. Now — cramming everything into four panels is a drag.”
And “My Friend Dahmer” is enormously ambitious, not only in its artwork and its reporting but in telling a story with two tracks.
“The Dahmer story is that one in the front, and then there’s that one in the background of me and my friends and all our goofball antics,” Backderf said. “And what I’ve found is, when I sent the first draft to a couple of my buddies … they both responded in the same way. They said, ‘This is the funniest book I’ve ever read.’ Because they were looking at that storyline in the background as well, and picking up on that. No one else will read it that way, but there is that in the background, which is my story. And I was having a pretty good time, despite all this dark stuff that was happening all around us, and we didn’t pick up on a lot of that.”
And, he admitted, “there’s no happy ending. We know how it ends — with a pile of bodies. … And there are no heroes. Everybody kind of fails along the way.”
But neither does Backderf offer a grand explanation for Dahmer’s actions; reminded of Dahmer’s being bullied, he said, “So was I. So what? I didn’t go out and kill 17 people. I was probably picked on more than he was, because he was a big dude. Big, muscular guy.”
He pointed to Dahmer’s “sexual depravity” as his only motivation but added that he did not really know what drove him, that in the end the book is just what he saw and learned.
“I’m not a psychologist. I have no answers for why he did what he did. Dahmer didn’t know why he did what he did. … Sometimes monsters just happen.”