Comic Review: My Friend Dahmer / Writer: Derf Backderf / Art: Derf Backderf / Publisher: Abrams / Release Date: June 19th
Like every high school, Revere, Ohio, has its notable alumni. One of those is the comic book writer and artist John 'Derf' Backderf, The other is serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. My Friend Dahmer is the former's memoir in graphic novel form.
My Friend Dahmer began life as a twenty-four page comic book, published in 1997. The cover is one of the most eerily memorable comic book covers of all time, but Backderf saw his creation as a wasted opportunity – too short, too abridged and badly drawn. This graphic novel is a more comprehensive version of Backderf's recollections. The story is made up of the author's own experiences along with those of his friends and neighbours, and Dahmer's own (surprisingly frank) prison confessions. Any doubts as to whether Backderf is telling the whole truth are allayed in a series of annotations at the back of the book, where the author names all of his sources and notes any artistic embellishments made. In this age where everything is supposedly based on a true story, this memoir proves the most chilling of all. And its serial killer doesn't even get started until after the book ends.
We first meet young Jeffrey Dahmer walking alone down a dusty, deserted road. The first fourteen panels of My Friend Dahmer are fantastically sinister, depicting Dahmer's discovery of a dead cat and subsequent dissolution of the creature using a pickle jar and acid. It ends with a sickened neighbour shouting in his face, “Gawd, Dahmer! You are such a freak!” The rest of the book goes on to detail how and why.
The title is something of a misnomer though – Dahmer, always the loner, is more of a mascot or strange acquaintance than a friend to Backderf and his inner circle. Backderf even admits to founding a “Dahmer fan club” devoted to celebrating his weird associate's tics. In this day and age, calling yourself a member of any “Dahmer fan club” will have some very different connotations. The book's authentic depiction of 1970s high school feels like an episode of Freaks and Geeks (guest starring Jeffrey Dahmer) crossed with Peter Bagge's Hate comics. The sad, tragic story is reminiscent of We Need To Talk About Kevin, except this time, it's real.
What is most surprising about My Friend Dahmer is how much sympathy the reader will end up feeling towards young Dahmer. His actions and motives are inexcusable, but we're presented with an adolescent from a broken home, completely isolated and suffering from desires and fantasies he knows are evil. As his peers, parents and teachers fail to recognise any warning signs, Dahmer sinks into depression and alcoholism. Backderf asks whether Dahmer's crimes could have been prevented. No one can know, but there are plenty of opportunities for someone to have tried. Backderf presents Dahmer's parents in a particularly damning light without ever seeming to look at his own actions (or lack of them). A little more introspection couldn't have hurt the book's cause.
The art is stilted and inhuman, which is only appropriate for its stilted and inhuman subject. It shows black humour alongside the more disturbing and creepy moments. Dahmer's kidnapping of a local dog ratchets the tension up to almost unbearable levels (assisted by a panel in which the dog looks up to him with enormous eyes and a lolloping tongue). The book feels cinematic in its panel layouts and illustration of small-town America. There's not a single panel wasted, no chaff nor filler – just rapidly building momentum as we watch a boy become something monstrous. The cartoons and occasional humour are a relief – any more reality would have made My Friend Dahmer just too depressing. By no means a crime history buff, I was compelled to read more on Dahmer and his future crimes; I wish I hadn't bothered. It makes for spectacularly miserable reading.
My Friend Dahmer is a gripping, fascinating and disturbing biopic of one of the most notorious serial killers of all time. The book's ending is as memorable as its beginning. “OH my God Dahmer. What have you done?” We could all sleep better at night without knowing the answer.