July 22nd 1991. The world is introduced to its latest monster. A man whose proclivities distanced him from your run-of-the-mill serial killer and align him with the Ed Gein’s of this world. How do you tell the tale leading up to the killings when your protagonist is beyond any redemption? How do introduce a man for whom the idea of our sympathy is as abhorrent as it is possible? For Derf Backderf, the answer is giving us not Jeffrey Dahmer: sociopath, but instead Jeff: loner student.
Having gone to high school with Jeff, Derf pens the image of a teenager beyond even the fringes of anyone’s periphery. An eventually absent Father, a Mother wrapped up in the minutiae of the divorce proceedings and teachers who would rather not think about ‘it’ than try to help, Derf asks one of the most poignant questions in the book- Where were all the grown-ups? The author never plays the with idea of having any inkling of what was going on at the time, very much the opposite in fact, and doesn’t seek to explain Dahmer’s actions or ask forgiveness for them. What he does do is show an honesty that borders on an apology for the way they treated Jeff.
Dahmer would ape his Mother’s fits and ‘spaz out’, to the delight of his classmates. It was this that led to him being misappropriated as a counter-school mascot of sorts. He would be picked up and played with before being just as quickly tossed aside. One moment the class clown, the next resigned to that dark corner of the corridor reserved for the freaks and the terminally bullied. It is in this distinction that the novel walks that tightrope of humanising what became inhuman without ever normalising the situation.
The drawing style conveys the mundane, the recklessness of teenage pranking and the dark bubbling beneath, all in one. The images flip-flop from domestic to despair in a way that can be purposefully and needfully alarming. The text reads as though it is moving slower than it is, as if it knows it has an ending but wants you to stop and think about things before you get there. For those uninterested in the minds of serial killers who wouldn’t think of flicking on the crime channel, see this as a story of what happens when someone is so far down the rabbit hole that the end point is inevitable.
This publication of the graphic novel is timed to coincide with the release of a movie version of the book and contains a foreword from the director and photos from the shoot. Skip that and head straight to the main event. Don’t expect affirmation or any light. Don’t expect to be asked to forgive Jeffrey Dahmer. Do expect to feel something for Jeff.
MY FRIEND DAHMER / AUTHOR: DERF BACKDERF / PUBLISHER: ABRAMS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW