Sunday, April 28, 2013

My Friend Dahmer, by Derf Backderf

My Friend Dahmer is creepy. The author and artist, Derf Backderf, is a deft hand at creating a sense of uneasiness, all revolving around the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, the household-name serial killer. Backderf crafts an interesting, unusual tale that chronicles Dahmer’s transformation into a monster who eventually goes on a killing spree. The reader meets a high school-aged Dahmer; Backderf is very careful to point out Dahmer the killer doesn’t deserve sympathy, but perhaps Dahmer the lonely, ignored high schooler does.

Backderf grew up in Bath, Ohio, near Akron, the same town Jeffrey Dahmer’s family called home. Dahmer is kind of how you’d imagine him – existing on the fringes of his 1970s high school social (which was like the wild west compared to today’s schools.) Backderf chronicles Dahmer’s misadventures (read: antisocial personality disorder), including animal cruelty, heavy drinking in order to numb himself, and ostracizing himself from the rest of the student population. It’s clear to see that Dahmer exhibited many of the traits that we associate with serial killers today.

Backderf’s style is perfect for this book. The panels are fairly simple – all rectangles but broken into different sizes when the narrative calls for it. And Backderf’s illustrative style is all shadows and extremely expressive faces – perfect for capturing the apathetic menace in Dahmer’s face or the horrror or disgust in those who interact with him. It’s entirely black and white. The lack of color serves to create both a menacing and vintage feel. Check out this image for a perfect example of Backderf’s artwork.

Backderf’s pacing is snappy and his anecdotes about Dahmer are interesting and inherently pretty twisted. One thing the story has going for it is our collective hindsight as a society. Many of the vignettes Backderf shows could actually be about a kid we all probably knew in high school – an outsider who shuns normalcy – but the fact that Jeffrey Dahmer killed at least 17 people in horrific fashion REALLY puts another filter on the story.

This is a very good graphic novel. Backderf even goes so far as to write an extensive prologue explaining his motives for writing it (to provide the story of a tragic figure, one who should lose all sympathy from the moment he first kills), and records of all his research. It’s extensive stuff, and provides for really interesting reading for those who wish to “go past” the graphic novel. 

I would recommend this for mature high school readers. It’s a morbid bit of history, but it touches on themes that pervade high schools everywhere: not necessarily budding serial killers, but social distance and what it can do to young people. Besides being a great story, it touches on sociological and psychological themes. It’s not a particularly graphic graphic novel. Its menace comes from what looms on the not-too-distant horizon of Dahmer’s life, not in blood and gore on the pages.

One thing that Backderf handles in a great way is those young people whose fascination with serial killers goes beyond curiosity as to why and how someone could ever do that? To them, he says: “There are a surprising number out there who view Jeffrey Dahmer as some kind of antihero, a bullied kid who lashed back at the society that rejected him. This is nonsense. Dahmer was a twisted wretch whose depravity was almost beyond comprehension. Pity him, but don’t empathize with him.” 

It’s a point that should be made to any student ready to read this book. 

Here's the trailer:


Zia Nathan said...

This actually sounds like an extremely creepy book and it makes me wonder why the author would want to explore the subject of what Dahmer was like in high school.
I think it's really interesting how invested people get in these infamous people's early lives and trying to figure out what led them to it or if there were any warning signs.

Alexandra Klitz said...

Teaching this, I think, would be a lot like teaching Columbine. I think it is important for kids to be aware of how a serial killer or mass murder is made. Maybe it'll stop some bullying. Maybe they'll be able to better sense warning signs.

Jchacon said...

This graphic novel sounds very interesting. Upon reading your review my first question was whether the story told is factual or not. I was beneficial to the review that you addressed that because I'm sure that I will not be the only person who has that question. While inevitably creepy and twisted, this sounds like it would be a great and interesting read.

Vincent Restivo said...

This sounds like a very interesting graphic novel both because of the art that you showed off very well and due to the disturbing subject matter. I would be very interested to know more about how the writer decided what to or not to include in this story and why.

Overall I would say your presentation is very impressive and that it definitely got me interested in checking out this story. If you have a further interest in comics of this graphic nature I would recommend looking into Johann Vasquez's work including Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.