I discovered Derf Backderf in the Harvard Bookstore, in the graphic novel and comix section. To be honest, I was looking for the new, female Captain Marvel and the Banshee Squad. What I found was probably a lot better.
“My Friend Dahmer” was suddenly in my hands, and I was sitting in the corner on a footstool, hoping no one would come around the corner and accuse me of stealing a read. Bookshop staff police their customers, making sure they’re just previewing and not fully reading books they haven’t bought. Maybe it’s the panic of working in a dying industry that makes them jittery, like they’re swiping at townspeople for help as the executioner drags them up to the gallows.
Anyway, I read the whole damn thing in one sitting, feeling like I had found something brand new but also wonderfully familiar. Derf’s style, his characters’ rounded limbs and bugged out eyes, look a lot like Joe Sacco’s Palestinian rockstars. They move around the page with unsettling fluidity, like their skeletons are soft. The effect here works – Backderf’s Dahmer is more rigid looking than his other characters, drawn using rounded lines but with an unchanging face hidden by sunglasses and often partially shadowed. He holds his shoulders high to protect his ears; you almost feel the tension in your own muscles as you read. We don’t see Dahmer’s eyes or watch him emote often in the book, but admittedly Derf did not either.
Dahmer’s dark humor is obvious to anyone who’s read “Trashed” or “Punk Rock and Trailer Parks,” but admittedly I hadn’t. He dismisses who Jeffrey Dahmer eventually became in order to tell a necessary part of the story. “When someone hears the word ‘Dahmer,’ they think heads in the refrigerator, necrophilia, cannibalism — no thanks. My story is about none of those things. It’s the story before the story,” Backderf told USA Today.
Derf’s graphic novel is the story of a teenager no one attempted to understand, a boy too old for the sympathy of social workers or guidance counselors, alone in his half-hearted attempts to fight his compulsions. The book suggests Dahmer was afraid of what he wanted to do, and on one occasion he even shooes away a dog he’s led into the woods to kill, skin, and presumably dissolve in acid. He sits on a log and considers what he was just about to do, kill a creature “big enough to feel fear.” Derf allows Dahmer this moment of quiet reflection, or maybe even disgust at himself, but he admits at the end of the page that “this was the last time Dahmer showed mercy.”
Dahmer as a human monster is intriguing for several reasons. First, he began as a child, according to Derf, placing road-kill in jars and dissolving the flesh off their bones with acid he procured from his father. Later on, he becomes interested in ending animals’ lives, just to “see what they look like inside.” The first scene in which Dahmer kills a living creature feels childlike and only hints at something beyond innocent curiosity. Blood doesn’t excite or bother him, but it disturbs the boy he’s with.
Second, Dahmer is interesting because of his sexuality. Derf alludes several times to Dahmer’s burgeoning desires, beginning the book with an unexplained panel in which Jeff Dahmer watches a sweaty, jogging man run alongside his school bus. His jaw tenses, and we see Dahmer’s tight jeans for a moment before moving on. We learn later that Dahmer’s first attempt at attacking a human being was aimed at this very jogger, who didn’t happen to run by Dahmer’s house that day. We understand his interest first as homosexual, then violent. This is an interesting choice of Derf’s, to present the reader with the reality of Dahmer being a gay teenager in the 70s. To Derf, he was a strange kid first, then gay, and then, years later, a murderer, cannibal and necrophiliac.
The only information I had ever read about Jeffrey Dahmer, before Derf’s book, came from his surprisingly detailed Wikipedia page, a Google image search for “Dahmer crime scene” which I would not recommend, and a post on Reddit including photos of Dahmer’s yearbook inscriptions to friends. According to Derf’s book, these were probably not what any of us would consider
“friends,” but instead people who allowed Dahmer to occasionally exist near them.
Derf’s graphic novel, for better or worse, outlines the author’s true account of being a tenuous acquaintance of Jeffrey Dahmer, not yet the man who would inject chemicals into the skulls of young gay men he had lured back to his apartment, but an acne-d, “tortured” teenager who had no discernible interests or enjoyments in life, at least none he could share with others.
What does empathizing with an actual human monster do? Is there a difference between writing fiction about a fictional serial killer which allows him depth and trying to salvage something remotely stomach-able from the twisted mess inside Jeffrey Dahmer? There are certainly panels in Derf’s book that pull at, if not the heartstrings of the reader, at something deep and dark inside the gut. Dahmer’s parents scream at each other, eventually splitting up and leaving him alone in his childhood home, both of them desperate to escape each other. We see Dahmer return home from school to his mother convulsing on the living room couch, having taken too much of her medication and seizing. We realize in horror, as Derf once did, that the crazed performances Dahmer had used in the halls and in class to finally find himself friends were just emotionless impressions of his mother’s seizures.
We see him alone in bed at night, thinking about men’s bodies as the booze wears off. We see a teenage alcoholic, completely alone.
As with most sympathetic monster stories, what we don’t see is a list of Dahmer’s eventual victims, innocent guys hard on their luck or looking for sex when gay relationships were still largely taboo. Dahmer’s victims were eventually the focus of a cultural movement in their neighborhood; people began asking why Dahmer was on the loose for so long. If he had been kidnapping and killing pretty white children instead of gay teenagers, would he have been found more quickly?
The thing is, Derf didn’t see Dahmer’s victims either. He presents us with the scenes he shared with Dahmer, sometimes tickling us with the ominous end to the story we all know, and it feels like steel wool scratching into our skin.
“My Friend Dahmer” prickles the reader, and it hums deep underneath its plot. It does not tell us whether human monsters are born or bred, and it does not forgive or condemn a teen boy who hadn’t yet become an American horror story.