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My Friend Dahmer Hardcover – March 1, 2012
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About the Author
Derf Backderf has been nominated for two Eisner Awards and has received a host of honors, including the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for political cartooning. His weekly comic strip, The City, has appeared in more than 100 newspapers over the past 22 years. Backderf lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
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Top Customer Reviews
I have always remembered this, but have never found the page again.
Just this past Sunday I found out it was part of an actual book called My Friend Dahmer, written by Derf Backderf. So I checked out the Amazon Look Inside bits, and was interested enough to get a copy. It arrived Monday, and I've been through it twice since then.
It's not so much the drawing style, which is basically R Crumb, but the haunting story it tells of Dahmer before he became a serial killer, when he was a child and something might have been done for him, if the adults around him had only looked up from their own self-absorption and seen there was something terribly terribly wrong. Backderf makes no bones about his sympathy (pity, really) for Dahmer ending when Dahmer committed his first murder; however, he also draws an unflinching picture of Dahmer's loneliness, his isolation from others and from his family, and his (Backderf's) own participation in making Dahmer feel less than human.
I'm a contemporary of the kids depicted in this book -- I graduated high school in 1975, they graduated in 1978. I was an outcast, and was bullied about as badly as Dahmer. I was pretty much ignored by my parents and the teachers. But why didn't I become a serial killer? Why am I reasonably well adjusted, and have been a contributing member of society for lo, these 40 some odd years since graduation? What makes one person become an average wife/mom/worker bee, and one person the worst serial killer in recent history?
I think those are all questions that keep me turning back to this book, and that make me recommend it to all y'all out there. There are no graphic depictions of murder, death or gore -- a couple of illustrations of roadkill and one incident which shows that Dahmer, even in his descent into madness, still retained a core of humanity and kindness many "normal" people don't have. At least until he finally crossed the line and became a murderer.
Well worth the money, well worth the read.
Back in ’91, there was an editorial cartoonist called Derf Backderf working for a paper in Cleveland. His wife, also a reporter at the paper, calls him, tells him about this serial killer they’ve arrested in Milwaukee, and drops a bomb on him — Backderf graduated from high school with the guy.
So Backderf spends a few years wrestling with the fact that he was friends with a future serial killer and eventually sits down, does a ton of research, and creates this graphic novel, “My Friend Dahmer,” a retelling of his interactions as a teenager with this kid who everyone laughed at and no one really understood.
Backderf and his circle of friends discovered Dahmer after he’d started impersonating a person with cerebral palsy and throwing fake epileptic fits to get attention. Dahmer was a stone freak, but his antics were amusing in the juvenile way we all enjoy when we’re in high school, and they encouraged him as much as they could, even calling themselves the “Dahmer Fan Club.” Backderf remembers him as a really strange kid, sometimes disturbing, usually harmless, often depressing. He drank heavily in high school — a fact that a number of students were aware of, but that every teacher apparently missed — hiding beer and hard liquor around the school grounds so he’d always be able to sneak out and find something to drink.
Ultimately, it’s a really sympathetic portrait of Dahmer. Not to say that it’s entirely Dahmer-positive — Backderf says more than once that Dahmer is a kid he feels tremendous sympathy and empathy for — but that goes away when he crosses the line into murder. But Backderf knew Dahmer as a sad, strange kid with parents struggling through mental health issues and a very nasty divorce. Dahmer wanted attention, like a lot of kids, he was darkly funny, like a lot of kids, and he was conflicted when he realized he was gay, like a lot of kids. Of course, not a lot of kids also realize they’re necrophiliacs and have to struggle with urges to do violence to others. But even then, Backderf recognizes that Dahmer went through a very stressful high school career and kept himself together — admittedly with huge doses of alcohol — until after graduation.
Backderf says that he thinks Jeff Dahmer, the disturbed teenager, could have been saved if only the adults in his life had paid closer attention to him and cared enough to get involved. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but that doesn’t do anything to make this book any less fascinating.
This is a pretty thick book, and I burned through it as fast as I could, including the section detailing Backderf’s research and notes. Backderf’s writing about Dahmer is captivating and humanizing in all the best ways — this isn’t something that glorifies a serial killer, but instead asks us to look at how the serial killer was created, at Dahmer’s depressingly rotten youth, at all the ways this kid was failed by the grownups who were supposed to be helping him.
The setting is also pretty amazing — Revere High School in West Allis, Ohio in the mid- to late-1970s is a great backdrop for all of this to happen. Locked-down schools, zero tolerance, and No Child Left Behind were 20-30 years in the future, and the book is both stereotypically ’70s-ish and simultaneously timeless — we’ve all felt this way about school, we’ve all been freaked out by our adolescent hormones, we’ve all wondered whether we’d survive to get out of school and wondered what happened to the people we used to hang with.
This isn’t a horror story, at least not in the traditional sense. If you read it hoping for blood and gore and psycho killer mayhem, you’re going to be very disappointed. If we can call it horror at all, it’s more a matter of the horror of how one person can go from being a pretty normal kid to the kind of lunatic who’d kill 17 people. It’s a heck of a good story, and I think you should read it.
In hindsight, we wonder why the teens (who knew he did strange things to animal and drank himself into oblivion almost daily) had no one to tell about Jeff, no one who seemed to care. We also wonder why he was overlooked in high school and allowed to come into the school drunk on a daily basis. THe author keeps reminding us--he was the SECOND weirdest kid in the school. In other words, being weird in high school does not necessarily correlate with becoming a criminal later.
THe story is animated with terrific drawings. This is just about a perfect specimen of a graphic novel. I didn't give it 5 stars just because I could not be seen as saying "love it" about a book which touches evil so closely.