Artist Derf Backderf turns to a most fascinating—and grisly—subject for his latest graphic novel My Friend Dahmer.
In the book, Backderf pulls from his own memories of attending high school with the infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, as well as hours of detailed interviews with his friends and acquaintances who were there at the time, and news reports and interviews that covered Dahmer’s crimes when he was caught. The result is a portrait of a young man on the brink of a dark, depraved place almost impossible to imagine. In a starred review, we called it “a powerful, unsettling use of the graphic medium to share a profoundly disturbing story.”
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Here, Backderf tells us about the genesis of the book, how he illustrated such an unsympathetic character and what it was like growing up alongside one of the most notorious serial killers in American history.
This started as a short story, then you struggled to sell it as a graphic novel for three years—and failed. Can you talk a little more about what that was like?
The short story I sold right away, one of them anyways, as an experiment. I started working on that right after he died in 1995—he died in November 1994. It had been almost four years at that point since his crimes came to light…I didn’t want to be part of the whole tabloid, sleazy news event as it was going on.
The first one [short story] sold right away. Fantagraphics grabbed it right up. I was feeling pretty proud of myself, and that’s when I sat down and wrote the graphic novel, about a 100 pages based on what I had at the time…Really it [the first version] was just straight memoir—here’s a story, here’s another, and I eventually ran out of stories…looking back on it, it was pretty good, though it’s nowhere near as good as this version.
What I learned from pitching it as this is that it’s virtually impossible to pitch. Usually you write a pitch, send out a couple sample chapters—all that crap. Then an agent picks it up and sees “Dahmer,” and usually sees “murder,” “necrophilia,” “cannibalism,” and says, “No thanks.”
My book isn’t about that, but they never got beyond the concept. What I learned from that very frustrating three years trying to sell it was that the next time I came at it, I’d just do the whole book when I submitted it. It was complete first draft when it was done. If they got past the title and read it, I’d have them.
What do you think is the particular fascination with Dahmer?
The depravity, really, fascinates. This guy had no limits. It just kept getting worse and worse. He was at point where he couldn’t do anything more depraved than what he’d done. His origins fascinated people, as he’d come from this very middle-class, suburban background.
Dahmer as a serial killer doesn’t interest me. I’m not an aficionado, but I am interested in this spiral down, probably because I was right there. I’m not interested in what comes later, when he starts butchering people.
You also mention that Dahmer himself was incredibly forthright when he was caught.
I think he was happy that he was caught. That it was over. His whole life, since he was 12, or probably earlier, his life was based on secrets and lies. I think when it was finally over, he was kind of relieved.
It’s actually an incredibly complex story. Dahmer had a very rough life, yet he was also exhibiting psychopathic behaviors at an early age. What was it like trying to get this balance right?
I tried to keep it pretty simple. I really don’t have a lot of sympathy for him, that’s my take on him. I mean, I do as a young kid—how can you not? He didn’t commit any crimes yet.
But later, of course, he becomes completely unsympathetic. He starts losing chunks of his humanity along the way, there were pieces of him that were just missing. There was something wrong with the guy, he didn’t have any empathy, he wasn’t able to relate to people in a way that normal kids would…I mean, all kids are selfish idiots when they’re 15, 16, but there was something more with this guy. It wasn’t that he was cruel, but he wasn’t kind, he just didn’t have that in him.
It was tricky, you had to channel yourself, had to put yourself in distance past, what you were doing, thinking, feeling. I also I had to put myself in July 1991, when the story exploded, and tap that as well. It was not a pleasant place to be either.
I hate asking stuff that’s in your press release, but it’s the big question this book leaves hanging: “Could these murders have been prevented?” What do you think?
I don’t know. There’s no way of knowing for sure. Maybe he was destined to become a monster. Maybe. But it sure would have been nice if someone would have tried. His dad made a few very amateurish efforts, sticking him in the Army, forcing him into college and that sort of thing. But there was no real attempt. I certainly would’ve liked to see someone with actual training, like school officials, say, “Wow, there is something really wrong with this guy.” It was just flabbergasting.
And, of course, he should have been arrested at least twice. Christ, the body was in the back of his car! The cops were staring at it! [Dahmer’s first murder in Ohio as a teen]. It should have ended right there.
Interviews with your high-school friends brought a lot of this story to light…what surprised you that you didn’t know?
My two friends, Mike and Neil, I interviewed them how many hours over the last five years? Just recounting stuff over and over again. Actually, there is an extra scene added to the e-book that my friend Neil just told me.. and I was like “Oh, why didn’t you tell me that earlier!”
Dahmer was caught once drinking at school…I never described what happened, I didn’t really put in the book, I think I just mentioned it. Neil knew what happened. He said, “Oh, yeah, he was caught by the gym teacher out in the parking lot.” I guess, he took him to the office, and the assistant principal—and this was the classic assistant principal, he had facial ticks, we called him “blinky,” he was the school henchman—offered Dahmer a choice. He said, “I can either call your parents right now, or you can accept 10 licks.” Dahmer chose the paddling, and he [Neil] told me later how much it hurt [Dahmer]… Neil told me that he ran into Dahmer right after it happened…
Another one Neil just told me was that he and Dahmer went to an outdoor concert, I think it was Dahmer’s first…At the time, rock concerts in the Midwest were huge, you can barely see the stage from all the pot smoke, people running naked through the woods kind of events. And the guy who was playing who Dahmer was fascinated with was Neil Sedaka—this really sugary, poppy, drecky stuff from the ’70s. When people always think of serial killers, they think they’re into death metal, but Dahmer was apparently a Neil Sedaka fan.
Molly Brown is the Features Editor at Kirkus.