Over the course of his hour-long Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo panel, acclaimed cartoonist Derf Backderf shared insight — and amusingly creepy stories — about a kid he grew up with named Jeff, who grew up and became one of the world’s most notorious serial killers.
One wouldn’t expect a lot of laughs to come out of a conversation about a serial killer, but Backderf kept everyone listening and laughing as he discussed “My Friend Dahmer,” a graphic novel memoir of his friendship with the “smart, but lonely and bizarre” teenager who “liked to collect roadkill.” The graphic novel traces their relationship from when the pair met at age 12 through their high school years, a time when Backderf says Dahmer become more and more disconnected from humanity.
Dahmer originally gained the attention of a group of his fellow high school students by faking seizures and the effects of cerebral palsy. Backderf said he and his friends were “extremely amused by [Dahmer’s] antics,” going so far as to dub themselves “The Dahmer Fan Club.”
Backderf went on to talk about what he called “one of the most remarkable aspects of this story,” the fact that for most of high school, Dahmer would show up to class drunk and reeking of booze. Later, Dahmer would reveal that this was one of the only things that kept him “numb” and help him subside his perverse and violent sexual urges. To this day, Backderf remians puzzled as to why not a single adult noticed or showed any sort of concern for such behavior, and in the book asks if intervention at this point in Dahmer’s life might have prevented him from taking his eventual path. The first murder took place exactly two weeks after their high school graduation.
Backderf said that there is no violence or gore in his book; it just hints at the violence, which in a way makes it much more eerie and unsettling, forcing the reader to read between the panels.
He described his reaction when the news about Dahmer broke, and he was outed as a horrific serial killer. “Just like that, my entire personal history redefined. Suddenly, all these silly antics took on a very chilling, new definition.”
After the fact, Backderf started writing down his memories from high school and before. At this point, the artist noticed that the media was just talking about the murders and all the horrible things Dahmer had done, not “what came before all of it.”
In 1995, about a year after Dahmer was killed outside a prison bathroom, Backderf created 6 or 7 short stories about his old classmate. “Just to see what I could do — they weren’t very good.” While one of them made it into a Fantagraphics anthology, he wasn’t very happy with how the short stories were turning out and decided he wanted to expand them into a longer project. Backderf gathered material from his high school journals, which he emphasized was important in his ability to reate the final graphic novel. “If you’re gonna be a writer, keep a journal. You never know.”
His first attempt at creating a longer narrative never really came to fruition. He spent around four years “trying to sell it to every comics publisher in the business, and every one turned it down. Every single one. Today it’s a bestseller and it’s on it’s fourth printing, so…” Backderf made a fart noise, causing the crowd to crack up.
In 2002, Backderf released 24-page self-published comic titled “My Friend Dahmer.” It became a huge success and was even nominated for an Eisner Award. “All of this kind of reaffirmed me that this was a story worth telling.”
Eventually, he decided to scrap what he had and started the book fresh. Backderf has a degree in journalism in which, up until that point, he hadn’t used. He started to interview people he knew about Dahmer, resulting in “really great material.” He also benefited from access to public records, including prison interviews Dahmer had with psychologists. As best he can tell from the transcripts, Dahmer’s motivations will forever remain an enigma. “My own view is that, you know, sometimes monsters just happen. Maybe there is no rhyme or reason to it.”
Asked if there were any plans for a film adaption, Backderf said, “It’s already been optioned. Whether it happens or not, who knows? It would make a great film!” Backderf also mentioned that he hasn’t enjoyed any of the films that have already been made about Dahmer.
The experience of creating the book has helped him come to terms with what happened. Since a lot of time has passed, he’s been able to become at peace with everything that happened “whether or not it was a need to get some things off my chest or tell it from a storytelling perspective, I think it’s a matter of both.”
A high school teacher asked what he would say to high school students now, given his experience. Backderf responded, “Well I would say, pay attention and reach out to the dysfunctional. We did not.
“It would have been nice if someone would have spoken up, maybe.”