John Backderf, or “Derf,” has been making a name for himself as a cartoonist since he was a student at Ohio State University where, after three years of drawing editorial cartoons, he created such controversy that school officials placed a one-year limit on all future cartoonists. He went on to create the weekly comic strip “The City,” which continues to run today. A collection of the strip was published in 2003 and Derf received the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 2006.
Derf has also created a number of Eisner Award-nominated graphic novels including “Trashed,” and “Punk Rock and Trailer Parks,” a fictional account of the real life punk scene in Akron, Ohio. His new book is “My Friend Dahmer,” which is a fascinating and chilling look at one of Derf’s classmates, Jeffrey Dahmer. Recently released by Abrams ComicArts, the story is sometimes funny, but often chilling. The book makes it clear that serial killers and murderers are shaped by a great number of forces and Derf argues Dahmer didn’t have to end up the way he did. Though by the end of the book, the slow march to what the reader knows is the inevitable conclusion is truly haunting.
CBR News: “My Friend Dahmer” was originally a shorter comic that came out back in the ’90s. Why did you create the original comic and why did you decide to expand and continue it?
Derf:Well, to go back even further, the “My Friend Dahmer” project started as a series of short stories I penned in the mid-’90s, starting shortly after Dahmer’s death in prison. One of those eventually appeared in “ZeroZero,” Fantagraphics anthology comic, in 1997. After that, I wrote a 100-page graphic novel, which I tried to sell to a publisher, any publisher, to no avail. Spent over four years on that frustrating endeavor. Still puzzles me that no one was interested, even though it was a very different book than the one I eventually produced. It was a stroke of luck, really, since there’s no way that graphic novel is as good as this one! I self-published that little comic book in 2002 in the hopes of interesting some company in the larger work. Which didn’t happen, but, much to my surprise, the comic book became something of a cult classic on its own. I knew I’d come back to the project eventually and make the book I envisioned. That was always the plan. It just took a lot longer than I thought it would. Almost 20 years total as a work in progress, which is just nuts.
As someone who has created a lot of political cartoons, you have a thick skin for criticism, but at any point were you concerned that people wouldn’t understand what you were trying to do, or that people would find an attempt to present Dahmer as a youth as a sympathetic character offensive?
Most people who read the book so far are really taken by it, so I really haven’t gotten any of that. The early response is very encouraging. The problem is, most people see the title and think it’s a story about murder and cannibalism and heads in the refrigerator. It’s about none of those things. This is the story before that story. My book is about a sad, damaged boy who spiraled into madness as the adults in his life, either through disinterest, incompetence or just failing to see, stood by and watched. It’s a haunting, compelling tale, told, of course, by someone who was standing just a few feet away. I can confidently state there’s never been a graphic novel like it, a first person account of an iconic serial killer. So the trick is to get people to put aside those preconceptions and just read the thing. And when they do, judging by what I’ve heard so far, the story really sticks with the reader. It’s a true modern tragedy.
The criticism I tend to get, at least from my earlier stories, comes exclusively from this weird, serial killer fanbase. A depressingly large number of people have constructed a whole urban legend around Dahmer. Really. They view him as this poor guy who (I guess, like them) was ostracized and bullied and eventually lashed back at society. A real death-metal revenge fantasy. This is ridiculous on many levels. Dahmer, after all, was motivated only by depravity and madness. I got my share of bullying, too, but I didn’t go out and slaughter seventeen people! But this Dahmer fandom bashes me for “picking” on him in high school, which is also a total misinterpretation of what actually happened. Dahmer was having a good a time performing his antics, just as much as we were egging him on. It wasn’t mean-spirited from my end at all, nor did Dahmer view it that way. I’d make the argument that this period was easily the best time of his otherwise wretched life! I’m hoping the new book, which is much more detailed and carefully crafted, won’t be open to that misinterpretation.
How much research did you end up doing and how important was that to fleshing out the story?
Tons. I spent most of those years, in fact, researching this book. Not constantly, of course, but steadily. Those early stories were straight memoir, written from my own recollections and papers. I wanted to go deeper than that, so during the 10 years between versions, I put that journalism degree to use at last and interviewed dozens of people who knew Dahmer: classmates, contemporaries, neighbors and, of course, my friends, with whom I spent hours and hours discussing our experiences with Dahmer.
I also pored over interviews Dahmer gave to psychologists and criminal investigators, looking for insights into his early life. I picked through the FBI files, some 30,000 documents, mining stuff I could use. I carefully constructed a timeline of his teenage years, something which had never been done before, not accurately anyways. So when I finally sat down to write the book, because of all that research and prep, I wrote the whole thing in a couple weeks.
Throughout the book you return to the idea that every adult in Dahmer’s life — his parents, his teachers, whoever — failed him and failed to see even what his classmates saw, and clearly you didn’t see everything. To what degree do you think this would happen today?
It does happen today. Over and over. Every couple years, someone like Dahmer pops up. The Columbine kids, the guy at Virginia Tech, the recent shooter in Tucson. When they do, I’m always struck by the similarities to Dahmer’s life. Either the adults didn’t notice that something was amiss or, if they did, they made some kind of attempt to get them help that was either ineffective or not followed up on. And the eventual outcome is carnage. So obviously if there is a lesson here, it’s not one we as a society are willing to learn. I’m not saying all these guys could have been helped before they snapped, that would be naive, but it would be nice if a few of them were.
The binge drinking, no, a kid couldn’t get away with that today in school, being stinking drunk at 8 am, reeking of booze all day long, walking through the halls with a styrofoam coffee cup full of liquor, it’s mind-boggling what he got away with!
Look, I don’t pretend to have any answers about what drove Dahmer to do the things he did. The guy was, after all, analyzed by some of the top criminal psychologists in the country who couldn’t come up with any answers either. But this is certainly a cautionary tale, because there’s more like him out there. Maybe not as extreme, but dangerous enough.
The book closes with a scene which made me laugh out loud and shiver — not the only time I had a chill run down my spine while reading the book, by the way — was when your wife told you one of your classmates had been arrested as a serial killer, Dahmer was your second choice for who it was. It feels like at the heart of the book is the disconnect between Jeffrey Dahmer this evil serial killer and this sad, screwed up kid you went to school with.
Sure. The Dahmer everyone knows is an inhuman monster. What I do here is humanize him and show him to be, in fact, all too human. It is, in fact, my premise that Dahmer was a tragic figure. And that will probably rub some people the wrong way. But I don’t think we do ourselves any favors when we write people like Dahmer off as monsters, because, with that designation, comes a certain degree of inevitability. He was a monster. It was inevitable what he did. So that absolves everyone from any responsibility. Was it inevitable? I don’t buy that.
But I want to emphasize that I’m no apologist for Dahmer the serial killer. Once he starts killing, and he committed his first murder the very day our friendship ended when I left town for college, my sympathy for him ends. He was a perverse wretch who richly deserved his brutal death.
For people who know your work, “My Friend Dahmer” is something of a departure. Perhaps because this is a story that haunted you more than a story you wanted to tell. But is this something you were aware of while working on it? Is this book going to remain unique in some ways for you?
I’ve resigned myself to this going down as my best-known work. And yeah, it’s nothing like anything I’ve done in the past or am likely to do in the future. But hey, it’s a great story that fell out of the sky into my lap, so what do I have to bitch about? I’m a storyteller. It’s what I do. And I had an incredible story to tell. That it was a radical departure for me really wasn’t even a consideration.
The Coen Brothers are two of my creative heroes. Their movies are often very different, in completely different genres, from “The Big Lebowski” to “No Country For Old Men,” but they’re always Coen Brothers films. They all have the same visual palette, the same Coen Brothers style. I hope moving forward I can duplicate something like that, whether I go back to gritty humor or move on to sci-fi or westerns or gothic romance or whatever. No matter what I do it will be one of my books.
Can you tell us about your background as an artist and how you came to comics?
I’ve always wanted to make comics, as far back as I can remember. I have comic strips I drew in the 2nd grade. They’re not bad either, for a 7-year-old. As a teenager I wanted to be a mainstream comic book artist and draw superheroes.
But I lost interest in the long-underwear stuff when I got to college and got involved with other things, like punk rock and the counter-culture (and, of course, girls). I first got published drawing political cartoons for the Ohio State University student paper, “The Lantern.” I wasn’t really interested in politics all that much, to be honest, but the paper ran the political cartoons a lot bigger than the comic strips. So political cartoons it was! It was a great experience. It was the first time my work was noticed. And we’re talking about a paper with a circulation of 35,000, so it was a big audience and quite a baptism of fire. When I flopped, as all young cartoonists do, it was a very public failure. The cartoons were mostly dreadful, of course, almost painfully bad looking at them now, but making a “name” for myself was a rush.
I did that for three years in college, graduated, and then got a gig as a political cartoonist for a crappy daily rag in South Florida. I did that for two years until I was fired for, as the editor put it, “general tastelessness.” That was it for my political cartooning career, which was fine by me, since I was totally bored. At least I went out with a bang!
After that I moved to Cleveland, for reasons I can neither explain or recall, and started working on experimental comic strips that eventually became “The City.” In 1990, it debuted in the local, free weekly paper. It was a real thrill, finally finding my voice stylistically. Those first couple years may be the favorite period of my career, in fact. It’s an incredible thing, to quote Joe Strummer, “to be in the right time and the right place with the right shit.”
About ten years ago, I decided to move into graphic novels. I’ve done three so far: “Trashed,” “Punk Rock & Trailer Parks” and now, “My Friend Dahmer.” I’ve gotten more notice for these books than I ever got for “The City,” to be honest. For some reason, the strip remained firmly cemented in the alt-media ghetto. But the books get much more acceptance from the Lords of Popular Culture, so I guess the book world is where I belong.
The project that most people likely know you for is your weekly strip, “The City.” For people who don’t know it, could you talk a little about the strip?
I owe everything to that strip. It’s where I found my voice, a readership and first gained some success. I usually describe it to those who haven’t run across it as “cranky scribblings from an anti-social, post-punk dweeb.”
It started out as a freeform, cartoon chronicle of life as a young hipster in a big city. Thus the title. That was a lot of fun and it was great being a part of the Zeitgeist of the ’90s and the golden age of weekly papers and all, but, of course, all too soon I wasn’t a young hipster anymore and the strip had to change into something else. It got more political, which, even though I’m pretty good at that stuff, is an evolution I was never all that pleased with.
At one point the strip was in so many papers I was up there with Lynda Barry and Tom Tomorrow and Matt Groening and the other famous weekly cartoonists, although I never attained the critical status of those folks. All told “The City” has appeared in around 125 publications during it’s two-decade-long run, which doesn’t sound like much when compared to “Garfield” or “Family Circus,” but for a weekly strip is quite an impressive number. And I won some neat awards, like a Robert F. Kennedy Award. Unfortunately, the last 10 years have seen the steady demise of the weekly press and, sadly, of weekly cartoons. It’s a dying field, if it’s not stone cold already.
The satire is pretty out there at times and there have been years when being a contrarian can elicit some pretty heavy criticism. Right after 9-11 when everyone was whipped into a war frenzy, it got downright nasty. And the six months before Dubya’s re-election in 2004. Threats, calls for my dismissal from various publications (and a few buckled and did indeed sack the strip), that sort of thing. But now, I dunno, the web has made political satire such a everyone-join-in free-for-all, that my stuff, or any cartoon, doesn’t stand out anymore. What was edgy in 1990 or even 2000 is pretty mild now. I’m still doing good stuff, but the comic strip genre seems to have reached the end of the line. I only continue “The City” because I enjoy doing it.
There was a collection of “The City” strips years ago. Will there ever be a second collection?
Maybe, but I have no plans at the present. Comic strip collections, especially topical or political comix, are a tough sell. Always have been. The shelf life is just so short. I look at that first collection, which was mostly Bush Era stuff, and it reads like ancient history now! Most of the comic strip guys are going the print-on-demand route these days. I don’t know if I want the hassle of that, to be honest. I think there’s a much bigger upside in putting out new material, rather than a bunch of reprints. Besides there’s a huge archive of strips on the Gocomics.com site.
I appreciate all the questions about “The City,” though. Sometimes I get sucked down with the sinking fortunes of the newspaper biz and forget that people still read the strip.
How does the process of creating a strip differ from creating a graphic novel? Is it a question of length or is completely different?
I’ve found it to be totally different. Comic strips are disposable. You stumble across them flipping through a newspaper (or did, anyways) read them in 10 seconds and move on. You have to make your point and tell your joke quickly. There’s no time for subtlety. You have four panels, that’s it. And, of course, comic strips have steadily shrunk over the years. When I started, my strip usually ran the entire width of the newspaper page, maybe 10 inches wide. I had lots of room to draw and make a real visual statement. That’s all over. Now the strips are tiny, shrunk to the point where I don’t have any room to draw at all. I just try to make them legible. It’s really kind of depressing, but, as I said, newspapers are at the end of the road.
Graphic novels are much more complex. As a storyteller you can take your time and add as many layers and detours as you want. I can vary the pace of the story. I can ladle in as much detail as I want. It’s open-ended. The book is as long as I need it to be to tell the story I want to tell in the way I want to tell it. That is positively liberating! A book is a whole, self-contained world that you craft out of nothing. I really like making them. It’s a huge creative payoff.
And, unlike a comic strip, readers linger over a book. The book itself is an artifact, it’s saved and put on a bookshelf or added to a collection. It has a permanence that a strip doesn’t have. I love the immediacy of a strip — you draw it and a few days later it’s in print — but I’m digging making artifacts now.
I was surprised how much I had to learn when I started making graphic novels. You’d think it would be an easy transition, but it wasn’t for me. Probably because I had an unrealistically high standard I was trying to hit. Each one of my three books has been a big leap forward for me as a graphic storyteller. I’m really enjoying both the process and the turn my career has taken.
“Cleveland Magazine” named you one of the city’s most interesting residents for 2012. Are they crazy? Are they years too late?
I think they got wind of the “My Friend Dahmer” buzz! Also, the Cleveland daily picked up the strip after the local weekly rag that was my home base for the past decade stupidly shit-canned me in a budget move. I guess from the magazine’s perspective, that makes me suddenly interesting. They last wrote about me in 1995. So in the 17 years in between I’ve been uninteresting. I won’t argue that.
Does Cleveland have much of a comics scene? I know that Harvey Pekar lived there until he died, but is there anything?
Not as much as there should be, unfortunately. It’s not like New York or Chicago or even Portland or Minneapolis.
There are a few people trying to build more of a comic community here in Cleveland and I support their efforts as much as I can. There’s been a lot of talent that’s come out of this town, from Pekar to Brian Michael Bendis to the dude who created “Ziggy.”
Do you have a next book in mind?
Several! But I don’t want to reveal details until I’m further along. It will be fiction, which I really love doing for the total freedom it affords. It won’t be anything in the vein of “My Friend Dahmer,” that I can guarantee. I’d love to conjure up some kind of franchise, one I can go back to again and again. Easier said than done.
In the past, I’ve never had much luck pitching books. All of them have been essentially finished when I first offered them to publishers. A graphic novel takes me about two years work to complete, from writing to finish. Hopefully, “My Friend Dahmer” elevates me to a status where a publisher will accept a pitch and I don’t have to wait to get green-lighted. That should speed things up.
I also wouldn’t mind collaborating on some projects. Writing is easy and quick for me. It’s the drawing that’s a long, hard slog. I love it, but I wouldn’t mind someone else doing the slog. That way I could have several books in the pipeline at the same time.
You were doing a webcomic for a while, “Trashed.” Will you return to it?
I’d like to. I had to take a hiatus when I sold “My Friend Dahmer” and got slammed with pre-press deadlines. Then I got more paying work, and now with the promo and all, I just haven’t had the time to get back to it. It’s a freebie, so it’s not a high priority, to be honest.
But I like those characters and the world of the garbage truck (now that I’m no longer part of it). The webcomic was more an experiment in presentation than anything. I plan to eventually publish another “Trashed” book. People are also begging me to write more with Otto, my protagonist from “Punk Rock & Trailer Parks,” who is a character I absolutely love. It’s possible I may do both those things.