REVIEW BY: LEGS MCNEIL
My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
Paperback: 224 pages-- Publisher: Abrams ComicArts (March 1, 2012) -- Language: English -- ISBN-10: 1419702173 -- ISBN-13: 978-1419702174
When I got out of my last rehab in November of 2011, I spent a few months on the west coast and when I returned home, I saw that I had been invited via Facebook to a party somewhere in Ohio for the release of the graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. So I clicked on “going” in the appropriate Facebook box and really planned on trying to make the event. I mean, what else did I have to do?
My life was in shambles.
I thought the book party would be weird fun, but unfortunately something else came up and I forgot about it. This past Christmas, when I was shopping for presents for my girlfriend, Amy, I again came across My Friend Dahmer. So I quickly bought it, had my assistant Rebecca wrap it up in bright wrapping paper and placed the package under the tree. It was the first present I gave to Amy, since I was anxious to see her reaction, and besides, I wanted to read it too.
Amy loved the graphic novel and we spent the evening of Christmas day, lying in bed, reading our holiday serial-killer books, and Amy took to saying, “This is really good” so often– that I put down my book and started reading My Friend Dahmer along with her. Amy was nice enough to let me hang over her shoulder, waiting to turn the page until I finished reading. At first glance, I wasn’t too impressed with the artwork– it seemed derivative of the 60’s underground comics scene– until I got to panel where Backderf described Jeffrey trudging through high school, “He had an odd walk. Arms straight out at his sides and shoulders thrust slightly forward. A distinctive gait…”
And the panel showed Jeffrey in gym class– his shoulders more forward then his feet, like some lumbering Frankenstein monster– and I knew I’d been wrong about the cartoons. They were spectacular! So when Amy finished the book, I quickly started reading it from the beginning and knew I’d come across something truly remarkable.
For those of you who don’t know, Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin who murdered 17 young men and boys between 1978 and 1991. Jeffrey took to eating some of his victims because he had such a fear of abandonment that he knew if he digested them– they would never leave him. Dahmer remains one of the saddest mass murderers in the annals of American crime, which is probably why Danny Fields has a huge picture of the serial killer on his living room wall.
“I mean, he didn’t want anyone to leave him, how sweet is that?” Danny would say, whenever someone commented on the picture.
The particulars of the Dahmer case are pretty sensational– as one report stated, “By summer 1991, Dahmer was murdering approximately one person each week. Dahmer got the idea that he could turn his victims into “zombies”– completely submissive, eternally youthful sex partners – and attempted to do so by drilling holes into their skulls and injecting hydrochloric acid or boiling water into the frontal lobe area of their brains with a large syringe, usually while the victim was still alive.”
Finally on the night of July 22, 1991, the report tells how Jeffrey was apprehended, “Dahmer lured another man, Tracy Edwards, into his home. According to the would-be victim, Dahmer struggled with Edwards in order to handcuff him, but ultimately failed to cuff his wrists together. Wielding a large butcher knife, Dahmer forced Edwards into the bedroom, where Edwards saw pictures of mangled bodies on the wall and noticed the terrible smell coming from a large blue barrel– filled with acid which dissolved human bodies to sludge for disposal via the apartment toilet. Edwards punched Dahmer in the face, kicked him in the stomach, ran for the door and escaped.
“Running through the streets with handcuffs still hanging from one hand, Edwards waved for help to a police car driven by Officers Robert Rauth and Rolf Mueller of the Milwaukee police department. Edwards led police back to Dahmer’s apartment, where Dahmer at first acted friendly– but when one of the officers checked the bedroom, he saw the photographs of mangled bodies and called for his partner to arrest Dahmer.
“As one officer subdued Dahmer, the other opened the refrigerator and found a human head. Further searching of the apartment revealed three more severed heads, multiple photographs of murdered victims and human remains, severed hands and penises, and photographs of dismembered victims and human remains in his refrigerator,”
“The story of Dahmer’s arrest and the inventory in his apartment quickly gained notoriety: several corpses were stored in acid-filled vats, and implements for the construction of an altar of candles and human skulls were found in his closet. Accusations soon surfaced that Dahmer had practiced necrophilia and cannibalism. Seven skulls were found in the apartment. A human heart was found in the freezer…”
So Jeffrey Dahmer’s sensational story is perfect for a graphic novel, right?
The genius of My Friend Dahmer is that it tells the true story of Jeffery’s high school days by Derf Backderf– who was a friend of the future serial killer. Well, “friend” is a bit too intimate, since Jeffrey was such a loner that he really didn’t have any high school pals. And the book doesn’t go into Dahmer’s sensational crimes, instead focusing on the tale of the “agonies and cruelty of the adolescent high school experience,” where the book brings us, “straight into that soulless environment, showing the ways it can shelter, allow to burgeon, and at the same time, be completely blind to real madness.”
Instead of being a gratuitous gore-fest showing Jeffrey raping, torturing and eating his victims, this graphic novel concentrates on the loneliness and isolation of being a high school outsider. And the story told so expertly brings the reader back inside those dull, utilitarian hallways, lined with snotty kids at their lockers, as we trudge through another day of unrelenting boredom– wondering if death isn’t preferable to the hell of high school?
This book really captures that horror.
My Friend Dahmer follows Dahmer’s life as loner and weirdo as he becomes obsessed with dissecting dead animals he finds along the roadside, retreats even more into his own little world during his parents bitter divorce and is so unremarkable in high school that he almost slips into the nether world of the nameless and faceless.
Almost slips into the shadow world– except that Derf Backderf and his nerdy friends adopt Jeffrey for his weird entertainment value. Dahmer’s claim to fame was that he could do perfect imitations of spasmodics– a talent very much in demand by high school boys. Derf and his pals initiate the “Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club” and take to posing Jeffrey in all the group photos of the school’s clubs for the high school yearbook– even though he didn’t belong to any of them. Oh, those wacky nerds!
The climax comes when Derf and his pals take up a collection in order to pay Jeffrey to do his spasmodic act at the local mall. Jeffrey chucks a six-pack of beer in the ten minute drive to the Summit Mall and performs his spazz act with such zeal, that Derf realizes, “It wasn’t as much fun as I anticipated. In fact, it creeped me out…”
My Friend Dahmer will creep you out too– for its expert exploration into the killing regimentation of the suburban high school experience– where one loser is about to realize his full potential– prophesied by all those cruel comments in the hallway, “Yeah, he’ll probably end up a serial killer, yuk, yuk, yuk!”
– Legs McNeil
Update: There’s a movie coming out based on the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer!