Jeffrey Dahmer was easily one of the most infamous serial killers of the last century due to the horrific and deeply disturbing nature of his crimes. Those of you wanting details of that beyond the cannibalism and necrophilia would be encouraged to check out his Wikipedia page or by Googling him. However, before he was a killer he was just that strange kid in school who caused his classmates to joke that he’d eventually turn into a serial killer. John “Derf” Backderf was one of those classmates and he went on to become a very talented cartoonist and storyteller. Proof of that is on full display in this graphic novel which offers a compelling and unique perspective on this period in the killer’s life.
Derf’s perspective is that Dahmer wouldn’t have wound up as he did had the adults in his life not been so completely oblivious or indifferent to his actions. While the fact that he dissolved dead animals in a shed out in the woods, came to school reeking of alcohol, and had intentionally spastic outbursts at school as well were enough to clue in his fellow students that something was wrong, nobody else noticed or cared. The teachers were just concerned with getting their kids through class (or seeing who could roll joints faster) and Dahmer’s parents had their own emotional baggage and a crumbling marriage to contend with as well.
Yet it’s also clear from what’s described here that school provided him with tenuous connection to society that kept Dahmer from going off the deep end sooner. Those spastic outbursts? They actually gained him a kind of notoriety around school that led to the formation of the “Dahmer Fan Club” of which the author here was a member. “Minister of Propaganda” was his eventual title. Make no mistake, though, Derf and his companions were not actually friends with the center of their attention. He was just a source of entertainment for these kids who couldn’t wait to graduate and get out of their small town life. The sad part is that Dahmer himself said that these were probably the happiest times in his lifes.
As the author notes, all the members of the Dahmer Fan Club eventually had a moment where they realized that this individual was truly scary. Derf’s came during a ten minute car ride with Dahmer where he chugged an entire six pack of beer in that time. That scene lends the subsequent scene where the title character gives a “command performance” of his spastic, Tourrette’s-like behavior at a local mall a much darker and disturbing tone than it would have otherwise.
Personal recollections like that are the core of this book and help put a human face on the title character. Though that’s an impressive achievement in itself, the overall narrative is also the result of meticulous research by Derf from FBI reports, interviews with Dahmer himself, books about him, and other recollections from his classmates and teachers. You can tell that this research left the author with a wealth of material to choose from and it’d be interesting to find out what he ultimately chose to leave out of his final draft. If the book has one drawback, it’s that the progression of said scenes can feel fractured at times. There’s the sense that we’re jumping from one thing to another without consideration for narrative consistency. That being said, it’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept based on the information being conveyed. Whether we’re being told about the sad mental and physical state of Dahmer’s mother, or the time he laughed after one of the kids in band slipped on the ice and nearly fractured his arm, or the time he talked his way into a meeting with then Vice President Mondale -- the book’s high point for “I can’t believe this really happened!” moments -- dullness is not allowed to creep in amongst any of these scenes.
Though Derf’s exaggeratedly cartoonish style would appear to be at odds with the serious nature of his subject matter, I can’t imagine it looking any other way. His previous work (which I plan to track down in the very near future) was called “Punk Rock and Trailer Parks” and described in the introduction as a “raucous, joyful comedy.” It’s easy to see the man’s style working in that kind of story, but it also winds up being very effective here as well. His exaggerated style winds up taking on a very eerie tone here as what little humor there is here is very uncomfortable given what became of Dahmer himself. More than anything, the look of the characters winds up being a window into their emotional state. So when you see the utterly uncaring look on Dahmer’s face as he’s laughing at the student who slipped on the ice, it’s not hard to feel more than a little unnerved at that expression.
Sometimes stories that are based on true events can come off as dry history lessons. Things that are meant to impart greater wisdom about the world around us, yet have to endured like medicine in order to reap their benefits. Not so with “My Friend Dahmer.” It’s a work full of vitality whether it’s dealing with the author’s own personal experiences or drawing on his research of the person in question. That it is also very disturbing in parts only enhances its effectiveness as a story as well. You’re not meant to empathize with Dahmer after reading it, but you will come away with a greater understanding of the circumstances that led to the creation of a serial killer. Derf also mentions in his introduction that he initially self-published a 24-page comic of “My Friend Dahmer” back in 2002 to much acclaim, that he was ultimately unhappy with due to its brevity. All I can say is that after reading this, I hope that this latest incarnation of the story is successful to the point where we’ll get a special edition in ten years or so that collects that comic as well. Even so, this darkly compelling graphic novel is well worth anyone’s time.