As Derf Backderf pointed out to me in my interview with him (come back and read it tomorrow morning!), My Friend Dahmer never goes where you think it is going. It’s a story where you already know the ending, so it takes a long road towards it without ever really arriving. It’s also not really showing you the first act–there isn’t really a troubled origin story here. You don’t see Dahmer as a young child witnessing some horrible event to “explain” his later behavior. Backderf is clearly uninterested in this. Instead, he gives us a window into a desperately interesting time; the second act of Jeffery Dahmer, one of the most infamous American serial killers.
It’s important to note that Backderf is not “cashing in” on his experience in any way–the critical time to publish this would have been in the early 90s, not now. This is a book that is coming from a point of view that is uncomfortably close to a man that we’ve written off, perhaps justifiably, as a monster. But Jeffery Dahmer is not a monster in My Friend Dahmer. He’s a high school student.
I can’t tell what it is about Backderf’s art style that lends itself so well to this story. It’s a decided style, cartoony but not flamboyantly so. It’s very distinct, at any rate, lending itself easily to both complicated character work and intricate background scenes. The timepieces of the setting are all here–the hair, the clothes, the style of the buildings and cars–all drawn in this really specific cartoonish/realistic style. That style, cartoonish (and yet so dynamic) shows of a wide range of expressions in the characters, including (and perhaps most importantly) the blank wall of a face that Dahmer displays for most of the book . Even in that face–the face that Backderf knows we recognize, the one that *has* to be blank–there is enough detail and expression to get a sense of the character behind it. This art spans the range of Dahmer’s faces, which go from stone cold nothing to spastic jaw-and-hand seizures–faux-seizures that apparently garnered him a small group of friends in high school, Backderf included.
The art pairs nicely into the layout, which is a strict and conservative 2×2 format (excepting certain spread pages or small sub-panels). The book (which is about the dimensions of a trade paperback novel) feels thick in your hands, and each page has a satisfying thickness. Combine that with the restrictive layout and you begin to feel a sense of unease, of paranoia, slightly claustrophobic. Entire sections of the book are devoid of dialogue, featuring Dahmer’s cold wall of a face, unmoving, unchanging, panel after panel until… something. I caught myself gasping–not in the way when you think you hear a ghost, but rather in the style of someone trying hard not to drown. I felt uneasy reading parts of this book, which is high praise as far as I am concerned.
The story is an uneasy one. Like I mentioned; we know this story. We know how it ends (and Backderf does a great job of showing us that ending, in his perspective, in the epilogue). There are two distinct voices at play during the storytelling, and both happen to belong to Derf Backderf–one as himself as a high-schooler, the other as him today, recalling and remembering what happened. There is such a tragic separation between the two; one innocent, one with the mind of an adult. A phrase comes up a few times that is just so, so sad to me: “Where were the adults?” You can hear it said with such a tone, such an empty tone of someone who remembers a time in their life when they were helpless and wonders why no one was there for them. The book in no means defends Dahmer or his actions, but it does paint him as a human with problems that should have been addressed. Clearly now Backderf, in his maturity, sees that for what it is. Reading that alone was powerful, but paired with the constant reminder, the constant temptation and suspense that comes with each page-turn–is it going to be now? Am I going to see him kill now? Is this it? I absolutely appreciate that Backderf denies us this resolution, as I think the story would be entirely different with it included. The story is chilling and meaningful. It does a good job of taking Jeffery Dahmer and presenting him as a deeply troubled human, rather than an unfeeling monster. No small task. What’s more, it is done with this candid style, one that gives us a look into Backderfs personal life and the personal life of a bunch of high-schoolers, which is another level of uncomfortable. Good show.
On top of it all, Backderf sourced his information, which plucks on all of my journalistic heartstrings. Should there ever be a class revolving around the study of serial killers (which I am told absolutely do exist), this needs to be on the required reading.
TL;DR: A chilling, fascinating read about an infamous criminal in the American canon. Candid, personal, and uncomfortably true. Read it, but maybe not late at night.