SPX Talks: Derf Backderf / by Alex Jarvis

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Sitting down with Derf Backderf was one of the highlights of my 2012 SPX experience. He’s a tall guy, depicted roughly as you see him in the back of My Friend Dahmer, with a few years on him. His aforementioned work was one of the highlights of my graphic novel collection in the past year, and when I found out he would be at SPX I knew I had to sit down with him.  Spandexless: What made you make it [My Friend Dahmer] now?

Derf Backderf: As opposed to when it broke?

S: Or any time between then and now.

DB: Y’know, it took that long because that’s how long it took. At first, I didn’t want to be a part of that whole...story when it first broke. It was unreal, and I was at the center of it. He didn’t have many friends. I was really amazed at how fast the media zeroed in on the peope that knew this guy. I would look out my front window and there would be two camera trucks out there. So, I didn’t want anything to do with that. And also, before, I was doing single-panel cartoons, scripts, I had never attempted long-form storytelling, certainly never something as in-depth as this. To be honest, time kinda got away from me, I never expected it to take twenty years! *laughs* I’m pretty happy with it. This is how long it took.

S: Did you know, when it happened, that it would be a book?

DB: Well, it took a few weeks for the lightbulb to go on. What I noticed was is that people weren’t really telling the story I had in my head, which was of his youth. The ones that were telling it weren’t telling it right, or getting it wrong, all very superficially. I thought, “Man, there’s a story.” And I knew right then I was going to tell it, the question was how.

S: So, when I was in fifth grade, Columbine happened. [Your story] strikes me as somewhat similar, in that it was a lot of...demonizing of the kids. Like yourself, there were a lot of people that afterwards said “these were victims”--not to forgive their actions, but to give another point of the story. You certainly don’t defend Dahmer or his actions, but I got the sense that your story wanted to highlight the problems he had--

DB: Keep in mind; The Jeff I knew had committed no crime.

S: Exactly.

DB: I think that when we write people off as monsters, that lets everybody off the hook. “They were monsters. It was inevitable. This was going to happen anyway, no matter what happened.” That’s just not true. Particularly in Jeff’s case--I don’t know about Columbine--mistakes were made. I don’t think there are lessons to be learned, but I think it is a cautionary tale. I see some of the same things--like this Jared Loughner thing in Tuscon--I saw a lot of the same things that happened with Jeff. Some people attempted to get him help, it was kinda half-assed, they didn’t follow up on it--the kid in Virginia Tech, too. One after another. If there is a lesson, it is certainly one we’re not willing to learn.

S: In the book--was re-reading it today--there was a really powerful sense of... there’s this panel that is all black save for the words “Where were the adults?”, and you say people would say things like “How didn’t you know, how didn’t you tell...”

DB: It’s important to remember these things happened so many years ago. It’s an entirely different world. What I tried to get across in the book is that the adults were not really around. They weren’t paying attention. It was a completely different world. There was no way to keep track of kids. No GPS. No texting. Schools were wide open. There was no locks--

S: There’s that great story [in the book] where a teacher proudly says “I bet I can roll a joint faster than you.”

DB: It was totally different. Kids were free to roam. The apparatus for watching kids had not yet been invented. Y’know, the traditional family came to  an end in the early seventies--mom went to work, all that--it was very much, “hey, kids, you’re on your own!”

S: And that means so much in the story. It’s told from at   two different perspectives; you today, and you in the story.

DB: It’s hard to get both those voices right, as, y’know, hopefully I’ve learned a little. I’m not quite the dumbass I was when I was 17. I was very aware of keeping the voices separate.

S: I keep coming back to that voice from today, going back and saying “Where were the adults.” This was a friend of mine...

DB: I’m not saying, and I put this very clearly in the book; I’m not saying he wouldn’t have wound up in the same place. He may have. I’m not saying he ever would have been normal. At best he’d have been doped up an institutionalized. We might have avoided the pile of bodies. I don’t think there’d ever be a happy ending to the Dahmer story, it just might not’ve been as tragic as it was.

S: I just want to say, and I am not sure if this is a question, but I really appreciate that you cited your sources. Could you maybe go into your reasoning for doing that?

DB: It actually started with those. I actually have a degree in journalism. I don’t have a degree in art. When I put the story together, I had this timeline, which was essentially the footnotes, and that’s what I worked in. You know, a mistake that a lot of people who don’t have [journalism] training do is they think , “Oh, I am writing a story with a conclusion, let me go find the facts that support it.” Of course that’s the opposite, you start with the facts and try to figure out what happened from there. It ended up being the structural spine of this book. And once I had that, once I was comfortable with that, I put together some of the things where I wasn’t too clear where something had happened (and I took special care to footnote when I was doing that). Once I had that, then I could block the story.

S: I thought your use of timeline, exactly as you’re saying, was masterful. You now from the beginning, “Listen, we know how this ends. It is not a happy ending, but here are some insights you won’t get elsewhere.”

DB: Well, the timeline for my purposes was pure luck. It couldn’t be better if written. It starts with him weirding out, and there’s a moment where he falls off the edge of the abyss. It’s this six-year period, and anything outside of that I’m not really interested in. Once he starts to kill, it gets... boring. It doesn’t interest me at all.

S: I’ll talk about the art, as I imagine, you’ve talked quite enough about the story itself. On the site, my little comic fetish is paneling. I personally think you have some great, solid paneling and layout work. They are all stoic, just... “his eyes, him looking, the mirror...”

DB: The blank wall of a face.

S: Exactly. How did this differ  from other work you’ve done, and what was going through your head when you drew or laid out these scenes?

DB: Well, it really gave me a reason to draw my ass off. The layout is fairly simple, very conservative. Especially in mainstream comics, people have gone nuts with layout. It’s just nuts. It’s all over hte place--where is the story goring? Why have this paneled layout that looks like fractured glass? Where are you going with it? I figured that this story is so powerful, I am not going to get in the way of it. I am jut going to let the story do the work for me. It’s a very simple, traditional layout.

My earlier work is a little more frenetic, a little more dense. My last book, Punk Rock and Trailer Parks, basic panels were three stacs of three. In this one, it was two stacks of two. It’s a little smaller, but that was by design--I wanted to get a lot of detail in the back and capture the experience.

S: It’s really--and I mean this in a good way--claustrophobic. Very intense.

DB: You’ll notice, as the book goes on, I begin to pile up ‘blacks’ into the book, more and more claustrophobic, and that is by design. I was worried it was a bit trite, but it felt like it was a good way to end it, so I was happy with it... It’s a very slow-paced, methodical book. What I like about it is that the tension doesn’t really tae them where they think it is going to go. You never really get there. But there’s this tension, tension, tension--maybe manipulative of me, but. There’s no violence in the book. It’s all just creepy tension.

S: You got me, at least. You got them to feel encroached upon.

DB: It’s slow, and extra dark, which is weird compared to my other things which are these weird, frenetic things, this is a very different take.

S: So, what comes next?

DB: I Don’t have another Dahmer in me, I know that. It’s kind of a drag in one way, y’know, this is invariably going to be known as my best known work, and it is basically nothing like my other work! I figure it’s good to have a best known work than to not, though. I’ll deal with that. I hope to do a lot of different stuff, I’d like to get multiple books going at once, I’d like to get collaborators. I’d even like to get into some more mainstream stuff if a publisher approached me--writing, that is. I’ve got a few ideas in there. I’ll do something. Work 'til you die!