My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
Abrams ComicArts, 2012, 240 pages
Graphic Memoir

If you have any interest in true crime — and even if you don’t — you’ve heard of the infamous cannibalistic serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Though Dahmer was quite young when he was killed in prison (thirty-four years old), his murder spree mostly occurred in the later years in his life. This leaves the mystery 12959045of what Dahmer was like prior to giving into his fatal temptations. Who was child Dahmer? Who was high school student Dahmer? Former classmate John Backderf, writing under the name Derf Backderf, reveals what he witnessed in Dahmer prior to the serial killer’s crimes. With a gloomy graphic format, in My Friend Dahmer Backderf provides an interesting look into the history and mind of Dahmer with painstaking research and deep dedication.

Backderf supplies both the text and art for this graphic memoir that borders on a graphic biography of sorts. Although Dahmer, even in his teen years, was mostly closed off from his peers (largely, it would seem, as a self-imposed mechanism), Backderf and a small group of others got to know Dahmer casually as a sort of class clown with a drinking problem and an unsatisfactory home life in midwest America. The dinginess of the 1970s reflected in his artwork, Backderf works with a muddy palette that serves to heighten the sense of suffocation Dahmer was apparently feeling in his teen years. While the color scheme works well to influence the mood of the story, the drawing style often felt bulky and somehow unserious, which was much less fitting to the narrative.

Still, Backderf writes with a voice that is a bit melancholy and thoughtful. Both the language and sentence structure contributes to a sense of impending doom. He frequently asks himself the what-ifs while acknowledging that despite any events in high school, the grim future had Dahmer stuck on a path to destruction. Even as readers know how Dahmer will turn out, they reach for his salvation, prior to his first murder. Backderf is careful to differentiate Dahmer pre-murder and post-murder, noting that while pre-murder Dahmer deserves sympathy for his wretched home and school life (and general mental health), post-murder Dahmer has made a conscious choice and can no longer receive sympathy.

Because of the distance between Dahmer and his small group of “friends,” Backderf must rely on loads of research to get the story as accurate as possible. This means plenty of gaps, too, but with a detailed explanation of his methods following the narrative, Backderf is surprising with the amount of care he put into depicting Dahmer’s earlier life. Using newspaper articles, books, court documents, yearbooks, and memories from other acquaintances (which he nearly always insisted there must be two of each event to qualify for inclusion), the amount of work Backderf sunk into this project is admirable. It pays off with an intimate look at teenage Dahmer unavailable elsewhere and totally unique. However, the missing details only Dahmer can share, particularly about specific mental states and the why of it all does make for a work that feels incomplete. In fact, Backderf leaves nearly everything following Dahmer’s first murder off of the narrative. While he briefly discusses reactions to Dahmer’s arrest and certainly references the murders to come, these events are never truly explored. If you’re looking for something that is truly true crime, My Friend Dahmer is not the book to go with.

My Friend Dahmer is an interesting, if sometimes frustrating for the necessary separation between narrator and subject, work that is unlike any other. Backderf is incredibly thoughtful, both on his own feelings and Dahmer’s life. Introspective and marveling, the story reaches into many places many of us want to visit but are often unable to access. Though some of those places remain inaccessible in this graphic memoir, My Friend Dahmer is a worthwhile read for anyone into all things murder and psychology.

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