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My Friend Dahmer
posted June 11, 2012


Creator: Derf Backderf
Publishing Information: Abrams, hardcover/softcover, 224 pages, March 2012, $24.95/$17.95.
Ordering Numbers: 9781419703167 (HC), 9781419702174 (SC)

imageThis book took me by surprise. I enjoyed Punk Rock And Trailer Parks, the cartoonist Derf's last major book. That was essentially an affectionate and light-hearted look at one's high school years as processed by a certain personality type with access to a set of outside cultural experiences. I didn't expect a similar exploration of the push and pull and isolating forces of adolescence from this new work on attending high school with Jeffrey Dahmer, and I certainly hadn't anticipate a work this tight and demanding and rigorous when it comes to exploring its specific milieu. My Friend Dahmer functions as the unsparing portrait of the future serial killer in the years directly leading up to his first murder that curious readers will demand it to be. But where most authors placing themselves into the story might be processed as an indulgence or a hook, the inclusion of Derf and his friends into this story makes this a wholly more fascinating comic and one much more worth reading.

Derf creates his novel-length structure by tying major themes into a well-observed chronology of the high school days he shared with Jeffrey Dahmer and the other kids of his sprawling, Midwestern hometown area. Derf makes a strong, immediate distinction between the friendship he enjoys with his closest buddies and the kind of toleration/mascot status that Dahmer enjoys with that same group. He's also ruthless in his appraisal of the adults' obliviousness and selfishness when it comes to putting together information about the serial killer in the making that the context of a largely innocent life rendered them unable to see in its entirety. Anyone that ever recalls processing some sort of monstrous behavior or event as something entirely normal as a teen -- teens do this all the time -- will sympathize with the nature of Derf's relationship to the incredibly isolated Dahmer. Derf is also very good at allowing details to accumulate that show just how the entire environment conspired against the future murderer: selfish parents, a home that's harder to access than some others, an inability to drive until later than most of his peers, access to alcohol, proximity to a woodland area. It may seem heavy-handed unpacked like that, but the narrative eases into most of these observations with Derf only scrambling on top of a soap box once or twice. He even breaks the fourth wall to underline the black humor of some sequences, such as Dahmer arranging a meeting with Walter Mondale while in Washington, D.C. with some other students or when after a school variety show rehearsal Derf recalls having a conversation with Dahmer while the cartoonist was still in full Hitler regalia from a well-received sketch.

Derf states with force that his sympathy lies with Dahmer only up to the point where he commits murder; after that, Derf believes his former classmate should have wasted no time in killing himself before making yet another person a victim. That door shut by the cartoonist, it's the more complex feelings that Derf has about his hometown and those high school years that linger, the seemingly arbitrary ways in which one person may turn out troubled but feckless while another may become a monster for the ages. In what may be the book's most memorable single scene, an early '90s version of Derf quizzed by his newsroom-ensconced wife when the Dahmer story broke names someone else entirely as the classmate who ended up completely breaking with all of society's conventions. That moment stayed with me for a long time after the book is put down, and not just because it's hilarious.