Sunday, January 8, 2012

Review: My Friend Dahmer

One perk I really enjoy is that from time to time Editor Charlie sends me an Abrams book he’s particularly proud of or thinks I’ll appreciate. A few weeks ago he mailed me a review copy of My Friend Dahmer (Abrams ComicArts, 224 pages), a graphic novel by Derf Backderf, which will be released in the spring. I don’t often review books; however, for reasons I’ll explain, My Friend Dahmer stirred me to reflect and write.

My Friend Dahmer relates cartoonist Backderf’s high school relationship with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991, when he was caught after his intended 18th escaped and ran half-naked into the street. Dahmer was especially depraved, torturing his victims horribly and eating some of their remains. He was killed in prison in 1994. Backderf knew him in high school before the murders started (coincidentally, Dahmer claimed his first victim the same day Backderf moved to college) but long after it was clear there was something desperately wrong with Jeff.

Backderf pulls together clues whose significance was only obvious in retrospect: a preserved fetal pig stolen from the science lab, animals found butchered in the woods, weird laughter at a friend who fell and hurt himself. Backderf wonders why no one—parents, teachers, cops—connected the dots. A haunting subtext of the story is Backderf brooding over why he didn’t, either.

My Friend Dahmer is no apologetic. Backderf never asks or expects us to sympathize with a monster. But he does illuminate how Dahmer got broken, partly through common high school hurts and humiliations that Backderf recalls with aching clarity. Dahmer, Backderf and I are evidently peers—I graduated high school the same year they did—and though I didn’t grow up in Ohio, Backderf’s portrayal of the clothes, cars, classes, and most importantly the feel of the times really resonated with me. I had that haircut, I wore those glasses. I had those friends.

Does My Friend Dahmer work as a comic? Honestly, I had to give the question some thought. Backderf’s drawing style owes something to MAD Magazine’s Don Martin, one of the great big-foot, over-the-top humor cartoonists but maybe not your first choice to illustrate a serial killer bio. I initially found the contrast between form and content jarring. However, upon reflection, I thought it succeeded. Backderf’s storytelling is skillful and clear. Sometimes, his style lets a little lightness into a story that is otherwise unbearably grim. Other times, particularly through Backderf’s thoughtful spotting of black, the art effectively builds suspense and dread.

Ultimately, despite (or due to?) its cartoony grotesqueness, My Friend Dahmer is an impressive work of journalism that may well stand as the most sober and thoroughly researched biography the killer ever receives. In endnotes, Backderf discusses his sources, including FBI interviews obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Backderf tests his first-hand memories of characters and events against later evidence and timelines, points out where they agree and diverge, and clearly annotates nearly every page. It’s a nice piece of genuine scholarship.

Now: why My Friend Dahmer hit me in a way it may not hit you. As I said, I’m the same age as Backderf and Dahmer. I didn’t attend my high school class’s 25th reunion, but its organizers invited everyone to write short bios that were compiled into a booklet and, months later, mailed out to us. I sent in a paragraph. Everyone who contributed anything sent in a paragraph. Everyone except one man, who sent in three single-spaced pages chronicling a lifetime of depression, victimization and misery. He concluded by wondering what he might have done to all of us if only he’d had the example of Columbine to inspire him.

Well. That gets you thinking.

I knew him in school and considered him a friend. He was a bit “off,” not in a scary way but enough to ping the radar of the predators and bullies. No kid I knew—whether punk or stoner or nerd or gay—was lonelier or had a bigger target on his back than this boy whose raw howl of defiant rebellion was wearing a suit and tie to school. Even the teachers just rolled their eyes. I knew his high school years were hell. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do anything to make them worse, but I don’t know if I did enough to make them better.

That’s a regret I imagine Backderf shares. My friend was no Dahmer. But then, when Backderf knew Dahmer, neither was Dahmer.

My Friend Dahmer concludes with a chilling coda set in 1991, when a friend of Backderf’s called to tell him that one of their classmates had been arrested as a serial killer. The friend asked Backderf to guess who it was. Dahmer was his second guess.

That gets you thinking, too.


Mike said...

This book has been on my radar; your review moves it to the "must have" level.

I think we all know times we could have been nicer, could have stepped up when somebody was getting the short end unfairly, might have simply offered a moment of sympathy to having someone having a bad day.

And most of us are never challenged to wonder what difference it might have made. I'm hoping Derf will provide that challenge, and it sounds like he does.

Jim O'Kane said...

Sounds like a fascinating read - - although I can't imagine sitting next to someone on an airplane with that book propped open in front of me. :)

Sherwood Harrington said...

Jim, it might get you more elbow room. I'm flying to Atlanta in a few weeks, and I think I'll try that out -- a great read AND a more comfortable flight!

patricia said...

Wow. I'm not sure I would want to read that graphic novel, but your blog post really hit a nerve. I can think of a few fellows from my high school, who, if they turned out to be murderers, the news would not surprise me. High school can be a horrid, hellish time, even for those who are not so low on the social social stratosphere.

Brian Fies said...