Between 1978 and 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer murdered seventeen people, all male adults and teens. His crimes were horrific and gruesome, and they shocked and saddened a nation. Why had this been allowed to happen and why did it take so long for him to be caught? And, as with any mass murderer, the public wondered what had, if anything, happened to Jeffrey as a young man to turn him into this horrific monster. Many wondered what could have been done to stop him; many wondered what kind of childhood he must have had. As Jeffrey began to speak, to the media and to law enforcement, he told a story of a childhood and young adulthood that might have mirrored others, one that included nonexistent parents who were too busy with their own hatred of each other to pay him notice, alcohol abuse, an invisible life in high school even though he was surrounded by others. Author and artist Derf Backderf was one of those who surrounded Jeffrey. Derf was a high school classmate of Jeffrey’s who populated much of the same space during their time at Revere High School. He has written a memoir of his recollections of this time in his updated and fully realized new graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer. Readers will follow Dahmer’s time in high school through the eyes of his sometime friend and acquaintance and wonder what, exactly, went wrong and why there was no one there to stop his burgeoning madness.
Jeffrey Dahmer lived in rural Bath, Ohio, a town outside of Akron. Derf met Jeffrey in seventh grade at Eastview Junior High. When it was time for high school they both moved up to Revere High School where they were acquaintances and occasional, albeit removed, friends. As much as this story is about Jeffrey and his descent into madness, it’s also a tale of the 1970s and growing up in a time of uncertainty. Derf and his friends were on a course of extreme possibilities, their whole lives in front of them. They felt they could make their dreams into reality. And as much as their futures were wide open, Jeffrey’s couldn’t have been more constrained and painful. He grew up with parents who were extremely verbally abusive to each other in front of their sons (they eventually divorced and deserted Jeffrey as a young man). As his inner demons continued to grow, Jeffrey became increasingly strange, drinking heavily to the point of self-annihilation, the only way to keep up the façade of a seemingly normal life. But, inside, the voices and desires grew so loud that his life soon turned into a hell on Earth.
Derf wonderfully tells a story so heavy and dark, yet engaging, that readers will eventually feel as though they are the ones living the story in those early years in Dahmer’s life. Derf’s impeccable research and memory lends to the story the feeling of truth and earnestness that transcends other works on Dahmer’s life. This isn’t a trashy tabloid account of a mass murderer, this is a story coming from a person who now, with many years spent in between, wonders what, if anything, could have been done to stop the rampage that Jeffrey later embarked upon. It’s weird to say this is a wonderful story because of the devastation and sadness that readers know will start after the final page, but it is just that – engaging and devastating.
Derf’s illustrations really make the story, though. His crisp black and white line drawings are so detailed and so precise that the story and illustrations truly complement each other. Because of the exquisite illustrations, readers are brought into the world of Jeffrey and Derf which makes it so affecting for the reader. Thanks to the fact that the only colors used are black and white, some of the more gruesome scenes, mainly those showing the after effects of Jeffrey’s obsession with roadkill and dismemberment of such, are not sensational and do not distract from the story; in other words, the gross out factor is muted, as much as it can be. Derf also provides extensive notes on his research in the back of the book. These pages are full of information that further clarifies the story and references exact page numbers for readers.
This is a story that would be best suited for older teens and adults, obviously due to the subject matter of the story, but also because for readers to truly be sucked in by the story, they have to know Jeffrey Dahmer and what he later became. Because we know who he is, this makes the story that much more powerful and disturbing. This story is difficult to read, and it will definitely stay with readers long after they’ve put the book down. Derf Backderf has created a graphic memoir that will set the standard for others in the years to come.
My Friend Dahmer
by Derf Backderf
Abrams ComicArts, 2012