My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There's one image, right around the middle of the book, that will haunt me, I'm pretty sure. The adolescent Jeffrey Dahmer witnesses a classmate's serious injury and laughs. Derf Backderf was there. The artist went to school with Jeffrey Dahmer, the future serial killer. This book is a memoir and a reconstruction of those early days in Dahmer's life, up to and including his first murder -- though obviously Backderf relies on sources other than his own memories for that. Still, this book is all about hindsight, about the habit of human beings who find themselves to have been near an event -- tragedy specially -- or even, as here, evil, to piece together what memory and history can still tell us. That panel of Dahmer laughing at another boy's pain? That is a chilling image of a face without a soul, and Backderf knows it -- now.
Backderf's drawing style owes something to the humorists of the period -- mid to late Seventies -- described so perfectly in the book. There's a comedic heaviness to the characters: a thickness of line, heavy black shadows, and an awkward uniformity to their rectangular heads on their clumsy, elongated bodies. The National Lampoon is acknowledged in the text, and there is more than a suggestion of Gahan Wilson in Backderf's grotesques -- and of Mad Magazine's Don Martin and Basil Wolverton ("Lena the Hyena.") This can be a bit off-putting, at first, in such a straight-forward work of nonfiction; like watching Adam Sandler in a dramatic role. There's an emotional impact though that's not immediately apparent. This is what adolescence feels like. It's certainly what it felt like then; square, ugly, flat. Backderf's Dahmer looks almost nothing like the blandly handsome face from photographs. But then, this isn't really about that person, but an earlier, indeed, even sympathetic iteration of what will become a murderous predator. This younger Dahmer's blankness, his disconnection and his alien confusion and longing for contact, his weird sense of humor, and yes, his growing menace are all perfectly conveyed by the Tiki-faced cypher Backderf draws. Dahmer's eyes, when visible at all behind his big Aviator glasses, look either dead or dreadful. It works. When, as in the sequence mentioned above, Dahmer's cruelty and madness look out at the reader through the mask, the effect is far more chilling and representative of his very real menace than any photograph or more anatomically realistic drawing might have been. Monsters need deep shadows and dark lines.
But then, Backderf is at some pains not to describe the Jeffrey Dahmer he knew as a boy as a monster. While always quick to acknowledge that Dahmer was lost from the moment he murdered, Backderf tries very hard to extend a real sympathy to the earlier Dahmer, still just a social outcast, a disturbed and disturbing weirdo who drinks every day to suppress his own growing demon. The author's sympathy seems perfectly genuine and far from misplaced. Jeffrey Dahmer was a boy that was never helped, as Backderf stresses throughout. Family, teachers, friends, everyone failed Jeffrey. (While that seems perfectly true, I'm not entirely convinced by Backderf that anyone can predict, let alone prevent a Dahmer. Nothing I've ever read on the subject suggests that there's anything much to be done for such people, and little enough to be done about them besides locking them away forever or killing them in their turn.)
The expanded format of this edition allows Backderf to not only tell as much of the story as he'd always intended, but also to provide extensive back-notes, and a very interesting forward detailing the the long history of his Dahmer comics. The finished work is remarkably able telling of a very dark, true story, and from a unique perspective. I've had no more memorable, or disturbing reading experience this year. I can't recommend this book enough.
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