My Friend Dahmer (a graphic novel)
Written and illustrated by Derf Backderf
Abrams ComicArts. 2012
Grades 7 and up
I received a copy of this book from the publisher.
“You’re putting a review of this book on your blog? I thought it was an adult book," a colleague said to me.
You bet I’m putting this on the blog. My Friend Dahmer is one finely crafted tome and a must-read for fans, regardless of age, of stories told in graphic format.
In a quiet voice, almost a whisper she said,“But, it’s about...Jeffrey Dahmer…you know…the serial killer! You don’t want kids, especially teens reading about…him! Do you?”
What I want is for all readers to be exposed to a great book. My Friend Dahmer is not a detailed glorification of the horrific murders done by a twisted individual. No way! It is a beautifully executed, sympathetic portrait written by a man who is trying to understand how Jeffrey Dahmer, a high school classmate, a person he shared “classrooms, study halls, and car rides," could turn out to become a serial killer, “a depraved fiend as notorious as Jack the Ripper.”
The author, American artist John Beckderf, (also known as Derf and Derf Backderf) is an award winning political cartoonist (Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, 2006) His comic strip, The City has appeared in a number of alternative newspapers since 1990. His other graphic novel is entitled, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks. His style reminded me a lot of comic artist, R. Crumb.
This book takes place during the 1970’s at Revere High School in Richfield, Ohio. It is presented in grayscale, which reflects its somber tone. We are quickly introduced to a teenager who is a loner, drawn to the bodies of dead animals. His home life is horrific with his parent’s constantly fighting and ignoring signs that their son has some oddball obsessions. Backderf shows Dahmer’s increasing weirdness through high school and how his classmates never suspect the killer he will later become. Reading this book is like watching a movie where you know the outcome, but you watch it just the same because it is so darn good. You are drawn into the suspense. (Rear Window. All the President’s Men. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)
In the introduction to My Friend Dahmer, Backderf explains that it was a twenty-year work in progress. He began collecting material in July 1991, a few weeks after “Dahmer’s ghastly crimes became public.” It started out as an eight-page short story, but then after Jeffery Dahmer was killed in prison (November 28,1994) writing became more of a cathartic exercise. “To
you Dahmer was a depraved fiend, but to me he was a kid I sat next to in study hall and hung out with in the band room. You just can’t imagine what it was like once the news of his crimes exploded, or what it’s still like for me whenever I think about our friendship.”
My Friend Dahmer was first published as a self-published 24-page comic book. It had limited acclaim and attention. In looking back, Backderf was unhappy with it. He saw a missed opportunity to produce a really great book. “This is a tragic tale, one that has lost none of its emotional power after two decades. It’s my belief that Dahmer didn’t have to wind up a monster, that all those people didn’t have to die horribly, if only the adults in his life hadn’t been so inexplicably, unforgivable, incomprehensibly clueless and/or indifferent. Once Dahmer kills, however – I can’t stress this enough– my sympathy for him ends.”
In my opinion, My Friend Dahmer is an example of how the marriage of pictures and text can create a book deserving of all the major book awards: Caldecott, Newbery, Printz, Eisner, Pultizer…and Sibert. Yeah, it is that good.
I’ve given this book to several adults and older teens (Juniors and Seniors) and they all have said the book creeps them out, but it was one of the best books they’ve read in a long time.
Read more about the story behind My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf.