Review Index


By DERF BACKDERF (Abrams ComicArts; 2012)

This graphic novel evocation of the teenage years of one of world’s most notorious serial killers is a profoundly disturbing account of real life psychosis. It was scripted and drawn over a twenty year interval by Derf Backderf, who back in the late 1970s attended Ohio’s Revere High School with Mr. Dahmer.

     As depicted in this book, Backderf’s high school experience wasn’t that different from what most of the rest of us underwent during our adolescent years. We all knew a weird kid (perhaps you were that weird kid) with limited social skills who was treated as an object of merriment by his classmates, and about whom you might have subsequently claimed (as Backderf depicts himself jokingly stating near of the end of this book) “he’s probably a serial killer by now.”

     It’s that very sense of universality that makes this such a profoundly unsettling read. The adolescent environment it depicts is thoroughly ordinary, yet also, as viewed through Backderf’s highly idiosyncratic visuals, a perfect breeding ground for murderous psychosis. Backderf’s artwork, with its odd Don Martin-esque square-headed figures, lends the proceedings a definite sense of weirdness, and also excels in cinematic storytelling of the type that distinguishes all truly great graphic novels. From a purely technical standpoint, in other words, MY FRIEND DAHMER is impeccable.

     Narrative-wise Backderf relates his tale through personal recollections and information gleaned from FBI interviews with Jeffrey Dahmer (all elucidated in a lengthy textual afterward). The mixture is superbly pulled off, with Backderf’s remembered interactions with Dahmer seamlessly juxtaposed with depictions of Dahmer’s none-too-healthy private life.

     Dahmer, you see, was a severely screwed-up young man who drank incessantly and liked to fake epileptic seizures (patterned after those suffered by his unstable mother). What his classmates didn’t know was that Jeff was afflicted by murderous fantasies, masturbating to images of mutilated cadavers and dismembering dead animals in his spare time. His mental state wasn’t helped by his neglectful parents, who were in the midst of an extremely acrimonious divorce, nor his equally clueless teachers. Inevitably Jeff finally gave into his desires and murdered a man, the night of which (as depicted here) was marked by a drive home given Dahmer by one of his and Backderf’s mutual friends. That was the last time any of them ever saw Dahmer, at least until the news of his crimes broke in July of 1991.

     In the already crowded field of Jeffrey Dahmer studies MY FRIEND DAHMER unquestionably ranks with the finest (which in my view would be Brian Masters’ little-known but shatteringly powerful SHRINE OF JEFFREY DAHMER). It also gets my hands-down vote for the finest graphic novel of 2012.