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SPX 2012 – 10 Questions With Derf Backderf

One of my favorite reads this year is Derf Backderf‘s My Friend Dahmer, a graphic novel chronicling Backderf’s friendship with killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Backderf went to high school with Dahmer and his graphic novel is his account of his memories and what Dahmer was like during that time period. A fascinating read and highly recommended.

Abrams ComicArts in the lead up to this weekend’s Small Press Expo, where Backderf will be attending, allowed us to interview the creator about the graphic novel.

So join us for 10 Questions with Derf Backderf!

Graphic Policy: There’s numerous ways to tell this type of story, why did you turn towards a graphic novel as opposed to a prose book, or maybe even a movie?

Derf Backderf: Because I’m a comics creator and this is how I tell stories. I was already a working pro when the Dahmer story dropped from the sky and fell into my lap. There was never any question I would spin it into a graphic novel. It just took a little longer– 20 years total– than I planned.

GP: You describe your earlier works that lead to this graphic novel as a catharsis and a way to work through your friendship with Dahmer. What was going through your mind when the news broke of what he did?

DB: I staggered around in shock for the first few weeks. I was trying to process what Dahmer had done. This was  a guy I sat next to in study hall and gave rides home from school!  And each revelation that came out of Milwaukee was more shocking than the last! In an instant, as the news broke, Dahmer transformed from a strange kid in my past into the most depraved serial killer since Jack the Ripper. I had a few sleepless nights mulling that over, especially when I realized just how close I was to that first murder.

Put yourself in my shoes. I had a typically uneventful adolescence. Can’t say I enjoyed it much as I was living it, but looking back, I had a lot more fun than I realized at the time. I breezed through the curriculum, I had great friends, we had our memorable, goofball antics and then we all got out and went off into the world, where most of us found happiness and success. But when the Dahmer story broke, with a snap of the fingers, my entire personal history was redefined in a chilling and very sinister way. Now I had clarity, and I looked back at those silly episodes with Dahmer, his bizarre puzzling behavior, and the darker, inexplicable stuff, like his binge drinking, and I realized, my God, THAT’S what was going through his head as he was doing that stuff?

On top of this, I was being hounded by every media operation in the country. Dahmer didn’t have many friends, and within days the entire media machine zeroed in on me. My phone rang off the hook, reporters pounded on my door. It was not a very pleasant experience.

GP: You knew Jeffrey Dahmer and you touch on it throughout the graphic novel, but was there any inclination to you that he might be capable of such brutality and sickening acts?

DB: In hindsight, yes. But at the time, I couldn’t project like that. I recognized Jeff’s very disturbing behavior, especially the drinking, and that here was a dark, troubled soul who was missing chunks of his humanity. But I was just an unworldly, small-town rube. I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t date. I was a band nerd who had his face buried in a comic book most of the time. As Dahmer became darker and darker, my only instinct was to avoid him. I’m not going to apologize for that, because that was a pretty good instinct! That could well have been me chopped up in the trunk of his car. Besides, if society is counting on a 17-year-old farmboy to stop one of history’s greatest fiends, there’s not much hope, is there? The big question is: where were the damn adults?

GP: You hint through the narrative that maybe if anyone spoke up about his drinking in high school he might have received the help he needed. Did you yourself feel regret or responsibility for not speaking up and getting him that help?

DB: Well, of course had I known then what I know now I would have spoken up, alerted school officials, done anything I could to stop Dahmer in his descent. But I didn’t know those things. This also wasn’t 2012. This was 1978. It was a very different time. It was the Stoner Era and the one iron-fast tenet of the teenage code was: you never narced on another kid. Ever. Even if you weren’t a stoner, ALL kids adhered to that code. If you were fingered as a narc, your life would be a living hell. You’d be ostracized, mocked, very likely beaten to a pulp. I wasn’t going to risk that for Dahmer, who was a guy, to be blunt, I didn’t like very much by the end of high school.

GP: Have you heard from any of the victim’s families at all?

DB: A lot of interviewers ask me that. The answer is no, and why would I? This story isn’t about Dahmer’s crimes. This is the story BEFORE that story, the tale of a young man marching inexorably toward the edge of the abyss as disinterested adults stand by and watch. There’s no violence to speak of in my book, no depictions of necrophilia or cannibalism or heads in the refrigerator.  My story ends at the moment when Jeff kills his first victim, and even that happens off camera. His bloody spree exists in the book only as foreshadowing, this black doom that looms just beyond the last page.

I understand that there are hundreds out there who still mourn Dahmer’s 17 victims, and I know also that they have no interest in seeing Dahmer humanized. I get that. But this is my story. I lived it. I was a part of it and I have every right to tell it. Judging from the acclaim, I’ve done a good job with it. I’ll just let the book speak for itself.

GP: There’s been a few other graphic narratives that have taken on the story of true serial killers, Green River Killer being the other that comes to mind. Is there something about the mix of visual and prose that helps tells those stories?

DB: I haven’t read the others, so I really can’t say. A lot of comics fans seem drawn to the serial killer/ zombie thing. I don’t really get it.

GP: Overall, it seems graphic novels are becoming a much more accepted way to present journalism, any thoughts as to why this is becoming more popular and accepted?

DB: The quality of those books has a lot to do with it. Spiegelman, Sacco, et al. The comics media is a great way to tell stories. With just a little reference a creator can fashion a scene or an entire time and place, as I did, in greater detail, and easier,  than virtually any other medium. It would take weeks of work, dozens of people and quite a chunk of money for, say, a film company, to create a movie scene that I can draw in a couple hours.

Now, not every comics creator can pull off comics journalism, of course. I myself have a degree in journalism, so I know how to research a story and how to interview, things that most comics guys would probably struggle with. It’s not nuclear physics, but journalism does take some training. There are skills that have to be mastered.

GP: You were into art and comics at a young age, but how did you turn that interest into creating comics “professionally?”

DB: There was  never a question that this would be my career. At age five I knew I wanted to make comics and I never wavered from that goal. The only question was what genre I would work in, and I tried them all. In high school I wanted to draw superheroes for Marvel or DC. Then in college I fell in to political cartooning and pursued that for a while. In my mid-20s I started making these funky comic strips for alt-weekly newspapers and that was my breakthrough success. Then 10 years ago, I published my first graphic novel, on a whim, and I’ve gotten more attention for this work than anything else I’ve done. Probably should have started with graphic novels! Oh well.

GP: Do you have advice for those getting into the business?

DB: Tough, tough business. Have a good day job and make comics as a labor of love. If you’re good, and doggedly persistent, your work will find an audience.

GP: What can we expect from you next?

DB: More books. More Comics. Work until you die.