It's possible that you already know how the cartoonist, Derf Backderf's, latest graphic novel ends. The book's central character — a teenager from rural Ohio named Jeffrey Dahmer — graduates from high school and goes for a car ride on a listless summer day. On his drive, he passes a thin, handsome hitchhiker standing in the sun with his shirt tied around his waist. Dahmer stops. The passenger door opens.
The book is called My Friend Dahmer and the title is not merely a sales gimmick. Backderf really was friends with Dahmer when the two were gangly, awkward classmates at Revere High School, outside of Akron. Amused by his classmate's then-harmless quirks, Backderf was part of a group who called themselves "The Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club." Backderf used his talent for drawing cartoons to appoint himself the group's "Minister of Propaganda."
Backderf went on to become a graphic novelist and syndicated cartoonist whose strip, "The City," appears in newspapers across the country, including this one. Dahmer became, as the book notes, "the most depraved serial killer since Jack the Ripper."
My Friend Dahmer is a reunion for the two classmates. In proms, malls, high school cafeterias, and other landscapes from a 1970s adolescence, Backderf explores where Dahmer went wrong and how, under different circumstances, his descent might have been stopped. The cartoonist lived on Manning Street here in Providence, during a brief stint at the Providence Journal in the late 1980s. He now lives in Cleveland, where he discussed the book with me, via email. The interview has been edited and condensed.
YOU WROTE THIS VERSION OF THE BOOK IN A SINGLE, MONTH-LONG SESSION. WHAT WAS THAT MONTH LIKE? WHEN YOU SET OUT TO WRITE A STORY LIKE THIS, DO YOU INSTINCTIVELY WRITE OR DRAW FIRST? Yeah, that was dark, because I had to channel what I was thinking and feeling in high school and later when Dahmer's crimes broke. That wasn't a lot of fun. After that I just detached emotionally from the story and concentrated on the nuts-and-bolts process of making comix, and that is fun. I "write" in thumbnails on 8.5 x 11 paper, cut in half to make little comix pages. I draw in very loose sketches, little more than stick figures really, block in the layout of the panels and write in all the dialogue. No one but me could interpret these thumbnails, but it's enough that I can work out my vision for the scene. I see scenes originally as little film loops that play in my head. So the words and pictures are never separate.
DO YOU SEE A ROLE FOR THIS BOOK IN THIS COUNTRY'S DEBATE ABOUT BULLYING? I wrestled a little bit over whether to include that particular scene [where jocks sneak up behind Dahmer and deck him], because the bullying thing has become a big, and greatly exaggerated, part of Dahmer's story. The urban legend that has sprung up around this guy, particularly in the death metal/serial killer crowd, has turned Dahmer's young life into a sick revenge fantasy. This is crap on a number of levels. Dahmer, after all, was driven solely by his depraved sexual cravings, by his own admission, not by anger, and most of his victims were gay, black men, hardly representative of his earlier "oppressors."