My Friend Dahmer is a non-fiction graphic novel by Derf Backderf, who was apparently a classmate and sort-of peripheral friend of Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer who was responsible for the deaths, rapes and cannibalism of 17 people in the late 1980s (mostly). I’ve seen a lot of movie tie-in covers around as I’ve been writing this review, but I didn’t actually know that there was an upcoming film.
Plot summary: You only think you know this story. In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer — the most notorious serial killer since Jack the Ripper — seared himself into the American consciousness. To the public, Dahmer was a monster who committed unthinkable atrocities. To Derf Backderf, “Jeff” was a much more complex figure: a high school friend with whom he had shared classrooms, hallways, and car rides.
In My Friend Dahmer, a haunting and original graphic novel, writer-artist Backderf creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man struggling against the morbid urges emanating from the deep recesses of his psyche — a shy kid, a teenage alcoholic, and a goofball who never quite fit in with his classmates. With profound insight, what emerges is a Jeffrey Dahmer that few ever really knew, and one readers will never forget.
Normally I’d shy away from this type of thing. I don’t agree with essentially profiteering from the horrific deaths of innocent people or dragging a serial killer’s name back into the public spotlight decades later. However, I picked this up for three reasons:
- Jeffrey Dahmer died in 1994. I’m pretty sure he’s therefore unaware of this graphic novel,
- Derf Backderf was already an established graphic novellist when he put this book together and isn’t therefore just trying to make a name for himself, and
- This book deals with only the time when the author was around Jeffrey Dahmer at school and not his prolific string of murders a decade later.
As a result of the above, My Friend Dahmer doesn’t feel like it’s glorifying Jeffrey Dahmer at any point, which was always possible. I was impressed with the author’s dedication to accuracy. The extensive notes at the back of the graphic novel detail where his information came from – which interview, which newspaper, or whether it was simply from his own recollections. Even the living room of the Dahmers’ house is apparently accurately depicted. There are, of course, some events that took place when only Dahmer himself was present, but Mr Backderf states that he’s put these scenes together as best he can be compiling Dahmer’s own descriptions in later interviews. He was surprisingly talkative for a serial killer.
I’m happy with the art as well. It strikes a fine balance between realism and cartoonish that is both easy to ‘read’ but also doesn’t fly past two quickly. Characters are easily recognisable and there’s a nice flow from frame to frame. Very occasionally, there’s a photograph or a flyer inserted to remind you that, actually, the author did know Jeffrey Dahmer.
I was expecting a sort of ‘Ah yes. Jeffrey Dahmer was five years ahead of me and I almost definitely saw him in a corridor once,’ type of thing, but no. They were in some of the same classes and, whilst it’s clear that Dahmer never really had friends, as such, they did sit together at lunch, occasionally share car rides and generally muck about. Weirdly, at school, Backderf used to draw caricatures of Dahmer and post them on flyers around the school. And here we are.
The story ends after the author has gone off the college and he never saw Dahmer again. There’s nothing here about Dahmer’s later-life murders, other than a brief one or two page spread about how Mr Backderf found out about how his classmate had elected to spend his life. Weirdly, when asked to guess which of his classmates was the murderer, Jeffrey Dahmer wasn’t even his first choice… I do think the novel would have benefited from a little more exploration of that though. Even the prose introduction doesn’t really attempt to express the surely bizarre feeling of knowing that somebody with whom you shared certain experiences has killed seventeen people, one of them at that time.
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, unforgivably, incomprehensively clueless and/or indifferent. Once Dahmer kills, however – and I can’t stress this enough – my sympathy for him ends. He could have put a gun to his dead. Instead he, and he alone, chose to become a serial killer and spread misery to countless people.
Mmm. The central theme of My Friend Dahmer is how many people (teachers, parents, the police) ignored Dahmer’s clear difficulties and turned a blind eye to the fact that he was rolling into school blind drunk every day and was running around the town in the early hours of the morning. I agree with the sentiment and I like to think that it wouldn’t happen today (although I’m not completely convinced). I do struggle with Mr Backderf’s lack of accountability for himself, however. Whilst I agree that the teenage Backderf that exploited Dahmer as a source of amusement and drew caricatures of him is in no way responsible for the murders of those seventeen people, surely the adult version can look back and admit that he didn’t treat Dahmer all that well? But there’s none of that. Just ‘the teachers could have done this…’ and ‘the Police should have done this…’
So the graphic novel is brilliantly put together, but I’m not sure if the experience would have been as good as it was if it wasn’t for the extensive notes at the back of the book. Each chapter has references and explanatory notes that fill in the gaps that weren’t pictured in the narrative. It was this part that really stuck in my mind and the following night I had a dream about trying to eat teeth.
On that note, actually, I’ll just say that My Friend Dahmer isn’t actually all that gory. There is one already-dead animal, some animal bones and an off-the-stage murder/disposal. It sounds surprising, but don’t forget that this novel deals purely with his teenage years. The end notes go into slightly more detail (although still without changing the focus of the book) and it’s interesting, if not pleasant, reading.
In short, I really do recommend My Friend Dahmer. It’s respectful and well-balanced with easy to follow art by an author who actually knew Dahmer as a teenager. I remain unconvinced that it will work as a film, but I’ll definitely be buying a copy of this for myself.
And then buy his book.