COMIC OF THE WEEK : MY FRIEND DAHMER
By Derf Backderf
Published By Abrams Comic Arts
(In need of a bit of a breather after last week’s column, here’s a 2012 review I wrote for Crime Factory on Derf Backderf’s true crime comic book account of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s youth.)
My Friend Dahmer is a painfully personal and unique book, shot through with the kind of detail that only someone close to its terrifying subject could really know. This is unsurprising, as Backderf was not only Dahmer’s classmate but also one of the few people Dahmer could ever conceivably call a “friend.” Thoroughly annotated at the rear, My Friend Dahmeris stitched together with Backderf’s own experiences with “Jeff,” anecdotes from close friends and reconstructed scenes based on information from Dahmer’s own interviews once incarcerated.
The book covers some territory that will already be familiar to those who get their kicks boning up on serial killer trivia (one of whom I am not), but from a perspective never heard from before, that of a man who walked the halls, sat in class and went on field trips with a future monster. Backderf worked on this project for twenty years, on and off, originally creating a now cult-classic slim pamphlet version before abandoning the work, continually musing on it, and finally, with his technical chops honed to the point he felt he could do the work justice, expanded to over 200 pages.
Backderf’s portrait of Dahmer is that of an obviously and increasingly troubled young man filled with odd personality quirks and a clear taste for the macabre, even as a teen. However, there is a clear sympathy for Dahmer on display and this is more than understandable given Backderf’s acquaintanceship with Dahmer and his knowledge of his traumatic home life. While the world of teens is often cold and cruel, My Friend Dahmer puts a decidedly sober adult spin on Dahmer’s treatment at the hands of his supposed “friends.” There is no humour to be found here, just honest, brutal, regret-tinged re-creations of events that make nobody involved look good, not just the subject of the book. Backderf’s scathing assessment of adult supervision and support, or lack thereof, raises some pretty serious questions. The adults are virtually invisible and a distinct delineation between the world of the teens and the world of the grown-ups is clear.
Backderf’s narration says:
“Not a single teacher or school administrator noticed a thing. Not one. Were they really that oblivious or was it that they just didn’t want to be bothered?”
Obviously, we’re talking about the ‘70s, clearly a very different time, something Backderf makes abundantly clear, but when a guidance counsellor is quoted as saying, “I can’t say that there were any signs he was different or strange,” something’s clearly gone pretty badly wrong.
In fact, it’s hard to ignore what seems to be the book’s central thrust – that the selfishness and neglect of the adults in Dahmer’s community, while not directly responsible for Jeffrey’s horrific future actions, are more than partly to blame for Dahmer becoming exactly what he became.
Dahmer’s parents fought incessantly and this, combined with Mrs Dahmer’s severe medical problems, paints a picture of a pretty miserable home life for Jeffrey and his younger brother, despite living the relatively idyllic, leafy town of Bath, Ohio where the story unfolds. It’s a town away from the worst of the seventies depression, “…the unlikeliest of breeding grounds for the most depraved serial killer since Jack The Ripper.” Following his parents separation, Dahmer was, incredibly, left alone in his home at the time he quite obviously needed support the most, entrenching an isolation which, prior to this, has been increasing incrementally, leaving him with nothing but “the voices in his head.”
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that Backderf, in both his introduction to the book and in the notes at the rear, makes no excuses for Dahmer, and states that all sympathy for Jeffrey ends the moment of his first killing. My Friend Dahmer is about the boy who would grow up to become the man who would kill seventeen people. To know the monster we need to know the man, but while the book is a scathing assessment of ‘70s society in many ways, ultimately Dahmer’s actions were his own.
Visually, My Friend Dahmer is a treat. Black and white and drawn in a cartoonish Peter Bagge-esque style, the caricatured Dahmer nonetheless bears the same mannerisms and body language as the real man, particularly in his awkward, idiosyncratic posture – straight as a board, arms at his side. I watched a short documentary on Dahmer after reading the book and a photo shown of a strapping young Dahmer at the beach mirrored this pose exactly, much to my surprise. The deceptively simple artwork also, ironically, adds to the air of menace the book carries, notably in Backderf’s wonderfully expressive faces and particularly in the case of his main subject. When the mask slips and it shows emotion, the otherwise mostly blank face of Dahmer bursts into life. This is shown perhaps most memorably in the book’s opening, when Dahmer angrily shatters one of his acid-filled road kill jars when confronted by wise-cracking classmates who sincerely doubt that even the well-known oddball they found walking in the backwoods with a dead cat would actually be experimenting with the dissolution of animal bodies.
Splash pages, especially, are a treat both artistically and symbolically, with many of them focussing on Dahmer alone – Dahmer in the woods stroking the skull of an animal whose bones he long ago stripped of flesh, Dahmer walking down an empty school hallway, head bowed, Dahmer, head tilted as he leans against a brick wall and necks from a bottle of liquor, the rear of Dahmer’s car as, silhouetted, Jeffrey open the passenger door for his first human victim. Backderf’s placement of these, and other, large images, as well as his pacing and continuity throughout the book, are reasons alone to pick the book up.
My Friend Dahmer is a very weird and very sad work, an anti-coming of age tale, told without the unfortunate myth-making or gruesome exploitative nature of many serial killer biographies. It may depress you, it will most likely anger you, but this is an important work, one arguably headed for classic status.
WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : GOODBYE SPACEBOY
By Roger Langridge
So many comic book tributes to choose from. In the end, I went with Roger Langridge’s for its very succinct but very clever use of comics icons and Bowie lyrics.
And for more comics Bowie tributes, here’s a nice collection:
COUNTDOWN TO MOZ METAL: HEAVY METAL DECEMBER 1978
Not really a spoiler: big changes in format and sensibility come to HM in 1979, so effectively this December 1978 issue marks the end of what many consider to be the glory days of this periodical’s life (up until now), even as some old favourites continue on for a while yet. As if to signify this, 1978 goes out with a bang, armed with a cover by Peter A. Jones that looks like a total stoner fever dream – a winged, alien T-Rex riding a space ship while a blood-red moon hangs in the background. Far out.
The editorial for what is oddly purported to be Christmas special is typically great, celebrating the freaks, the geeks and the psychedelic warriors who, one imagines, made up a significant percentage of the readership:
“This is for the people who make up islands, planets and houses with one of everything. Who would prefer color pictures in black and white and vice versa. Who see white river maps on printed pages. Who keep getting hints. Who can imagine giant dwarves…Seasons Greeting to everyone who can’t wait and wishes nothing were ever, really, over.”
Sindbad and company battle evil jinn riding winged steeds in a swashbuckling, smash-em-up chapter of “…Arabian Nights” that’s all Corben. Scimitars swing and crack through zombiefied foe after zombified foe in one of the least wordy extended chapters of any serial published by HM so far, showcasing Corben’s art at its crazed, kinetic best.
“This is it, my thousandth contract. I’m rich now. I can retire to my farm in Maryland.” So says the protagonist of Moebius’ “Hitman,” a fascinating change of pace from the French master in that it’s a piece of noir pastiche. Whimsical in that “Airtight Garage” way, “Hitman” is, I hate to say it, a largely disposable entry into the Moebius canon, but it is, as expected, lovely. A quirky, pleasant diversion, but what I wouldn’t give to see Moebius show some serious Jacques Tardi-like attention to his noir.
“Orion” wraps up, with Gray Morrow’s lovely, colourful art with its retro-shaped spaceships modified to resemble flying fish, sumptuous alien flora, and classic character design holding firm right until the end. It’s an abrupt, hurried conclusion, however, losing some points overall for its hurry to exit stage left. Fans of classic SF comics should make a point to seek “Orion” out, however, as even here, in this magazine of artistic curiosities, its style and classicism always stood out month to month, issue to issue.
Bilal’s jaw-dropping art continues in “Exterminator 17,” with its killer android protagonist vowing to “liberate the androids.” More beautiful SF work here, reminiscent of Nic Klein’s stellar work on Drifter, but stripped of colour. Linework this expert needs no colour, with the final splash of space suits, moons and debris an absolute show-stopper.
Philippe Druillet scoffs at your single page splashes, Bilal! Raising the stakes considerably across eye-popping double-pagers of perplexing perspective, Druillet provides art in which you may feel like its creator is attempting to code some terrible Lovecraftian secret into its corners as you vainly try to soak it all in.
There are many other assorted odds and ends within; more “Airtight Garage,” “Off-Season” and “So Beautiful, So Dangerous,” but it’s with Paul Kirchner’s “Tarot” that we’ll spend the rest of our time with for this issue. You may recall that Kirchner is the creator of The Bus, a series of short, silent strips that put a mind-bending spin on the hell that is public transport commutes (the series actually begins next issue, so expect more focus on that soon). With “Tarot” however, Kirchner delves into the HM aesthetic full force. A knight in shining silver armour astride a similarly armoured silver motorcycle (!!) rides through a desolate desert landscape to arrive at the city of Rtaz, a crumbling, stony place sculpted from rocks and nearby mountains, where “the scent of sorcery” is thick in the air. Ruined and abandoned, the city’s only citizen is a “court wizard gone mad” whom our knight is to face.
This wizard derives his power from a deck of tarot cards and Kirchner expertly uses the design of his tarot cards as both foreshadowing and comics space-time trickery. The cards mirror exactly the reality these characters find themselves in – a close up of the Knight, lance raised, is pulled back to reveal the wizard holding The Knight card, pulling The Tower card out to reveal a crumbling structure becomes the exact same structure crumbling down upon our protagonist.
Of course, this reliance on the power of his cards dooms the wizard as, face to face with the knight, he pulls The Lovers from his deck. Our knight unbuckles the suit of armour to reveal a beautiful naked woman. She embraces the lecherous wizard who dies, presumably from over-excitement. Death is the final card our victorious knight pulls from the deck, showing the embodiment of death itself rendered as a skeleton in a suit of shining armour.
Kirchner’s layouts are brilliant – cards cutting to events and back to cards – and the image of our silver knight on her silver motorcycle steed is so perfectly HM, it’s virtually iconic. Amazing stuff.
COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : FROM THE GUTTERS: MIKE ALLRED
I’ve long suspected that along with being one of the greatest artists currently working in comics that Mike Allred is also the nicest man I’ve never met. This interview, conducted by current Vertigo editorand fellow nice guy, Jamie S. Rich, confirms both of these things.
This is candid, honest, intelligent and incredibly open stuff (it’s probably Rich’s long-term friendship with Allred that coaxes forth such warmth and detail), a fascinating look into the mind and the process of a creator driven by a need to both capture and sustain real joy. Split over three parts, this is essential viewing for Allred devotees and casual fans alike.
See you next week. Love your comics.