There are only two notable alumni of Ohio’s Revere High School. John “Derf” Backderf draws The City, a Crumby comic appearing in alternative weekly newspapers like (but not) this one. Jeffrey Dahmer raped, tortured and killed young men and stored their mutilated bodies in his apartment.
Coincidentally, Derf and Dahmer are both products of their exurban school’s class of 1978. Their school years—the backdrop of dazed confusion might have been drawn by Richard Linklater—are the subject of My Friend Dahmer. Derf has been polishing the stories in his graphic novel since Dahmer was caught, more than 20 years ago, and fastidiously pairs footnoted research with memories.
My Friend Dahmer is a bit of a misnomer. Derf was president of the Dahmer Fan Club, a clique of band geeks who adopted the spazzy loner as their mascot. As he makes clear in his panels if not the jacket, Derf’s cohort used Dahmer as a muse for pranks, but regarded him as too odd to befriend. In Derf’s telling, Dahmer’s “Glory Days” moment involves being paid to fake seizures at the mall while his classmates laughed for hours. Afterward, Derf and his friends make plans to see a movie. Dahmer isn’t invited. We cringe.
Derf has a knack for warm but sober portrayals of pathetic scenes. My Friend Dahmer works when he looks through that lens. His exiguous memories only hint at Dahmer’s warped psyche (actually, he thought Dahmer to be his class’ second-most likely serial killer), but they’re the door to the book’s most interesting dynamic, which is how Derf reprocesses things upon learning his friend’s fridge held a human head.
Derf initially sees Dahmer as a sympathetic figure before bemoaning the fact that he “didn’t have the courage to put a gun to his head and end it” rather than kill. A psychopathic murderer, obviously, doesn’t have so much empathy. That Derf can’t muster substantially more is the book’s ultimate disappointment.
The big realization? One of Derf’s friends hung out with Dahmer after he’d killed a hitchhiker. It’s a moment far from the weeping fit of confession that closes Sufjan Stevens’ song “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” about another Midwestern serial killer, or the brutal introspection in Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home.
Actually, Derf never expresses guilt over exploiting a weird kid for laughs. Instead, after two decades of mulling, he blames teachers, parents and cops. Three decades after he graduated from high school, Derf is still grappling with the evil in the backseat of his Chevy Vega.
You can’t fault him.
This is a book he had to write—the Dahmer Fan Club presidency and being
your town’s only notable storyteller leave certain responsibilities—but
he doesn’t have any answers. No one does.
BUY IT: My Friend Dahmer is available at bookstores now.