Reviewsday: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

An English professor of mine once told me (and I can’t find where he got it from, forgive me) that the most powerful types of horror is horror for another person. I have to agree with him. All horror works on this principle, in my opinion, because if the reader feels nothing for the characters, doesn’t empathise with their struggle and hope for their misery to end, then the author has failed. The example my professor gave our class to illustrate this principle was Silent Snow, Secret Snow by Conrad Aiken which features a little boy slowly losing himself to the symptoms of schizophrenia. The story is excellent, and the reader was made to fear for this little boy and the life he would lead with this illness. I mention all this today because the graphic novel I’m reviewing today also deals with a young person slowly succumbing to their own inner demons, and the horror around it comes from knowing how this troubled boy’s story will end.

My Friend Dahmer was written and drawn by the artist known as Derf Backderf, real name John Backderf . It was published by Abrams ComicsArts in 2012, which publishes groundbreaking graphic novels and illustrated books about the creators and the history of comics art, animation, and cartoons”  As the title implies, the work is based on the author’s real life friendship with infamous serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, but it’s about adolescence, loneliness and the strange world of inner darkness that can lurk inside, unnoticed, until it’s too late.

You might be able to tell that I really like this graphic novel.

The graphic novel is entertaining, in a dark way. In terms of more traditional “entertainment”, the antics of young Derf and his friends, and even some of the “Dahmerisms” (Dahmer becomes a sort of class clown in high school) were funny.  However, the story of Jeffery Dahmer is essentially like watching a train wreck: you know that it’s going to go horribly, horribly wrong and yet you can’t look away. Backderf’s art style is superb and really brings the story to life. The style is reminiscent of caricature, featuring exaggerated facial features and over-the-top movement, and is extremely expressive. This allowed the reader to see every micro expression of every character, and allowed the emotion behind the story to come through.

The story itself is told very well. It follows the five act plot structure, which I thought was a little odd for a memoir, and it worked quite well. Dahmer was portrayed as both a protagonist and an antagonist at different times in the book, but Backderf weaved it together so seamlessly that it takes re-reading and analysis to figure out. It’s one of those stories that you want to read again and again to catch all the nuances and all the little details. I constantly knew what was going on, and could easily follow Dahmer’s descent downwards–even if I didn’t want to.

Jeffery Dahmer is well characterized, which is probably a good thing because he’s the main character. What makes this book so horrifying is that Backderf spends so much time fleshing out Dahmer that the reader starts to feel a bit of empathy for him, as Backderf clearly does. My main issue with this book is that Dahmer is characterized so well that the other characters seem flat next to him. Young Derf himself seems like an afterthought in this story, and doesn’t feature much until shortly before his friendship with Dahmer ends. This isn’t a big issue, since the focus of the story is Dahmer, but it would have been nice to see a bit more of the inner worlds existing around Dahmer, if only to highlight that a world existed around this one individual.
I don’t know if I can call this graphic novel an enjoyable read, because it’s genuinely hard to watch Dahmer become, well Dahmer. I would call it horrifying at best. But I feel like it’s an important read, because it’s a reminder that, as much as we wish it wasn’t so, real-life monsters are all too human.

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