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Book review: John 'Derf' Backderf's My Friend Dahmer 

The true tale of teenage Jeffrey Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer by John "Derf" Backderf

(Abrams Comicarts, 224pp, $24.95).

Cartoonist John "Derf" Backderf is the creator of The City, one of the most widely read alternative comic strips printed in numerous weekly papers across the country, including, once upon a time, this publication.

I met Derf in 1995 at the annual alternative newsweeklies convention, held that year in Nashville. I liked the guy's gritty style and his focus on real life in all its glory, mayhem and absurdity. The moment when I knew that Derf simply had to be in Creative Loafing, however, came when I read one of the daily comics-format convention "diaries" he distributed each morning. In one of the panels stood a caricature of an all-too-familiar convention archetype, a desperate-to-be-hip, mystifyingly self-important altweekly publisher. In the midst of Derf's cleverly drawn convention chaos, the publisher suddenly has a realization, which he shouts to the heavens: "What the hell is going on here? No one's kissed my ass in 20 minutes!" Current CL Online Producer Kyle Lee and I laughed about that joke for weeks. Derf went on to later win a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

That convention was also where I first heard bits of the story that Derf has now turned into a new classic of the graphic novel genre: Derf went to school, and was marginally friends, with Jeffrey Dahmer.

Yep, that Jeffrey Dahmer, probably the most infamous serial killer since Jack the Ripper. Both Derf and Dahmer grew up in a small suburb of Akron, Ohio, attending the same junior high and high school in the mid-1970s. After Dahmer's stinky, corpse-laden apartment was discovered in 1991 in Milwaukee, and his predilections for having sex with, and even eating, his victims' corpses were brought to light, Dahmer's former schoolteachers all said they'd had no warning or indication that the boy was troubled. If only they'd known him like Derf and his friends did.

My Friend Dahmer portrays the future serial killer as a tragic figure, "the loneliest kid I'd ever met," although Derf is careful to reiterate, and then reiterate some more, that he's as horrified by Dahmer's twisted actions as everyone else. Derf and his group of friends, who sort-of befriended Dahmer in high school, were nonetheless wary of him, and realized that something wasn't quite right with the kid. For one, his face was an impenetrable, unemotional mask, even at age 16, and he ingratiated himself to Derf and friends by twisting his body oddly, making strange faces, and blaring out loud, distorted phrases that "made him seem like someone with cerebral palsy." Dahmer said he was mocking his mom's interior decorator; it turned out later that he was imitating his mom, who suffered regular, shaking fits.

The other teen boys thought Dahmer was funny, and hung out with him at lunch and occasionally after school. One of them took Dahmer fishing, but was stunned when his weird companion repeatedly stabbed the fish he caught, turning them to mush. That was nothing, however, compared to the, er, surprise the group felt when Dahmer showed them his collection of dead animals he was dissolving in acid in his father's garage.

Dahmer's life was a tormented one, lived largely in self-created isolation as part of a horrendously dysfunctional family, while he scraped the bottom of the high school social ladder. Filled with odd sexual obsessions (his fantasy lovers were randomly imagined dead men), he never spoke to anyone about them until after his arrest more than a decade later. By his senior year of high school, Dahmer was getting drunk nearly every day, although again, his teachers say they never noticed.

Derf's drawing is evocative, and his tone is sympathetic, eliciting compassion for a student who, unbeknown to those around him, was spiraling down into dark insanity. This isn't a tabloid-ish exploitation of Dahmer's crimes by any means, but it is horrifying nonetheless in its own quiet, perceptive way. It's an honest tale of the banal world of high school as emotional crucible — for some kids more than others. Moreover, it's also a moving book that qualifies as one of the great graphic novels, a work of art.

Derf says he's often asked why he or his friends never spoke up or tried to get help for Dahmer. His answer is reasonable and striking: "My friends and I, we were just clueless small-town kids, wrapped up in our own lives ... A better question is, where were the damn adults?"

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