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We've all had that one classmate. The weird one. That kid
who was always by himself, didn't speak to anyone, save one or two people, and
basically gave you the willies. I'm sure you've even joked later on that he
probably became a serial killer. Imagine, you were right.
This is the premise of the haunting and bizarre and
reality-based MY FRIEND DAHMER. Set against the backdrop of Middle America, MY
FRIEND DAHMER follows the troubled story of serial killer's Jeffery Dahmer's
high school days as an outcast, a clown, and at times, a friend. It also shows
his downward spiral from a strange kid to a hard-drinking, mentally disturbed
young man. Most interestingly, the comic is semi-autobiographical as it also chronicles
author Derf Backderf, and his friends, growing up and interacting with Dahmer.
MY FRIEND DAHMER, though in no way be sympathetic to the
killer, does a brilliant job of shedding light on his early life and the
ignorance of his plight by the people around him. Even Backderf, though he
created the comic, did not draw himself as any more knowledgeable to Dahmer's
life than anyone else. He was, like everyone else, immersed in his own teenage haze.
MY FRIEND DAHMER gets sad, disturbing, and even grimly comedic, and has not
only inspired a play but a film adaptation, as well.
FANGORIA recently spoke with Backderf about Dahmer, comics,
and his future endeavors.
FANGORIA: What were
the thoughts racing through your mind when you found out an
old acquaintance was a serial killer?
DERF BACKDERF: I just stumbled around in a daze for weeks. It was
more than just the shocking revelations—that this kid I had given rides home
from school and sat next to in study hall was now revealed to be the most
depraved serial killer since Jack the Ripper—it was the effect it had on my own
personal history. I had thought that all this time, and in 1991 it had been 13
years since high school graduation, that my adolescence had been typical and
dull. Can't say I enjoyed it all that much or looked back on that era with much
fondness, but I had slowly come to the conclusion that I had a much better time
than I thought I did as I was going through it. I had great, interesting friends,
no real drama or crisis other than not being able to conjure up the slightest
interest from the opposite sex. But when that news out of Milwaukee broke, just
like that, my entire history was instantly re-defined in an utterly chilling,
very sinister way. That was hard to deal with; how close we were to this
monstrous, emerging evil. I had quite a few sleepless nights mulling that over.
On top of that, I instantly found myself the target of the
entire national media machine. There were only a handful of people who knew
Jeff from high school, so we were identified and tracked down within a day or
two. The phone rang off the hook. Reporters pounded on my door. TV trucks were
parked in front of my house. I had to hole up for weeks. It wasn't much fun.
FANG: You stated that you still get sad thinking about
him, is that still true?
BACKDERF: Yeah. I dealt with all my emotional baggage long
ago. Every once in awhile, I still get the occasional
hair-standing-up-on-the-neck moment. For example, a couple months ago I was
cleaning out my Mom's basement and found a box of sketchbooks and drawings of
mine from high school. Sure enough, there were some of Jeff! I have no memory
of making these drawings and, again, they too are re-defined. Very creepy. I
can only shake my head and laugh at the surrealism of it.
His story is a tragedy. It still makes me sad. He didn't
have to end up a monster.
FANG: Was it strange to write a comic about Jeff
Dahmer's youth, knowing what you knew about him and his killings? Do you wish
you could have done more for him?
BACKDERF: Well, sure, had I know then what I know now, I
would have spoken up, sounded the alarm, done anything to stop this guy in his
tracks. But you can't think that way because I didn't have that clarity. I was
just a small town kid wrapped up in my own little life. I wasn't a trained
professional. I was a 16-year-old band dork who drew comix all the time. Hell,
all I cared about was the girl with big boobs who sat in front of me in English
class, and making it to the corner drugstore first when the new comic book
shipment arrived. I tried to get that across in the book, and also to drive
home what a different era it was, especially for teenagers. You can't judge
what I depict here using a post-Columbine paradigm. Teenagers weren't under
constant surveillance in the Seventies. Schools weren't locked-down,
zero-tolerance institutions. There were no cameras, no security guards, no cell
phones or GPS. We were pretty much on our own. The grown-ups weren't paying
that much attention.
But having said that, there is a shocking degree of failure
by the adults in Dahmer's life. He never should have gotten away with the
things he did, especially the drinking at school. Here was a guy who reeked of
booze all day long, who walked through the halls with a Styrofoam cup full of
liquor, who kept bottles and six-packs stashed outside the building, and not a
single teacher or administrator ever noticed a thing. Not one! We kids all knew
what he was doing, but the adults hadn't a clue. And this went on for several
years! It still blows my mind.
FANG: You said that once the killings started, all your
sympathy for Jeff Dahmer went out the window. Was it hard making him look like
an innocent teen at one time?
BACKDERF: No, because the Jeff I knew had committed no
crime. I didn't know Jeffrey Dahmer, the monster. I only knew Jeff. I wouldn't
call him "innocent," however. When I first met him at age 12, this
quiet, skinny kid in black horn-rim glasses, I knew right away he was a strange
dude. There was just something about him that wasn't right. And by high school,
he became a very dark, very troubled kid who lost chunks of his humanity with
each passing year. By the end of our time together, there wasn't much about him
that was in any way likeable. There was very little left of him. By the end of
our senior year, I couldn't get far enough away from the guy. That's an
instinct I'm very happy kicked into gear!
FANG: The last page of the comic book had you receiving
a phone call right as Dahmer's murder spree just came to light and there was a
brief mention of you being interviewed by local newspapers. Could you expand on
that? What did they ask you and how did you react to these sudden questions?
BACKDERF: I only consented to an interview with one
newspaper, the Akron Beacon Journal. That was the paper I grew up with—our
hometown being a far suburb of the Rubber City— and it was a paper my wife was
working at, at the time, as a reporter. So I knew the staff there, and all the
reporters. It was a good paper then, too; the best in the state. Won a Pulitzer
every couple years. So, for those reasons, I was comfortable talking to them.
It was because of me that the Beacon was out in front of the story. I gave them
all the inside info. All other media, the national outfits, the bungling local
TV operations, followed in a pack behind the Beacon, re-reporting what was
written in the Akron paper. So, *all* the stories about Dahmer's strange youth—the
roadkill, the weird behavior, all that—originally that came from *me*. It
appeared in the Beacon, then was repeated many times throughout other media and
became urban legend.
The other media who contacted me, and there were hundreds, I
just never called back. By day two, I was screening all my calls. In fact, I
still have this amazing answering machine tape with calls from The New York
Times, CNN, ABC News, Oprah, Geraldo and...The Weekly World News! The entire
range of media in 1991, from the best to the sleaziest, all on one tape.
Fact is, I never talked publicly about Dahmer until I
started promoting my stories and, now, this book. And even now, I'm pretty
careful about who I talk to. Local TV News and AM radio screamers are still
turned down. The Beacon did a nice job with its coverage, but newspapers are so
limited in how they cover a breaking news event. They just don't have the space
to tell a story in-depth. I recognized early on that no one was really telling
my tale with the complexity and detail that I would tell it. That's when I
realized I'd have to do it on my own.
TO BE CONTINUED
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