Tuesday, January 24, 2017
My Friend Dahmer
Not MY friend, obviously. I'm referring to the 2012 graphic novel by Derf Backderf.
I don't recall how I became aware of this book- it just sort of appeared on the periphery of my reading conscious. But with my interest in true crime and criminal psychology, combined with my appreciation for graphic novels, I immediately requested it through inter-library loan.
Ever since I started reading graphic novels, I've had a great admiration for them as mediums of literacy: prose, visual and information. It's amazing to me that an author/artist can present a narrative by creating lasting images using an infinite number of stylistics of layout, art and text.
I knew that Backderf had accomplished this feat very quickly after I finished the book because while lying in bed that night, trying to get back to sleep, I was haunted by the images I had been flipping though hours earlier. I wasn't haunted by what they represent- the biography of a notorious serial killer- it was the art Backderf created that was seared into my mind.
The novel is black and white with heavy ink, and the starkness could be interpreted as a metaphor for Dahmer himself: the person everyone thought he was (weird, geeky, outcast) and the person he knew he was inside. Graphic novels are often thought to be just comic books-kiddie stuff. Derfman's motivation for penning such a dark story in a medium that's often used for young readers seems to be one of catharsis, sympathy and a genuine desire to show some humanity for Dahmer. Not the monster that he became, but the child and the teen he was before then. That person, whom the author knew simply as Jeff, is the tragic figure he wanted to share the story of.
The book was an easy read; it took me just a couple hours.There are some disturbing parts related to Dahmer's early fascination with roadkill, but the art is minimal.What's more disturbing is the foreshadowing that readers who are familiar with Dahmer's notoriety will notice. There are also some very explicit themes throughout the book: teenage alcoholism, depression and mental illness, homosexuality and obviously violence; also, throughout the book Jeff makes his friends laugh by imitating a person with cerebral palsy and the author includes an instance in which he performed in a talent show in the role of Adolf Hitler.* I don't usually consider myself a literary gate-keeper but I wouldn't be comfortable recommending this book to non-adult readers. One of those inclusions could be seen as an invitation for discussion on mental health awareness, acceptance or sensitivity but the combination of all those factors, on top of the reality of the person represented,creates a dark, disturbing story.
I don't mean that as a criticism. I wouldn't expect a book about any criminal to be sunshine and flowers. I'm an informed, experienced reader who has an interest in the topic and my ability to self-censor has been refined for quite some time now. I thought the book was well done and I enjoyed it, for what it is. Backderf is successful at presenting 'Jeff' as a tragic figure: plagued by an unhappy home life, ignored by teachers and classmates at school, ashamed of his sexual orientation during a time when it was not accepted, and tortured by his sick thoughts and dependent on drugs and alcohol as a desperate attempt to distract himself from all the former, the story is a tragedy for everyone involved.
I plan to read his other graphic novel, Trashed, especially because both these books are being adapted into films.
*I would like to clarify that while Backderf includes instances like playing Hitler in a school skit, and laughing at imitations of handicapped people, he never uses Dahmer's crimes, or even Dahmer's personal problems, as a source of humor.