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Akron artist's graphic novel remembers "My Friend Dahmer"
Derf Backderf recounts his years in high school with a serial killer

Mark Urycki
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Reviewers nationwide are praising a new graphic novel from a local artist.

It deals with a subject about as far away from the funny papers as you can imagine. Cleveland cartoonist Derf Backderf has penned a graphic memoir that focuses on his high school friend, and later serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer.

John Backderf goes just by the name Derf for his comic strip The City, now in the Plain Dealer. Earlier he had tried his hand at longer format graphic novels with "Trashed" about working as a garbage-man and then "Punk Rock and Trailer Parks" about his early interest in punk rock.

Growing up in Summit County’s Bath Township, Backderf was in the same class as Jeffrey Dahmer at Revere High School.  He and his buddies even invited the strange Dahmer to be part of their little group of class cutups.  

After Dahmer was murdered in prison in 1994, Backderf wrote a couple short stories and then a small self-published comic book about his experiences with the boy who would become an infamous serial killer. 

Now it’s a 224-page book growing from years of sketches.

Derf Backderf

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Derf Backderf extended interview

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Derf did research on Dahmer but also went back to Dahmer's house and   his high school to get the drawings correct.  He even researched the layout of Summit Mall in the 1970's to get the stores right.
Dahmer was fascinated by dead animals and would cut open roadkill to see what they looked like inside.

Derf Backderf says he didn’t write this book to exorcise memories that still haunt him.

“I pretty much dealt with all the baggage long ago.”  But he always wanted to tell more of the story that he began with a 24-page comic book version.  He already had notes and sketches, many of which he drew of Dahmer in high school. It became a joke among the friends who called themselves The Dahmer Fan Club.  They thought Dahmer was funny for the silly things he would yell out or the way he imitated a person having a fit.

“It sounds terrible and it was, but we were idiots, 15-year-old idiots.”

Backderf says his buddies didn't mock Dahmer. “He was enjoying himself quite a bit. It was very likely, sad to say, the happiest time of his life because he was the center of attention and actually had friends.”

On a class trip to Washington D.C., Dahmer called the White House and managed to convince officials to allow him and two other students into the vice president’s office.  They got to meet Walter Mondale and columnist Art Buchwald.

A dark side
Still, Jeffrey Dahmer was not part of the inner circle of friends that Backderf had because “there was always a dark undertone about him, an aura of gloom.”

The others also found Dahmer’s drinking alarming. The son of a chemist would carry a cup of scotch around with him to class and smell of alcohol early in the morning. They didn’t know Dahmer was already cutting open roadkill to see what animals looked like inside.
Two weeks after graduation in 1978, Dahmer gave a ride to a local teenager hitchhiking home. He killed him.  

The arrest
Backderf and his friends were stunned when the crimes here and later in Milwaukee came to light in 1991. When he was told one of his classmates had been arrested for murder, Backderf thought first of someone else. 

But his second guess was Dahmer. 

His friends gathered to share stories and Backderf  took notes and made sketches. "The genesis of this book was that day."

A trial he couldn't watch
During an open house at his high school, Backderf went in with a camera so he could capture the exact look so his drawings would be accurate. He also studied a 1970’s layout of Summit Mall to get it right. He even visited Dahmer's boyhood home, where the first murder occurred.

When Jeff Dahmer was brought back to Summit County to face murder charges, Backderf was working at the Beacon Journal. But he passed on a chance to watch the court hearing. 

“My head was just not into it at that point. It didn’t seem like something I wanted to do at the time.  A bunch of people went down from the Beacon just to watch him come in. I just stayed behind and worked on a cartoon.” 

Related Links & Resources
Derf's "Punk Rock and Trailer Parks"

The Dahmer house exorcised by rock music

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