On Halloween night, 1988, after the last trick-or-treater knocked on our door and I felt at ease to eat the leftover Kit Kats, Sixlets, and Laffy Taffy I flipped through the eight channels of our non-cable television. I happened across a live broadcast from London and Los Angeles called “The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper” hosted by Peter Ustinov. Jack the Ripper was one of those names you know you’ve heard before and believe you know even if you really have no clue about the intricacies of his crimes. I stuck a VHS tape in the VCR and recorded the show. Over the years I watched the thing so much that the picture eventually had so much snow I had to throw the tape away. I instantly became fascinated with the case, so I headed to the public library the next morning to request all the books on Jack the Ripper that the Northwest Regional Library System had. There were three. I had them read in a week.
When my mother expressed her concern for my “morbid curiosity” I assured her I wasn’t planning on slitting the throats of women in Hamptonville, North Carolina. The case fascinated me for two reasons: First, the case remained unsolved, so there was a natural “who done it” quality to the story; and second, the case marked the beginning of criminal sexual psychoanalysis as a topic of study. For me, the “why” the crime was committed was more important than the “what” of the crime scene. My mother was placated for the moment.
I first heard of the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer by John “Derf” Backderf (Amazon affiliate link https://goo.gl/zi4zBH) at a conference for librarians last year. The presenter was a high school librarian who talked about the power of the book with reading-reluctant teen boys. I was wary, I must admit. I knew of Dahmer’s case in general terms and was aware of the sexual nature of his crimes, not to mention the gruesomeness. I even had a tangential personal connection to the case after having taught middle school with a woman who had lived in the same apartment building as Dahmer in Wisconsin, although she did not know him and had moved out of the building before the crimes were discovered. While perusing the shelves of Barnes and Noble one Saturday afternoon, I saw a movie tie-in version of the book on an endcap. I bought the book and decided to determine for myself it’s appropriateness for a school library.
The first thing I noticed as I flipped through the pages was the early 1990s feel to the art. The original sketches Backderf included from his high school days reminded me of the Beavis and Butthead style of animation. The bulk of the narrative driven panels reminded me of Daria, an MTV cartoon series from the 1990s. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but the drawing style took me back to the origin of Dahmer’s eruption into infamy. The heavy ink gave each scene a gravitas, a sense of foreboding knowing where the story was leading. In terms of art, I thought the entire book was a joy. I can’t recall a single panel that I didn’t stop to savor, to enjoy all the nuances.
Dahmer himself seems almost a caricature, but this may have been on purpose. His face and jaw are largely rectangular and his body is mostly straight lines, much like the classic Frankenstein monster. Was this on purpose? I’m not certain, but there was something monstrous about Dahmer even from a young age.
The other characters’ emotions can come across as hyperbole, with facial expressions that would have fit in fine with the Ren and Stimpy cartoon on Nickelodeon. Yet that style brought the emotion of the story to the forefront where it needed to be.
I honestly think this work was Backderf’s way of releasing any guilt he felt for having known some aspects of Dahmer’s eccentricities and encouraging them rather than seeking help. While the author comes to the right conclusion that neither he nor his friends should bear the burden of Dahmer’s crimes, he still feels the need to let the world know what he and his friends knew of Dahmer and why they did not see the dark turn Dahmer’s life would take. The adults in the story, Dahmer’s parents as well as the teachers and counselors at the boys’ high school, are shamed for not intervening, but Jeffrey is ultimately found solely responsible for his depravity.
The book recounts events from Dahmer’s life from junior high through the first few months after graduation. Backderf shares a brief reunion with his friends who were also classmates of Dahmer but at that point Dahmer’s crimes were not yet known. The final panels are from the day Backderf heard of Dahmer’s crimes on the news.
Backderf lets the reader know up front that his view into Dahmer’s life is limited. On the few occasions he created panels for story elements he did not witness first hand he used specific sources to ensure accuracy. In fact, the end of the novel features detailed notes in which Backderf explains his sources and any possible discrepancy. This feature alone elevates the graphic novel into a more substantial work of nonfiction that can provide vital insights into the nature of Dahmer’s crimes. For this reason, I most highly recommend the book for readers who want to learn more about Dahmer’s case.
I have no issues with this book as a part of a high school library collection, but the sexual nature of the crimes and the recognition of Dahmer’s dark fantasies make this work totally inappropriate for elementary and middle schools. While I am no fan of censorship, I do believe in limiting certain topics based on age appropriateness.
I loved this book. Graphic novels have always been one of my favorite genres and this one did not disappoint. Backderf gave readers the anti-hero Dahmer early in the book, a child lost in a dysfunctional home where the only solace was retreat into a dark fantasy world. But once Dahmer’s fantasies edged toward reality, Backderf’s version of Dahmer loses whatever sense of humanity he had. Backderf makes no excuses for Dahmer; he lets us be a fly on the wall to see the backstory of one of the most horrifying crimes in American history.
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