Monday, January 25, 2016

YALSA top ten GNs 2012: My Friend Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer
Written and illustrated by Derf Backderf.
Published by Abrams Comic Arts (2012)

To be totally honest, I had absolutely no interest in reading this graphic novel about Backderf's experiences growing up with the murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. While I'm aware that there's a lot of interest in true crime and serial killers, it's really not an area in which I find myself particularly interested. Despite this lack of interest, and the unsettling content, I found myself enjoying My Friend Dahmer far more than I had expected. However, be forewarned, this is an incredibly depressing look at someone's real life spiral into a nightmare.

Backderf went to school with Dahmer throughout junior high and high school, and interacting with him on a peer level gave Backderf a different take on Dahmer than many of the adults in his life. However, while the title of the book implies that they were friends, the reality is far more complicated. Backderf (and his actual friends) may have found Dahmer to be at times entertaining, and encouraged him to act out in public, but while they used him as a sort of mascot they weren't people who really interacted much outside of school.

Throughout the book Backderf makes sure to repeatedly say that he does not not want to make Dahmer into a sympathetic character, and that while Dahmer's home life had many problems, it in no way excused his later actions. The Dahmer that Backderf knew was an incredibly troubled youth, who seemingly isolated himself in a way to deal with the terrifying thoughts that were constantly filling his mind. Dahmer spent much of high school drunk (in class!) and yet apparently not only did no teacher ever notice, but Dahmer managed to graduate (and briefly went to university). In some ways this book can be seen as a criticism of Dahmer's teachers and parents for not noticing that something was horribly wrong with him.

Backderf's art style is in no ways realistic, but he manages to capture the characters in a way that shows off who they are. The almost cartoony/caricatureish art gives characters the opportunity to express the emotions that they're feeling (and contrasts with Dahmer's frequently emotionless face), but is also effective at creating a sinister atmosphere during the more unsettling parts of the book.

In addition to his own personal recollections, Backderf interviewed dozens of his former classmates and teachers, and extensively used interviews, news articles, and other sources to create as accurate a timeline of events as possible. Despite his copious research a problem I had with this book (and, it seems, many of the nonfiction books I've read that have been on the YALSA lists) is a lack of context. While the text frequently alludes to what Dahmer ended up doing, it is only in the footnotes in the back, and the blurb on the inner front of the dust jacket (which I missed) that it actually says what he did (Dahmer killed 17 people). And sure, how many people are going to pick up this book and read it (and not read the blurb) without knowing anything about Dahmer? Probably not many other than me. Still, I think it would have been valuable to include in the introduction.

No comments:

Post a Comment