'My Friend Dahmer' looks at serial killer as a troubled high school student
John Backderf's graphic novel about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's high school years will be released Thursday.
February 28th, 2012
08:41 AM ET

'My Friend Dahmer' looks at serial killer as a troubled high school student

Readers of alternative weeklies nationwide are probably familiar with the work of cartoonist John Backderf - a.k.a. Derf - who has been serving up his twisted take on contemporary culture since 1990 in "The City" comic strip. But before his work graced T-shirts and album covers and earned him the 2006 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, he was a kid from rural Ohio who happened to be friends with Jeffrey Dahmer before he became one of the country's most notorious serial killers.

Now, 21 years after Dahmer's arrest, Backderf is telling the story of Dahmer's  high school years in a graphic novel, "My Friend Dahmer," which is being released Thursday.

Backderf was 12 years old when he met Dahmer in the seventh grade. By high school, Backderf and his "band nerd friends" had welcomed Dahmer into their group as the oddball joker who made them laugh. They parted ways before graduating from Revere High School, and Backderf never heard from Dahmer again.

Dahmer was arrested in 1991 in Wisconsin after a would-be victim narrowly escaped from his home. He was found guilty at trial of 15 counts of murder in Wisconsin and pleaded guilty to killing one person in Ohio. He was bludgeoned to death in 1994 by a fellow inmate in a Wisconsin prison. In the aftermath, Backderf began to reflect upon how the young man he knew had become a despicable rapist, murderer and cannibal, and the work that would lead to "My Friend Dahmer," Backderf's third graphic novel, began.

The 55-year-old veteran cartoonist spoke with CNN.com about signs of trouble in Dahmer and possible missed opportunities to set the budding killer on a different path. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

CNN: How did you become friends with Jeffrey Dahmer?

John Backderf: The usual way kids become friends. We sat together in the cafeteria, he was my lab partner, which is pretty strange looking back on it. He didn’t have a lot of friends and he wasn’t one of my close friends, but we sort of adopted him as high school wore on because he amused us with his bizarre antics. He became a mascot for our group of friends. He was obviously pretty damaged from the get-go, but not to the extreme that we’d see later in life. He did not relate to people the way other people do.

CNN: How so?

Backderf: Early on, he would fake epileptic fits and spastic movements in the halls, bleat like a sheep. It sounds horrible now, but keep in mind we’re talking about 14- and 15-year-old boys who are idiots by nature, and he amused us. Later on, he started drinking heavily, at 8 in the morning he would reek of booze, which was disturbing, but now we know he was self-medicating to deal with everything going on his life. He was trying to quiet the noises in his head. There was strange behavior going on, but he was a smart guy and he just made us laugh. That’s really the bottom line.

CNN: What was he like?

Backderf: He was a real quiet guy. A lot of people portray him as this weakling who was picked on, but he was a big guy. He worked out with weights, and he was built like a linebacker. He was occasionally picked on a little by the jocks, but even they got wary of him. He kind of moved through the school without raising any notice from teachers. I don’t think any of the adults noticed him, despite how shocking his behavior was. He was able to sink into the shadows, but we noticed him in the way that kids often see things adults don’t see.

It didn’t surprise me that he became a serial killer, but he wasn’t my first choice from our class. When I heard the news that a classmate was accused of being a serial killer, Dahmer was my second guess in terms of classmates.

CNN: How did this project come about?

Backderf: It just dropped from the sky and fell into my lap. It’s not the usual type of material that I do; I’m a humorist, and this is obviously not funny. But I’m also a storyteller, so how could I not tell this story? It’s so unusual and so compelling. I can’t think of another book like it, someone who was right next to one of the great fiends of the 20th century, a first-person account as a graphic novel.

It started two weeks after his crimes came to light in 1991. I got together with a couple of old friends, members of the so-called Dahmer Fan Club, the band of nerds that adopted him as our mascot, that was what we called ourselves. (I was the minister of propaganda.)

We got together to commiserate and share stories because it just really messed up your head not only to have this friend that was suddenly revealed as the most depraved serial kill since Jack the Ripper, but we were under the gun from the media; there camera crews at my door constantly and reporters calling. So I got together with these guys, because they were the only ones who knew what I was going through, and I started writing down ideas in a sketchbook because I heard things I hadn’t heard before. I just filled the sketchbook with notes and drawings and didn’t know what to do with it, so that’s how it started. It was only in a sketchbook form for the first five years.

After he was killed [in prison], I wrote my first short story more as a cathartic exercise. That eventually got into print, and I tried to pitch it as a graphic novel in the '90s. But no one was biting, so eventually I self-published a little comic book in 2002 to get something out there, but I always had this vision of a big graphic novel and took 21 years to get it together. I wasn’t working on it constantly but certainly was collecting research and kept building the story.

CNN: What other kinds of research did you do?

Backderf: A buddy of mine bought his boyhood home five to six years ago, and I went into his home and made drawings of the interior space. I also got a hold of FBI files - all this stuff is in the public domain because he’s dead now and who cares? - and combed through transcripts of interviews he gave to the FBI and criminal profilers, where he talked about his youth. But mostly, I did interviews with his contemporaries - neighbors, teachers, friends - I’d seek them out over the years and slowly built this picture that I turned into the book.

CNN: Why now?

Backderf: Because I finished it. It’s been 21 years, so it’s not like exploiting the story for personal gain. If I am, I’m doing a lousy job of it - I should’ve rushed something into print a year after the crimes came to light. I just didn’t want to be a part of the scandal, the sheer feeding frenzy. I wanted to tell a story that I thought was very unusual and compelling, and I wanted to do it my way. So I took my time, and when I finally got around to doing it, I did I the way that I’d always envisioned, and that was important to me.

CNN: What did you want to achieve with this novel?

Backderf: There’s no real hidden mission here. I wanted to tell this story as well as I could tell it. That was my only goal, and I think I accomplished it.

There's very little violence in this book. No murders, no cannibalism or necrophilia or any of the other depraved acts people think of when Dahmer is mentioned. My book has none of those things. This is the story before that story. It follows Dahmer right up until the moment he kills his first victim, just two weeks after our high school graduation. It's a tale of emerging evil, told by someone who was standing just a few feet away.

CNN: Why do you think it’s such a fascinating story?

Backderf: People are fascinated with this guy, and this is a side of him a lot of people don’t know about. When they think of Dahmer, they think he’s an inhuman monster, but the Dahmer I knew was all too human, and I think I show him as this very damaged kid struggling with all his might against inner demons that were eating him whole.

I wouldn’t say he’s sympathetically portrayed, but it’s a different side of him. And I think that’s important because when you write people off like Dahmer as monsters, there’s a certain air of inevitability that comes with that designation; like oh, he’s a monster, so what he did was going to happen no matter what. In the case of Dahmer, I think there were some serious missteps and missed opportunities on the part of adults that were around. He was marching toward the edge of the abyss, and I think if the adults in his life were a little more on the ball, he could’ve been stopped.

It’s a cautionary tale, let’s put it that way, and people like Dahmer keep popping up: Columbine; the Tucson shooter, Jared Loughner; the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho. Whenever I hear about those guys, I’m struck by the similarities to Dahmer. They had secret lives and get worse and worse, and no one noticed or stopped them. There’s a lesson there, and I don’t know if society has learned it, but I think it’s important to talk about it.

CNN: How is this project different from your previous work?

I’ve primarily been doing a comic strip for last 20-something years called “The City,” which runs in free weekly city rags that you see stacked in coffee shops in big cities, and a few other graphic novels: “Trashed” and “Punk Rock and Trailer Parks.” This is my first project with a major publisher, so I’m excited about that.

CNN: What do you want people to take away from this novel?

Backderf: I just kind of leave that up to the reader. I think people will interpret works based on their own reading of it, and you can’t really expect everyone to react the same way to a book like this, especially with a controversial figure like Dahmer. I’m confident I told the story the way I wanted to tell it. What I hear mostly is that people are affected by it and really stunned when they read it.

CNN: What kind of criticism do you get?

Backderf: Some people object to writing about Dahmer at all, and I get that. A lot of people out there are still mourning the 17 people he killed, and I understand that. Others object to me doing it as graphic novel, as if somehow that’s not a legitimate way of telling a story, and I reject that right off the get-go. This isn’t Archie and Jughead. I think we’ve moved beyond the concept that comics are for kids only. There are some graphic novels about Auschwitz and the Bosnian war. It’s a legitimate art form.

Then you get the weirdos on the fringes. It sounds weird, but there’s a huge group of people who’ve turned Dahmer into this antihero, this whole death-metal revenge fantasy, that he was picked on and grew up and got revenge on society. This is total crap, but these people are really vocal. I’m still figuring out how to respond to him, because they don’t like that I don’t portray him as wounded martyr, so it tends to vary, the critical response.

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soundoff (200 Responses)
  1. Therapy

    If not the parents- who?
    Some people are born with anti-social or other personality disorders. Some with schizophrenia.
    The teachers are not taught in mental health. The counselors are limited and need to be therapists who have worked with very ill people so they can stop mental illness right away. Too bad we are cutting counselors from schools.
    Many kids will lie and avoid the therapists anyway.
    The parents are the ones to know what is happening and sound the alarm. Lautners parents needed to call the police, take him to a psychiatrist and watch him take his medication. It is very hard to make someone want to be better. The paranoia with psychosis tells the person others are "after' them. Most are not violent as most do not have a personality disorder- when they do- they are a gun waiting to go off.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      A cartoon explaining serial killer mentality? You have to be kidding man...

      February 28, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. JM

    When he heard one of his former classmates was a serial killer, if Dahmer was his second choice, then who was his first choice? (My point is that in high school, nobody can tell the futures of their peers.)

    February 28, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Then why is it when these children kill or grow up to kill in most cases it's not a shock to anyone? Case and point, TJ Lane who just shot and killed three of his class mates in Ohio. Quiet wierd kid that everyone ignored. No surprise to anyone except his stupid parents who gave him access to a loaded gun. IMO the parents need to hold some responsibility here.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • AlanN

      I totally understand what Backderf is talking about. One of my former school friends is currently in prison for multiple murders. But when I was growing up with him, he wasn't the first one I would have guessed if someone told me a school friend had murdered someone. There were a lot of nerdy kids with violent thoughts who got picked on when I went to school and being bullied was very common. Nobody did anything to stop it at all back then. The point is that some people can handle what they've been through by deciding they will become better people and others go the other way. I firmly believe we are what we decide to be, within reason that is. Some people are mentally ill and can't help themselves too much. Most of the rest of us get to decide what we are going to do with our lives and what we will become.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  3. haywood jablome

    All a person knows, thinks and says is the result of parental guidance! It is the parent, who in 90% of these types of cases should be solely accountable for a child's actions. Dahmer evidently had no guidance.......ergo.....look what we
    wound up with!!

    February 28, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Getting tired

      No, I disagree. Parents do not have that kind of control over raising their children.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Gary Gilmores eyes

    I had two high school acquaintances (not friends; just people I knew at school and not personally outside of school) that committed murder during out HS years (maybe 15 – 17 years of age, I’m 53 now so the exact age they did the crimes at escapes me now). They both had abusive home life according to people that did know them outside of school. One was a real hard case, tough guy always beating up & picking on people. He went to a liquor store one night with a sawed-off shotgun to rob it. The robbery went bad he killed two people, he went to youth prison. The other was quite, polite & studious. He went home one day got has father’s gun and shot him three times in the head whilst he was taking a nap on the living room couch. According to people that knew him outside school the father was EXTREMELY abusive to the whole family. The boy went youth prison. Then there was this small statured guy that was always getting beat up, picked on and was stuffed in to lockers or trash cans almost every day at school. He seemed to have just as much reason or more to commit murder, but, he didn’t. We (my odd little clique) hung out with this small statured guy or more correctly we let him hang with us part of the time as “our mascot”. You know what? He still lives down the street and is a happy normal person with a wife & kids that I still see & know (or maybe he just hasn’t been found out for a serial killer yet). People deal with things differently.
    So how do you know what behaviors to look for (besides the OBVIOUSE ones)? Is it the tough guy or quite, polite & studious guy or the guy that was always getting beat up & picked on? Dahmer did what he did because he wanted to do what he did.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Yes and No. Dahlmer may have been genetically disposted to some traits or personality disorders, however behavior can be learned and his envirornment could have pushed him to become a serial killer. I think as a society it's important to start identifiying trouble kids earlier and pulling them out of a situation before things esculate. In almost every single case I have read regarding serial killers (I am currently reading Born Evil) the killer had a horrible upbringing and was either abused by one or both parents.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  5. David

    To fill in the story, Jeffrey Dahmer was killed in prison by Christopher J. Scarver

    February 28, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • haywood jablome

      Way to go Chris.....Jeff was also sodomized with a broom handle whilst in the pen // ya think he died a painful death?

      February 28, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  6. John

    I for one cannot wait to read your book. I did an essay in college on the Virginia Tech Shooter Cho. In that case his parents ignored signs of Schizophrenia in Cho. His parents were so nieve they took their kid to an exorcisim. He had teachers that threw him out of their classroom. He could have been stopped and should have been stopped. Yet this person with clear mental issues was able to obtain a gun permit. I think a book like yours will open people's eyes and make others aware of signs that are troubling like Dalmer's childhood. I think we all know people who we think are off, odd or are capable of committing horrible crimes. But what are we doing about it? And how can we stop it?

    February 28, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
  7. BOMBO ©

    Wasn't he killed with a broom by some convict who thought he was Jesus?

    February 28, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • tracer

      yeah, i'd heard he'd been killed w/a broom too

      February 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • MrsDahmer

      NO!!! the broomstick thing was a rumor!!! i guess came about because they were all THREE (another man was killed as well, named jesse anderson) on clean up detail in the mens latrine adjacent to the gymnasium. Jeff and jesse were killed with a piece of weight lifting equipment called a "johnny bar".
      (just for general knowledge, Jesse Anderson had many defensive wounds while, Jeff had none.)

      February 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jake flanigan

    I grew up being bullied by others and no one took up for me. I hung with the nerds bookworms movie buffs in junior High and survived. I went to a private high School in Hollywood with rich kids and kids who were brains or children of actors or rich important people. I made friends got over worrying about what others thought of me. I was the student class photo journalist I wrote amusing things and was liked. after high school things were rough but I ended up ok. I taught school with Handicapped kids for almost 40 years. I saw a lot of high school friends get into heavy drug abuse and some die or become vegetables. some became very violent beating their wives and children or others. I didn't get into it but i saw it all. I warned other teachers, principals and parents about students who were accidents waiting to happen, but was mostly ignored or even punished for speaking out. I stopped out of self preservation. I saw where my talking calmly to a student or even the bully did some good . I can understand why some of these students might become deeply disturbed and act out violently or later in adult life become threats to society!!!
    If the adults in charge choose not to help or listen then only a small miracle can stop the quiet emotionally distraught child from becoming the attack dog of the future. Praying alone won't help us. Jake

    February 28, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. best

    I think the writer makes a bunch of excuses for the serial killer. when i was a teen, i certainly had enough brains to know that if someone was killing animals, they have something wrong with them. Look at another famous train wreck psychopath-Kurt Cobain, the signs were all over the place with that guy. when i researched about him, turns out he was obsessed w/gross diseased body parts, killed animals, acted very oddly, yet all his friends passed it off. enabled him completely.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • MrsDahmer

      YET, he didnt become a serial killer!! go figure!!

      February 29, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
  10. best

    They enabled Mr. Cobain, in part to keep the cash flow obviously, i mean the guy sat on a tricycle riding it around while reporters waited for 30 mins on him, i read in an interview. He also battered his wife, & threatend suicide like how many times? i used to be a fan, but the more i read about this guy, i was shocked & turned off. i feel like this author is doing the same thing-he is cencoring the brutality of the serial killer, and cashing in on the whole ordeal.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Thinking7

    It is sad – even his classmates could smell the alcohol on his breath at 8 am during school. Surely some teacher or parent or someone else in authority noticed. Did no one care about this man? If someone had cared, maybe he wouldn't have turned out to be such a monster.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      I said the same thing in the first post; I got called names.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. best

    I hate reading stories like this, its sad and scary to know just how evil a human being can be. whats worse is not all evil is captured. many times there are people who know that someone is evil, and they fail to tell, and then innocent people are chosen at random to be victimized! sad thing is those victims dont even know whats going on, and yet this could of been prevented. that makes those around the criminal almost just as guilty as the criminal! God hates evil, and will punish justly on judgement day.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  13. house

    seeing his victims were primarily african-american men will it explore his psychology of race?

    February 28, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mig

    I own an earlier printing of this graphic novel... the one Backderf references in the interview. It's compelling, fascinating, heartbreaking, and not sensationalist. I can't recommend it enough as a portrait of how even overt things can go unnoticed and that context matters hugely. Backderf treated the whole topic with thoroughness and respect, and it is brilliantly done. It is an unforgettable read.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  15. TOOHARD

    SAD SAD SAD ; OH BUT ONE DAY!!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
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