'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. viranka

    origin of comics and cartoons where never made for kids in the first place. this was indicated by Mel blunt legend cartoonist in an interview several years back...

    February 28, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      Just like the group KISS – they were heavy and scary to everyone at first then became a kiddie band and still are.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Maria

    People who write about this insane murderer are doing for their own good and greed,you are greedy and any money you made it give should be for the familes victims that will be the best ,otherwise you are part of the crime ......and it will be blood money! I don't think you are doing it for another reason you are doing for money! you are a disgrace to real writers .I don't believe that after this monster dies it should be stories about him...who cares? if hell exists ,I hope this animal is rotten there already! and you are wrong !

    February 28, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eddie

      Maria, the same could be said to journalists, like CNN. They make money on reporting news, good or bad.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • MC

      On the other hand, nobody cares what you think.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eman Deriuqer

      @Maria, no, you're wrong. Also, if that's true, then anyone writing about anything bad is greedy, etc., so let me ask you, are you one of the lucky ones whose job NEVER requires you to help or provide a service to anyone who has had something bad happen to him or her? Or do you work for free? And if you work for free, are you also homeless? Naked? If you live in a house, or have clothes, that was at some point someone else's land, or someone else's cloth, fiber, etc., and was probably was taken away by force, and you benefited, so you're also greedy, and you're also a hypocrite. If you are paid to do anything involving bad things that happen, including police, firefighting, anything medical, a lawyer, a banker, an insurance person, a PR rep, work at any echelon of government, are a social worker, etc., and get a paycheck, you're a hypocrite. In fact, unless you somehow survive without food, (for which some living thing, plant, animal, or other) had to die so you could live, you're a hypocrite. Even if you only eat things after they die of natural causes, your eating of them deprived some other living creature sustenance he or she or it could have benefited from, so again, you're a hypocrite, and oh by the way, no one cares about your opinion anyway, so go away.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Serial Killer Fanatic

      Personal gain how? It's almost 21 years later just as he said. It's not like he went flying to the media saying I was friends with all during high school, I'm gonna write a novel!

      How about all the novels that are out about him now, person greed too?

      February 28, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • LouieD

      Maria:
      By posting on this message board offering an opinion about the material - positive or negative - you're deepening the article and contributing to a controversy that will publicize the book. Does that make YOU greedy or "part of the crime?" Does it make YOU a disgrace?

      Bad things happen in the world. People go off the deep end, and some of them inevitably become famous because of the twistedness and brutality of what they do. Personally, I find it fascinating to read about how such people develop to that point. If you don't, that's fine - nobody is obligating you to read it. But to criticize someone for telling a true crime story from their unique and very close perspective is unfair and (frankly) dumb.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ann

      People speak of "greed" as this horrible thing. But if we tried to put a stop to our capitalist economy and opted to just pay everyone in the country a flat $1000/month and nothing more, they'd pitch a fit.

      Obviously, this guy will make a few bucks off this. Probably not a ton. And who cares? Everyone profits, and everyone often profits off everyone else. How many Jack the Ripper books are there, for instance? it's a whole lot. Or movies (yeah, I guess I'm thinking of that horrid From H*ll here)? They're "profiting" off that man's (?) crimes. But they're also exploring an issue that people feel the need to explore, to try to understand. And I think this is a kind of neat way to do it.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marty Majors

      You are a idiot!!! I own this book as well as 4 others on Dahmer,And it is a great read. If you don't like it don't read it, I guess you have never heard of Freedom of Press have you.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • sockpuppet

      Maria if you believe in God then he probably ISN'T "rotting in hell", since he got saved before he died. But I digress. This isn't about profiteering, although this man has every right to earn a living since he worked hard on this art for many years. People want to know about serial killers and murderers so we can LEARN from it. What makes them tick. How it happens. Because then maybe we will see the signs and stop it in someone else. And as this author stated, he never even gets to the point that he addresses the murders. The story stops before the murders begin, so clearly he isn't sensationalizing the story and making a buck off of the victims. Don't be so closed-minded.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      Did you even read the article?

      February 29, 2012 at 12:15 am | Report abuse |
    • OCTM

      I do not think that Mr.Backderf is being greedy. He lived next door to one of the most notorious killers in America and attended school with him. If anything I think that this is giving readers a chance to see the early signs that a future serial killer displays at a young age. Which can hopefully help us to recognize these signs and prevent this behavior from reoccurring by giving us insight.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:05 am | Report abuse |
    • teremist

      Dear Maria, One thing is clear, YOU can not be accused of being a "real writer." Nor is MENSA likely to call.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
    • paul

      You just don't get it. he's a writer/artist with a story to tell. Should no evil person ever be written about?

      February 29, 2012 at 8:16 am | Report abuse |
    • scott

      Yeah, because it's always bad anytime an artist supplies a means for society to study and maybe understand the mind and how it works, even in it's darkest forms. Really bad and should be banned. Knowledge is NOT power. Now you know.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Toi

      Get back on topic. Dahmer, while interesting to certain minds and definitely terrifying to the rest of us, portrays a certain kind of evil that we just don't talk about. We know it exists, we know it's out there..but we dare not frighten our children or friends and relatives by telling his story. He is the classic "Boogey Man"...I grieve for those who lost someone. I'm glad he met his end because if he hadn't..one of us would be on the other end of this storytelling.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
    • james

      Wow, I was going to disagree with you but it appears that that would just be kicking a dead horse. I do think its interesting that not a single person has replied to this comment saying that they agree with you.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      I am absolutely amazed at some of the measured and intelligent responses to this comment. Its as if a graduate level psychology of interactive media class was required to post as part of their grade. This is the first time I have read comments where I did not feel we are a doomed species of mind numbed meat bags.

      Kudos people and keep up the amazing responses, there is hope for western civilization.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mitch

      "and you are wrong !" Perfect way to end any argument. You most likely looked at the pictures.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:10 am | Report abuse |
  3. Jeff

    Very interesting article. I respect the author for his insight. I think we should appreciate his doing this, if it will help us recognize similar personalities and perhaps help them before it's too late.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • AOC25

      I think that this would be addressing a bigger issue as well. There is something really wrong with american society, educational and family units and unless we talk about these issues more people like Dahmer will keep popping up.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:01 am | Report abuse |
  4. someone

    I got this comic a few weeks ago and found it pretty interesting.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Serial Killer Fanatic

    A good read?

    February 28, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Pop847

    The age thing doesn't wash. This cartoonist is 55. Dahmer was born in 1960. They were NOT in the same grade together. Sounds like another opportunist to me.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • dave moss

      since dahmer was their group's "mascot" it makes sense that he was younger than them.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Betty

      He was class of 78, that would put him about 52 and Dahmer was born in 1960 so the age thing works out.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mitch

      A good thought, but yeah, it works out.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:12 am | Report abuse |
  7. Heather

    I think that this is a story that has needed to be told for a very long time... It allows you to, in a small way, to understand that Dahmer was not born a monster. Yet somehow he still evolved into one and the crimes he committed were truly horrific, cruel, and shattering. To blindly wrap yourself in the belief that Dahmer was, and had always been, a monster is truly naive. Jeffrey knew what was turning into, and initially seemed to be trying everything within his power to stop himself.

    However, the greatest tragedy of all, was suffered by his victims and their families. I find myself very uneasy and unsettled with the idea that I could find, even the smallest amount, of any compassion toward Dahmer. I guess knowing that he had once been a young, confused boy (like his victims) is just very difficult to comprehend.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      The problem with comicbooks is they tend of generalize very real adult situations too much. It doesn't replace good old novels and biographical essays. Words are important, but it did look like an interesting comic, like a horror comic. But it tends to trivialize a very serious subject a bit much in my opinion, even though I am sure the motive was a good one.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Esme

      @Tom: This isn't a "comic book", it's a graphic novel - and hardly trivial. This is just as informative and serious as any other biographical form. The graphic novel medium has become a place to explore very serious and adult issues. Are you familiar with Maus - a graphic novel about the holocaust that won a Pulitzer Prize? I read both comic books and graphic novels and there is a HUGE difference in the way they are written, illustrated and presented. I am certain this subject is not trivialized in the slightest by the form of storytelling chosen by the author. It might even be more poignant than a straight novel could ever be.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:34 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      "Rejoice not in the downfall of any, but rather grieve for what might have been." – The Teachings, v 377 http://www.thetribes.INFO

      Compassion is not codoning his actions. Nor does compassion for him preclude compassion for his victims.
      His actions wreaked tragedy on his victims. His life was a tragedy on himself as well.
      His warped selfishness condemned him to a hell of his own making.
      I have no problem grieving for what might have been, both in his life and the lives of the those he harmed.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  8. RG

    500,000 people have been killed in Iraq thanks to George W Bush. 5,000,000 peaple were killed in Vietnam thanks to Lindon B Johnson and Richard M Nixon. 750,000 people were killed in the civil war thanks to Abraham Lincoln. 40,000,000 people were killed in WW2 thanks to Adolf Hitler. 15,000,000 Russians were killed BEFORE that war by Joseph Stalin. Mao Zedong was responsible for the deaths of 60,000,000 chinese. Dahmer ate a dozen people. He was evil, but not to the extent that the senationalist microscope eyed american news media presented him. Evil is relative.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:10 am | Report abuse |
    • sanjosemike

      Your statistics are garbage. You know it. Most of the readers here know it. If you want to include statistics to make your point, you have to start with the SOURCE, so that your readers can check them out for themselves.

      Otherwise, it is just a rant.

      sanjosemike

      February 29, 2012 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
  9. sanjosemike

    Apparently Backderf knew him fairly well while they were both in school as youngsters. It's obvious that Dahmer made a significant impression on Backderf.

    I think it's reasonable for him to want to find some way to put this on paper. This does not "honor" Dahmer in any way, but does help clarify him I guess.

    This is America, where people with something different (or interesting) to say SELL it to make a living. Backderf's rendition of Dahmer deserves to be told, and if you want to buy it, go do it.

    I don't think I will. But that choice is yours, since it's your money, not mine.

    sanjosemike

    February 29, 2012 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
  10. mmi16

    A bottle of Chianti and some Fava Beans

    February 29, 2012 at 1:56 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Hey there, Hannibal.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      Bet you wouldn't be JOKING around if it had been you child killed.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • james

      Comedy; tragedy plus time.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
  11. E.

    There's a funny saying in psychology: "All teens have the traits of a future serial killer." LOL I know how true this was for myself, and then for my own daughter. Neither of us fulfilled that prophecy.
    However, a class mate I knew from 4th grade through high school, whose family was loving and kind, murdered a soldier over a bad drug deal and got life in prison. Who saw that coming? No one.
    I saw Dahmer and his parents in the Stone Phillips interview. The fact that neighboring adults knew of Dahmer's cat/dog autopsies, but said nothing to his parents, speaks volumes against expecting a teenager to do so. There is likely nothing that could have been done to sway Dahmer's future, as he stated himself that he made a great effort to conceal what he knew was wrong. His father came very close to outing his son's mental disability when he thought to look in a box, which held the head and organs from Dahmer's first human kill, but was talked out of doing so by the claim of privacy from his son.
    These were not bad people or bad parents. They held their emotions tightly, as did their son. They did not kill...their son did, but they pay every day a debt they never accrued. Manifestation of sick and debauched needs is not something that can or should be blamed on an erratic childhood or divorced parents. Blame stands with only one person, and Dahmer took all responsibility before he died. Leave this author alone. Don't buy the writing if you don't like the topic. No one will ever care.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Cynthia

      Yes, Dahmer's parents were bad parents. They must have seen signs of this kid of theirs circling the drain as he moved through his teens & they didn't do a blessed thing about it.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:37 am | Report abuse |
  12. Kevin

    I read about how Jeffery Dahmer got his phone after being arrested and called his Dad and his Dad said he told him. "Dad I really really screwed up this time." SCREWED UP!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

    February 29, 2012 at 5:20 am | Report abuse |
  13. Berand

    I'm a fellow artist and while I find the idea of Backderf's project interesting, it would be easier to take if it were fictionalized, since real people were tortured and killed, and real families still have to grieve. The most revealing thing about his motive for making this is when he says all the material was public domain and who cares. Well, a lot of people who were affected care that he is set to make money on a cartoon explanation of depravity. More than likely the reason he didn't fictionalize is that without name recognition of Dahmer, who on earth would buy this except another Dahmer? Sort of wrong headed and wrong hearted, no matter how you look at it.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:21 am | Report abuse |
  14. Bob

    "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."

    That's total BS. I listen to death metal, and I know a few songs about Dahmer, but *no one* portrays him as a hero. That's crazy. Metal heads aren't angry, they just like scary stories and brutal music.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Lester Burnham

    Figures...Born and raised in Ohio. Might want to look into that....

    March 2, 2012 at 5:27 am | Report abuse |
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