'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. banasy©

    Reeking of alcohol at 8 is the morning was a sign, all right...and yet this dude did nothing, either?
    Kept him around as kind of a mascot?
    He doesn't see this as a bit exploitive...?
    He was part of Dahmer's problems, also.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      If that's the case then how come people who were friends with successful people at age 8 and then grow apart don't get credit for being a part of their greatness?

      February 28, 2012 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      If the people who went on to greatness are honest with themselves, they will give their friends credit.
      Not to mention the many people who say "Hey, I knew "_____" when....."

      February 28, 2012 at 9:46 am | Report abuse |
    • dd

      You are part of the problem of blaming everyone else except the person who holds the responsibility.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Susan

      He was a kid, he wasn't in any position to "handle" it. Reminds me of my daughter and her friends, they have all gone as a group to a high school counselor about bizarre behavior from one of their friends. They were ignored until another adult saw this boy sitting in the corner, obviously depressed, and asked them if there was something wrong. The kids all said YES we've been trying to get someone to help him... thank goodness they listened to this other adult, and the boy is not with a therapist. But it just goes to show – adult's don't always listen to kids anyway.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Susan

      ** I mean the boy is *now" with a therapist. It's so close to the Dahmer thing described in this article (they are the same ages), it's actually kind of weird.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      If you can say you have caught onto or brought up everything you have seen wrong with people you are lying so don't act like you are perfect. This guy is just telling a story. Get over yourself and read it.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Stacie917

      It's hard to know what to do when you're a kid. I think that's why the author talks about the failings of teachers and adults in Dahmer's life. I was in high school when Columbine happened. It opened up a lot of conversations about warning signs and what to do. I really doubt anyone was talking about that stuff back then.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Johny B True

      Oh grow up! Lots of kids - including myself - got drunk before school, and it was no big deal. We were however careful not to get too close to the teachers, who probably knew, but didn't care enough to say anything. We were coooool!

      February 28, 2012 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
    • wilson

      You're saying that the 14 year old friend of Dahmer is one of the reason he turned into a serial killer? Wow.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      Banasy- Thats BS. Dahmer took all responsibility for what he did. He didn't blame it on anyone and in fact he was very cooperative in working with people in trying to figure out why he did what he did. Are you saying Dahmer was not being honest when he took responsibility for his crimes? As horrible they were that's actually refreshing to see.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Beg to differ with you, dd.
      Dahmer was a monster, and he got exactly what he deserved.
      Just pointing out that the way he was treated didn't help his thought process much.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Aezel

      @banasy He was a 14 year old kid at the time dumba$$. Are you saying we should rely on 13-14 year old boys to be the ones to diagnose mental/psychological disorders in other children? It was the adults in Dahmer's life that failed.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      I am merely stating an opinion on a posted topic, as you all are.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      They used a cartoon to explain serial killers? Does anyone see how stupid that is?

      February 28, 2012 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      When in doubt, call someone names?
      All righty, then.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      ...And of COURSE the adults failed him, that goes without saying...but apparently I have to say it anyway.
      I just think, after 21 years, it is expoitive, and if this author was honest with the whole thing, treating Dahmer as an amusing little court jester probably didn't help Dahmer's psyche any.
      I'm not saying that these guys are to blame for what Dahmer did later, so stop infering that I am.
      But they are a part of his childhood, so....

      February 28, 2012 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      Not once in the history of man has someone been surrounded by people and situations that help their thought processes 100% of the time all the time. People are who they are and how they deal with things are up to them. Dahmer chose to deal with his problems through alcohol and acting out on his horrible urges. To try to place blame on the people who surrounded Dahmer is irrelevant because Dahmer himself stated this was what he who chose to do, he admitted that he was aware of his urges and morbid curiosities, went to great lengths to conceal his activities and
      took all responsibility in his actions.

      People have been raised by and surrounded by people who were far worse individuals than who Dahmer was surrounded by. The overwhelming majority of those people do not become murderers.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
    • BOMBO ©

      I knew a fair number of weird actors back 30-35 years ago. It never occurred to me that one of them would become a psychopath. Dahmer's behavior would not have stood out, more than being among the half dozen or so weirdest kids in school.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
    • chemicalbank

      Maybe he was too busy passing judgment on people removed from his life to focus on those around him.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:05 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Dahmer's behavior was totally normal, then. Check.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Reed

      I get banasy's point, even if he's saying it a little weird...

      February 28, 2012 at 11:14 am | Report abuse |
    • sally

      He was a kid at the time..."keep in mind we’re talking about 14- and 15-year-old boys who are idiots by nature."

      February 28, 2012 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Mistere

      I am confused by your thinking. You are saying that his behavior as a 14 year old was clear indication he may become a serial killer? And yet you condemn a story being published about that behavior? I think as much information and knowledge we can learn from those that knew Dahmer is a good thing. Exploitive? Even though this is a gruesome subject, we need to learn all we can, and not judge how the information comes to light!!

      February 28, 2012 at 11:40 am | Report abuse |
    • hypocrites

      every one of you people are talking right now about how the students at the school shootings shoulda said something...and the adults around them...but because this guy ate people, its ok?

      February 28, 2012 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Apparently, I am expressing myself poorly.
      Oh, well.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • MrsDahmer

      reeking of alcohol at "8 in the AM" is a sign of being an alcoholic, not a serial killer!

      February 29, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Superman

    As dahmer might think, these guys might feel sorry for me, so ill stick around, just a bit inabeling, but who would of known. I had a class mate that was real popular in high school, and murdered two women that we knew since high school . So who would of known , pretty dam scarey!

    February 28, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  3. banasy©

    I would like to know the author's choice of "Most likely to be a serial murderer" was....and why.
    Not their name, of course, but his reasoning.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeremy

      Check his high school graduating class and see if anyone became a congressman....
      But seriously, this was my thought, too. What does it take to be the guy that Jeffrey Dahmer's classmates go "if you told me someone from our highschool became a serial killer I'd have picked him over Dahmer..."?

      February 28, 2012 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
    • MrsDahmer

      i was wondering that too but personally, I want his NAME!! LOL guess im a bit more nosy. 🙂

      February 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mick

    Q: What did Jeffrey Dahmer say to Lorena Bobbit?
    A: "You gonna eat that?"

    February 28, 2012 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      Those jokes were funny like 20 years ago.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  5. Ben

    I am from Milwaukee. This guy never surfaced before. He is worse than the people who picked through the garbage at Dalhmers apartment building.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
    • dissenter

      How is this guy as bad as unconnected garbage pickers looking for a tabloid heading? This is in essence an early years biography from someone that was actually there. It's a gritty look at what led to some of the most haenous crimes we've seen. Considering this guy had first hand knowledge of the man that came to be the monster, this book should be applauded and studied by parents and counselors for years to come so that we might understand what creates this kind of deprevity.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  6. rharri

    Dahmer was an evil white devil....he deserved the death he received.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:03 am | Report abuse |
    • MrsDahmer

      my, my,, anger issues have we? lol

      February 29, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Epidi

    Middle & high school boys (or girls for that matter) are rarely known for thier forsight. At that age everyone is going thru thier own traumatic and dramatic (if only to themselves) turmoil of trying to figure out what thier body is doing, what the expectations are of the adults in their lives and the horror of how and can I meet them and what if I don't. It's hard enough trying to figure yourself out at that age, much less the guy you feel sorry enough for to be nice to, but not enough to get close to.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Reed

      I get the point, but, taking your words literally, if he got close enough to Dahmer to smell his freaking breath, and to later write/draw a graphic novel based on his memories of Dahmer, he was close enough to tell someone. Throwing down the BS flag on this one. Same as what is going on with the school shootings today. This dude treated Dahmer as a pet. He's just trying to cash in, not tell a story...salve his conscience, maybe?

      February 28, 2012 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      You are right. They are known for their foreskin.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. palintwit

    It wouldn't surprise me to find out that Dahmer had a relationship with Sarah Palin.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
  9. Ted Bundy

    They keep using the term "novel" in this inerview. I believe the term "novel" is a work of fiction by definition. So, what does that say about the author's claims (or the interviewer's education)?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:10 am | Report abuse |
  10. Brad

    "the most depraved serial kill since Jack the Ripper," Does cnn.com not have editors ?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Reed

      That's what we're here for! 🙂

      February 28, 2012 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      Idk I guess it is a matter of opinion. I don't agree with it though. There were MANY depraved serial killers after JTR and Dahmer.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
    • WorldBelow

      Andrei Chickatillo – probably spelled wrong. MUCH more depraved than Dahmer. Chickatillo preyed on children, and killed about 50 of them.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  11. crusty butte

    this isn't new btw...it came out quite awhile ago in traditional comic form. really great read, derf is rad although a bit mysoginistic sometimes. the seeds for dahmer's deeds were def planted in his youth

    February 28, 2012 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
  12. SPENT

    A friend of mine knows the mother of Dahmer and kinda weird knowing someone that is even associated with this sicko.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • MrsDahmer

      its also kinda weird knowing someone that is dead, as Jeffs mom Joyce, has been since the year 2000.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Loffee

    I knew one or two kids at that age who were stoned or drunk at 8am too. Even back then you wondered what type of parents they had; and that their future didn't look to bright. Those types of kids are in every city.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  14. gerard

    What's going on?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
    • MrsDahmer

      well ill sum it up. its a bunch of bleeding heart cry babies, whining cuz someone wrote a book, and a few level headed people defending his right to do so. oh, the topic of the book? Jeffrey Dahmer. like it matters. doesnt matter what or who its about, theres always people that are going to b**ch. and those that will defend it.
      anyone here old enough to remember the anarchy cook book? people here act like he wrote a serial killer how-to book!

      February 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  15. jeremiah

    this looks pretty interesting. gonna read it

    February 28, 2012 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
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