'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. MikeB

    Right now. What is it you do if you, -a school teacher, neighbor, friend, or- do to make a change that you believe will save lives?
    They are strange, antisocial, maybe even bizarre. They post something like this recent teenager did in Ohio.
    This isn't the first time a warning has presented itself. What is going on here? Can anyone answer that?
    Making a meaningful discovery after the fact isn't really very meaningful.
    How is it that people can't tell sinister from other forms of idiocy?

    February 28, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      How is it that I cannot tell your comment from all other forms of idiocy??

      February 28, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Martina

      Agree. People tend to dismiss someone as weird and go about their business. But it's hard to help someone like that. The primary responsibility always rests with parents. They should be the ones who know their child and who by definition have some "right" to invade their child's inner space. The rest of us can only try. If the parents are too busy and don't communicate with their child, dismissive or abusive, this is what happens. I may be totally wrong but I feel that in Europe, for example, the parents spend much more time with their kids. And of course, we have our share of weirdos but not nearly in the same proportions as in the US.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank

      I can but no one listens to me.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Psych 101

      So everyone who acts "wierd" or outside the norm needs help?

      You do realize these school shootings and serial killers are an exception and not the rule right? Isn't bad enough when your weird in school and like things that may not be the norm, but now you are advocating for having school officials and other people involved to figure out why that is?

      That's a great way to make these people feel MORE alienated than they already do and BTW, sometimes growing up sucks, some people deal with it ok, others not so much. It's all apart of growing up and stories like the shooting and this one above, again are extreme exceptions to the rule (just like the grown up that goes on a killing spree at their job, do we need to have EVERY adult who is strange looked at?)

      February 28, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Graphic Poster (sort of)

    I'll have to check this out. BTW, a very open and candid response from the artist/author, as if he's aware of the good and
    negative possibilities regarding feedback. I am interested in these deranged killers, only to the interest of what can go
    wrong with the human mind, that they can become so "alienated" and cold blooded towards people in general. Somehow,
    the more I read about them, the more secure in the fact I am, I'll never lose my way. They left their "bread crumbs" on the
    path to insanity ...hell if I'm going that way.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Louie

    Backderf is 55, meaning he was born in 1956 or 1957, depending on his DOB. Dahmer was born 3 to 4 years later, in 1960. How is he going to meet him when he was in 7th grade when Dahmer would have been in 3rd or 4th. I'm not buying the story.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alan S

      Louie: You are assuming Derf is 55 because the article says so. Reasonable of you, but not necessarily correct. Other internet sources indicate Backderf is 52, which would mean his student days and Dahmer's student days line up pretty well. E.g., reverealumni.com, from Derf'is high school, states Derf graduated in 1978, which would suggest a birdate of about 1960. And the on-line edition of clevelandmagazine.com has an article from last month stating Derf is 52 years old. So I'm-a-thinkin CNN misled us a bit. Search "john backderf" and check it out.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Louie

      Alan; makes more sense. I searched briefly but couldn't find anything other than the CNN reference.

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

    dalmar was a person who in his childhood didnt get the connection when you relate different feelings connected to a experience throughout ones life growing up! his perception of reality never connected you build these foundations by learning from family and friends. DALMAR IS NOT TO BLAME WE ALL ARE FOR NOT REACHING OUT! SPARE ME YOUR RITERIC!

    February 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      Dahmer, dude, Dahmer!!! Not difficult – D-A-H-M-E-R. As for the rest of your comment – I will let you know once Yoda is done translating.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anne

      If you want to be taken seriously, please learn to spell!

      February 28, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • SoTrue2710

      No logical person is going to accept your theory that society in general made Dahmer whatever he was. He obviously had a phycological disorder BEFORE his so-called horrific childhood. You obviously have angers issues so it's not likely that you can have an unbiased opinion...I hope you're not so far gone that you take your anger out on whoever has the misfortune of being around you.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      RHETORIC.... so not only did you not get DAHMER correct, you missed the whole point of everything!!!

      February 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gary Gilmores eyes

      In comparison if you read Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore
      ISBN-10: 0385478003
      Mikal says something that I had always wondered about these people that become murders. What is it that causes them to become a murder? Is there that one thing that could have been done to prevent it? Sometimes there is the one thing that sets them off, but Mikal said with his brother, Gary Gilmore, it wasn’t the one thing; it was everything. Every single thing that happened to Gary Gilmore led him to be what he was. I also think that’s how it was with Dalmar.
      Certainly maybe someone could have done something but we all have our inner demons and they are our own responsibility to control. How many of Dahmer’s High School friends just missed being that first victim? There is the old saying “I can explain it to you but I can’t understand it for you.” Meaning that you can’t make people get something beyond their level of understanding. I can’t make you, compassionate & caring I can’t give you instruction to be a brain surgeon if you cannot or will not understand. No more so than Dahmer could tell me (or most people) of the joy of killing someone, cutting their heart out & eating it and make me understand the joy of it and want to do it. Anyone of us can run amuck and do horrible things at any time but it is OUR self-control that prevents us, so it should have been for Dahmer. We are not responsible for HIS actions he was.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • haywood jablome

      'dalmer' ...... funny .... you should write fantasy novels!!

      February 28, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • sumday

      Are you trying to reach out for help here? Maybe sending us a warning sign about you? There are help lines that you can call if you need to you know- it's ok they won't judge you. We, society, just want to help you.....

      February 28, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  5. BOMBO ©

    The cast of characters I went to High School with includes, but is not limited to:
    – One really intimidating big guy who always got in fights
    – One guy who disappeared for 2 months camping, but eventually came back
    – A guy who made lots of cartoon sound effects. Funny at first, but then really, really annoying
    – One girl who was about 6'6" and showed up drunk half the time
    – A diabetic guy who kept forgetting to take his insulin and passed out in the hallway a few times. He also often made sheep noises
    – A really tough girl that everyone was afraid of because you didn't know what she was capable of. But she was actually good looking.
    – Another girl who, rumor had it, was locked in a basement by her parents for over a year when she was young. Never talked and was prone to sudden violent outbursts.
    – A really quiet guy who failed all his classes and was obsessed with war.

    Should I have raised the alarm on any of these? When you're a teenager, you tend not to take these kinds of things too seriously.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      Should you have raised your hand on them? well, would it have made a difference? how did they all turn out? That would be interesting to know!

      February 28, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • BOMBO ©

      I never see any of them any more, except for the intimidating big guy. I don't keep up with him intentionally, but he lives nearby, so I run into him occasionally. He's very calm and even tempered now. The cartoon noises guy got killed in an accident about a year after we all graduated. There was one guy I know who ended up in and out of jail (robbery, drugs, weapons charges at various times). He used to be one of the class clowns, a smart and very popular kid back then. So you never know.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      I wonder if the cartoon noises guy was doing his sound effects right before his accident.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Like the dude on 'Police Academy"?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • ompath

      This has me singing the song "those are people who died, died... those are people who died, died... they were all my friends, they just died."

      March 9, 2012 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
  6. johnkeating

    It's encouraging to see people actually examining the history and therefore the possible chronological sequence of cause-and-effect when it comes to human behavior, rather than just reacting to things. The recent years' rise of movie prequels, etc. shows we are starting to look at the origin of human behavior. Everything has a beginning and a cause. And stay away from mindless explanations such as 'it's genetic,' which seem to explain everything without explaining anything at all, and merely adds to our feelings of helplessness. An increase in awareness of the nature of things will increase our freedom of will.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  7. saywhat

    Violent criminal behaviour in humans have been the subject of study for a long time. But it would perhaps never be possible to isolate & remove whatever causes a person to snap or turn into a cold blooded, clever monster or even predict when.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Davis

      It just happens and ultimately the only way to prevent someone from becoming a serial killer lies within the person who potentially is capable of committing such acts. Every able bodied person has the potential to be a serial killer.

      Some people are genetically less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others. Some people are also naturally prone to engage in extremely high risk activity. These are traits that many serial killers have. However, most people who have the traits I have described don’t grow up to be serial killers. The reasons why serial killers kill is most often a mystery even to them.

      Spree killers and mass murderers generally are motivated by a series of events, internal and external, that explode in a single event of extreme violence. The motives for this are easier to piece together, perhaps not to understand fully, but easier to explain.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  8. JG

    I'm sure there are profilers reading this book right now.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. gerard

    Where's the dadburn pickafern?

    February 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |

    As a short black kid who was usually in "advanced" classes, who moved around a lot, I feel safe to say I'm no stranger to bullying and seeing kids behave badly. I am 36 now and "fondly" remember going to school with kids who went out of their way to make others miserable for 9 months straight. I have always been spirited so, I tended to handle bullying with "fast fists and quick wits". But, wut about the kids who weren't blessed with inner spirit and self-esteem. I always knew that kids picked on me for stupid reasons. Some kids don't come to this realization. If they do, they still want it to stop. Some kids feel like the only way to get "Big Ricky" to stop picking on me while the other kids just SIT, DO NOTHING, OR LAUGH, is to SHOW THEM ALL I MEAN BUSINESS!!! I don't agree with the actions taken by these people but, I can understand how one can be driven to take DRASTIC ACTION, depending on the situation.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      Sounds like you handled it well, and probably had a strong family support or some strong role model. Good for you!!

      February 28, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lexagon

      What you're talking about is relevant to the "School Shooter" profile, not the "Serial Killer" profile. Just saying.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Davis

      You are exactly right Lexagon. Serial killers are generally quiet and reserved but are well liked among the people that they do interact with. Most of the time they actually go unnoticed by people but if they do interact with a stranger, besides one of their victims of course, that person generally has a pleasant experience with them.

      I don't really know if Dahmer could have been stopped by anyone other than himself. Slowed perhaps but the guy was wired to kill and I think that no matter the direction he was shown that he would most likely have acted out on his fantasies regardless.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Sir Topham Hatt

    You are a very useful engine.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • sockpuppet

      can you just bit c hslap that whiney train for me please? Those little b i tches in their roundhouse, complaining about working every dang time.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. ma & pa

    Dahmer trapped, harassed, picked on, tormented, terrorised, poked, violated, battered, tore, shredded and worse, the animals he killed for enjoyment. That behavior is the screaming red flag indicator waving over developing "Dahmers". They are lacking the empathic connections necessary to feel the suffering of others as something they should alleviate, rather than add to. They enjoy and get off on inflicting pain of all kinds. Their behavior is seldom correctable because that's what they enjoy most. They are bullies to the maximum. They are very differet from those people who are bullied into desperation and then resort to lethal acts to stop the pain caused by bullies tormenting them.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • toxictown

      True, animal abuse is certainly and indicator but...these guys may not have seen that. Since none of us have read the book, we don't know how close they were – might have just been one of those "school hours" type of friendships.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • sharon

      It is called sociopathy. Intervention rarely helps. Their brains glow "blue" on pet scans, unlike the rest of us. Best thing is to just make sure that they cannot prey on animals, children, or any of the rest of us. This is the one time I think the death penalty might be appropriately applied....

      February 28, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  13. aware

    It is not uncommon for people to assert that people like Dahmer could have been helped, or at least recognized and stopped before they committed their crimes, if only someone had paid attention to the signs but to a significant degree this is inferring the antecedents from subsequent events and a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. A great many adolescents in this country exhibit signs of social alienation and a morbid fascination with death and violence without develop into serial killers. The fact is that we have no reliable way to distinguish between relatively common though maladaptive behavioral responses to the stresses of adolescence and those behaviors that we consider to have been obvious signs of extreme pathology in retrospect when an individual like Dahmer comes to light. Disturbed teen age boys engage in all sorts of cruel and vicious anti-social behavior but they rarely become psychopathic monsters. It may be comforting to tell ourselves that we understand this phenomena but the fact is that we don't and all the facile postmortem analysis in the world won't change that.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • toxictown

      True. 20-20 hindsight is always very clear. I remember some nut-bags from high school that I would have sworn would come to a bad end and they are fine upstanding citizens today. And vice-versa.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  14. AreYouSerious?

    Critics call it: A tasty read; A slice of life; A tale you can really sink your teeth into...

    February 28, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Potrzebie

    I thought "What the heck are they talking about? I've had this book for years!" I didn't realize the first one was a "draft" so to speak. I'm looking forward to the new one. I'm really into cartoonists and Derf is one of my all-time favorites.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
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