If you haven’t heard of Jeffery Dahmer, consider yourself lucky. He was perhaps one of the most depraved serial killers of the 20th century, known for luring young men into his home, where he would sexually abuse them, brutally murder them and cannibalise their remains. His known victim count was 17. Hard to see someone like that as being even close to human, right? And that’s precisely what makes Backderf’s graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer, so uncomfortably compelling.
The first thing to mention here is that Backderf released this graphic novel under the preface that “if you’re a ‘serial killer fan’, this book isn’t for you”. This comic does not exist to quell the morbid curiosity we instinctively feel in regards to the stomach-churning depravity of Jeffery Dahmer’s crimes. When we hear about these people, we all can’t help but wonder, what were they really like? Well, through this hauntingly foreboding slice-of-life graphic novel, Derf Backderf provides the answer.
Set before Dahmer became the savagely cruel killer we know him as today, My Friend Dahmer tells the chillingly ordinary tale of a group of high school friends, with Backderf and Dahmer among them. Mixed in with the day-to-day normality of a young man’s adolescent years, the comic chronicles the quiet progression of Dhamer’s murderous tendencies, from a morbid fascination with death to animal abuse, social ineptitude and alcoholism, all leading to a dark descent into some truly disturbing fantasies. It is told predominantly through the perspective of Backderf, alongside creative interpretations of Dahmer’s home life based on witness accounts and interview records from family members, classmates and Dahmer himself.
At first glance, one of the most notable features of this comic is the artistic style. No one draws quite like Derf Backderf; his illustrations are instantly recognisable, and the artwork in My Friend Dahmer is no exception. It is one of the most aesthetically distinctive comics I’ve ever seen. The charismatic visuals complement the mood of each panel, with the addition of thick, black ink in the comics’ darker moments, lending a sudden sense of foreboding with little more than a mere glance. It’s remarkable how Backderf makes Dahmer seem like a wacky cartoon character in one panel and skin-crawlingly crazed in the next.
However, delving deeper into this comic, one of the most truly striking things about it is Backderf’s honesty. He makes no attempt at ever trying to flatter himself, admitting freely that, even then, he did pick up on some disturbing signs regarding the troubled temperament of his old high school peer. But, like everyone else around him, he nonchalantly swept it under the rug. In doing so, he keeps the integrity of the story’s message intact, highlighting our habit of ignoring things we find even slightly uncomfortable and how this can eventually lead to far bigger problems – problems that, in many cases, were once preventable. There are moments in his narration in which Backderf reflects upon his personal guilt, wondering if, had he said something about Dahmer sooner, he could have saved lives. However, he ultimately poses the major question in what might possibly be the most thought-provoking line in the entire graphic novel, summing up his inner turmoil by writing: “where were the damn adults?”
What’s really scary about My Friend Dahmer is that anyone who had a hard time during their adolescent years can probably relate to this depiction of Dahmer on some level. My Friend Dahmer tells the story of a young boy crying out for help against his dark urges and ever-growing self-loathing as a result of his stressful home life and social struggles. Presenting in similar ways as many other troubled youths before him, he acts out at school, abuses alcohol and becomes ever-more reclusive – the widely documented behaviours of a distressed youngster grappling for ways to draw attention.
To be clear, Backderf’s intentions here are absolutely not to garner sympathy for Jeffery Dahmer – all tender feelings for his former classmate go out the window the moment the first crime is committed. Rather, it is to tell the unfiltered story of how such a person came to be, no matter how uncomfortable our emotional response might ultimately make us feel. My Friend Dahmer is not the recollection of fond memories; it is a stone-cold warning.
Have you read My Friend Dahmer? If so, how did it make you feel? If not, is it something you would even want to read? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.
If you or anyone you know is struggling, please consider referring to the resources below to get you on track to finding the correct help. Help is available to everyone.
Global Mental Health Resources.
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