A graphic novel memoir based on Ohio cartoonist Derf’s high school memories of infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and backed up by interviews, outside sources, and copious end notes, My Friend Dahmer began in 1997, in the comics anthology Zero Zero, and continued in 2002 as a 24 page, self-published comic of the same name. That 2002 Eisner-nominated one-shot was a perverse twist on autobio comix — an exorcism of Derf’s pent-up, creeped out memories about Dahmer’s terrible, potentially fate-sealing formative years. The pamphlet version is loose and visceral, even for Derf, whose style — stretched-out, heavily-inked, almost primal illustrations of middle American life — in books like Trashed and Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, already feels nervous and off-the-cuff.
Some of that original, reckless purity is gone in this vastly expanded, redrawn, and researched version. But the move towards objectivity also affords Derf the chance to turn a wacky, messed up anecdote (“you know, I went to high school with Dahmer”) into the definitive piece of literature on the notorious murderer. With all the Dahmer data he could find, and a head full of memories he can’t shake, Derf tries to connect with the young serial killer in-the-making, with parents too caught up in their own problems, who was a full-blown alcoholic by high school, and a closeted homosexual in an unforgiving region and time period.
A special kind of frustration is aimed at teachers and administrators who seemed too blissfully ignorant of the oddball teen who reeked of booze and acted out by imitating a person with cerebral palsy. One of the most instructive panels in My Friend Dahmer is a large, full-page image, which foregrounds Dahmer, outside of the window of a classroom, slamming down a beer. Inside the classroom, a hippie-dippie teacher instructs bored students, unaware and not all that interested in a teenage fuck up desperately trying to drink his pain away.
If only someone, anyone, especially a godammned adult, would’ve stuck it out and given a shit about this clearly disturbed kid, perhaps life could’ve been different for him and his 17 victims. Derf isn’t exactly placing blame — plenty have lives worse than Dahmer’s and don’t kill people — and his empathy stops with Dahmer’s first murder, but Derf is filling some gaps in the Dahmer story. Gaps that exist because of shoddy reporting, an American media desire to demonize and simplify, and because Dahmer, upon arrest, chose not to victimize himself or explain away any of his actions.
My Friend Dahmer is also about what it’s like to be 16, self-involved, and lack the faculties to empathize. To Derf and his buddies (“the Dahmer club”), Jeff was a funny freak that they kept around for entertainment. That was, in its own way, their attempt to reach out to the lost soul. Particularly telling of the way that adolescent mischief can sprint from anarchic fun to real-life dread is a sequence in which Derf and friends collect money to pay Dahmer to go to the local mall and do his palsy shtick. On the way, in preparation for the performance, Dahmer devours an entire six pack. “Each of us in the Dahmer club had a moment when the realization hit that Dahmer was not just odd, but truly scary,” Derf narrates, “this was my moment.”
We know how Dahmer’s narrative ends. There are too many paperbacks and websites that will detail Dahmer photographing his victims and drilling holes into their skulls while they were still alive, and all that. Derf’s My Friend Dahmer locates Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer of Bath, Ohio, a deeply troubled, weird, sometimes hilarious youth. A sequence, gleaned from one of Derf’s sources, finds Dahmer, lust and violence already tied together in his head, stalking a shirtless jogger day in and day out, with plans attack the guy. One morning, Dahmer makes the decision to wait in the woods with a baseball bat and take him out. Fortuitously, the jogger doesn’t show up that day. Dahmer shuffles back to his parents house. His urges, though unfulfilled, temporarily subside.