Backderf, Derf. My Friend Dahmer: A Graphic Novel. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2012.
Alex Award 2013 - adult books for young adults.
Derf Backderf’s graphic novel My Friend Dahmer documents Backderf’s acquaintance with Jeffrey Dahmer through high school and explores Dahmer’s growing struggle with his own depravity. Dahmer grew from being invisible in middle school and interested in dissolving dead animals in acid to throwing “fake epileptic fits and [mimicking] the slurred speech and spastic tics of someone with cerebral palsy” his sophomore year of high school to his eventual first murder after graduation (47). Through Backderf’s text and illustrations, the reader questions nature vs. nurture and wonders if the adults in Dahmer’s life had not been “so inexplicably, unforgivably, incomprehensibly clueless and/or indifferent,” perhaps circumstances could have turned out differently (11). Though Backderf’s “Dahmer Fan Club” is not completely blameless, they did laugh at Dahmer’s behavior without ever really befriending him, they are more easily forgiven because they were children. However, the openly contemptuous relationship between his parents and his being ignored by teachers, who did not even take notice when he was constantly drunk at school, are far more despicable for their absence of care or concern. Dahmer struggled, “hanging onto his sanity by the thinnest thread,” alone (123). He kept his homosexuality a secret, as well as his fantasies about dead lovers and his dismemberment of animals. However, no one took an interest, and in 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested for murder – “his apartment was full of bodies! He had sex with the corpses… and ate some of them!!” (223).
My Friend Dahmer is an excellent example of young adult literature that explores an uncommon subject and is written at a high level of sophistication. The text is dark, haunting, and psychologically captivating. Kirkus questions, “If a boy is not born a monster, how does he become one?” (2399). Backderf “doesn't try to elicit sympathy for "Jeff." Yet he walks an emotional tightrope here, for he recognizes that someone--maybe the other kids who laughed at and with him, certainly the adults who should have recognized aberration well beyond tortured adolescence--should have done something” (2399). Readers must wrestle with Dahmer’s circumstances; his life was truly miserable, but does that excuse him? No. Yet, Backderf does create an emotional link to Dahmer and his hopelessly austere adolescence. Readers will ponder whether Dahmer could have led a normal existence if his family and community had shown him love rather than indifference. The graphic novel ends on an especially poignant and thought-provoking note. Ten years after graduating high school, Backderf and a couple friends met to reminisce, and when remembering Dahmer, one friend states, “Ya know what? Dahmer is probably a serial killer by now!” Backderf ends the novel with “and we all laughed” (199). In the end, Backderf acknowledges that they knew something was wrong with Dahmer, and yet no one did anything. They laughed. Readers must question their own actions (or lack of) and ponder what they would do in the situation.
Nilsen cites research that found that one of the “most popular types of nonfiction [is] cartoon and comic books” (285). My Friend Dahmer is a perfect example of this type of nonfiction text. The illustrations perfectly capture Dahmer’s psyche and the bleakness of his situation, adding to the literature. Library Journal states “Backderf's intentionally ungainly black-and-white art underscores the universal awkwardness of adolescence, and the approach has emotional resonance” (65-66); in addition, Booklist states the “blunt, ungainly drawings, with their robotically stiff figures, effectively convey the drab suburban milieu” (37). Dahmer’s face constantly appears emotionless, and the shadows that often grace his face create an element of foreboding. Furthermore, the cover art captures the essence of Dahmer and the tone of the graphic novel. Dahmer is central, staring, blankly and directly, at the reader, challenging and unfeeling. He is spotlighted, and yet, the shadows under his eyes and near his mouth render him ominous. Moreover, his classmates in the periphery appear unconcerned and oblivious to his presence, reflecting his triviality. Also, the included photos enhance the reality of the story. The photo in which the NHS teacher blacked out Dahmer’s face is affecting – “this photo would become the symbol of Dahmer’s wasted youth. The boy who didn’t belong” (117).
Backderf aptly utilizes narrative in his nonfiction. Nilsen cites evidence that “in people’s minds fiction and nonfiction are blending together” (289). My Friend Dahmer reads just as easily as a fiction novel would; Backderf utilizes literary elements, such as foreshadowing, metaphor, and dialogue. At times, it is easy to forget that the text is biographical; however, the inclusion of photos and actual cartoons that Backderf drew in the ‘70s helps remind the reader that the text is nonfiction. Additionally, Backderf cites a plethora of sources, showing from where his information derived. He utilized personal memories, interviews with contemporaries, interviews with Dahmer, news accounts, FBI files, a family calendar, and Lionel Dahmer’s book. Backderf also includes notes, explaining why details were included in the text. He also provided brief, biographical information about Jeffrey Dahmer, Joyce Dahmer, Lionel Dahmer, and the Dahmer Fan Club. Lastly, the quotes from Jeffrey Dahmer add a sense of uneasiness and reality to the graphic novel, underscoring its truth. Dahmer’s quote, “when I was a kid, I was just like anybody else” is particularly disconcerting because it hints at the possibility of a different outcome (8).
Cornog, Martha. "My Friend Dahmer." Library Journal 137.9 (2012): 65-66. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 29 July 2014.
Flagg, Gordon. "My Friend Dahmer." Booklist 108.14 (2012): 37. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 29 July 2014.
"My Friend Dahmer." Kirkus Reviews 80.1 (2012): 2399. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 27 July 2014.
Nilsen, Alleen Pace., James Blasingame, Kenneth L. Donelson, and Don L.F. Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults: Study Guide. 9th ed. New York: Pearson, 2012. Print.