Thursday, March 1, 2012

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

(Abrams Comicarts) Although he’s done several graphic novels, scores of illustrations, and a few great album covers (most recently for Ralph Carney), Derf’s main claim to fame is his long-running syndicated comic The City. The humor strip, which takes aim at the hypocrisy, absurdity, and inanity of hipsters, slackers and other urban dwellers, is funny, but considering the thick, even linework, the blank expressions on his characters, and the fish-in-a-barrel nature of his satire subjects, some readers may be shocked by the depth and visual impact of this masterful historical memoir. Backderf went to high school in Ohio with Jeffrey Dahmer, and the future mass-murderer’s strangeness appealed to the future cartoonist and his friends. Though (as revealed in the comic’s omniscient eye, it’s vision made clear by the author’s extensive research and interviews) the private life of the young cannibal-to-be was as ugly, dark, and animal torture-ish as any serial killer’s, with Derf’s clique Dahmer was social to a degree, entertaining his friends (and pulling pranks) with bizarre impressions of the disabled, and inspiring the posse to dub itself the Jeffrey Dahmer Fanclub. Though alcoholism, repressed homosexuality, and bubbling-up murderous urges paint a depressing portrait of teen Dahmer, this riveting snapshot of a 70s teen wasteland has several rays of light and hope in it, and ultimately Backderf, while not sympathetic to his killer classmate, is genuinely upset that no adult ever cared enough to see the warning signs. Visually, the sterile eyes that flatten out The City add profound depth to My Friend Dahmer, as Dahmer’s dead gaze is mesmerizing and speak volumes Derf’s gag comix never hinted at the artistic capabilities of its creator. The compositions here are remarkable, and there is one splash panel -- a young Dahmer guzzling booze outside his classroom as the oblivious teacher lectures inside, the window pane breaking up the word balloon inside to illustrate Dahmer’s disconnect…that is one of the most powerful comic pages I’ve ever seen. Not only the best graphic novel of the year, this is one of the most disturbing and memorable books you will ever read.

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