When rock bands come to Milwaukee, they inevitably mention three things during their on-stage banter; beer, the pronunciation of the city’s name made famous in Wayne’s World (Mee-lay-wau-kay) and Jeffery Dahmer. These references always seemed like a misstep to me; as if you could boil down the essence of a large metropolitan area to three unrelated things.
Jeffery Dahmer is, of course, the famous cannibal serial killer. He wasn’t from Milwaukee, actually, though I doubt the bands would know that. Dahmer grew up in the Akron, Ohio-area, which is where the new graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer, picks up the story.
As the President of the Dahmer Fan Club, John ‘Derf’ Backderf experienced the future serial killer not just as a high school-peer, but as and object of entertainment as well as someone to be wary of (as the panel above illustrates).
Backderf is both the writer and the artist of My Friend Dahmer, which initially appeared as a cult 20-page comic book 2002. Backderf always harbored the idea that he owed it to the story to tell it better, and now, 10 years later, he does just that.
Backderf’s observations are keen and his research is solid. He can’t offer much by way of explanation for Dahmer’s actions, but depicts the young Dahmer trying to keep his demons at bay with alcohol.
My Friend Dahmer works as the origin story of an antihero. There isn’t much by way of gore in this graphic novel, just a number of events that portend things becoming much worse in the future. Even when Dahmer does engage in brutality, the events, thankfully, occur off the page. Backderf is an excellent artist and storyteller, and as someone who has read very few comics, I enjoyed taking time with each panel.
There is more to Milwaukee than Jeffery Dahmer. My Friend Dahmer shows us that there was more to Dahmer than his crimes. That doesn’t make him a sympathetic figure, he isn’t, but it does make him human, which is Backderf’s greatest accomplishment here.