My Friend Dahmer by Derf Beckderf
Derf Beckderf is an unassuming man in a black shirt, jeans, and horn-rimmed glasses. The first thing he clarified in that sparsely populated gray-walled Wexner Art Center. where splotches of psychedelic art were like quilt patterns, is that he’s usually a humorist, and this graphic novel actually has very little violence. But, he went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer and was his friend. The book is based on ideas and memories of Jeff in high school that “foreshadow his slow turn into the abyss." So, as you read on, the comic, as well as Dahmer’s behavior, gets darker, both in art and in presentation.
In high school, Derf was a member of the Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club. Their function was to sneak Dahmer into high school pictures, photos, and just goof around with him.
“Jeff was a lonely kid.” said Beckdorf. “Probably the loneliest kid you ever saw.” So, because he had friends high school was, Beckdorf says, probably the happiest time of his life. He always had a schtick going to make people laugh, or mask that he was always drunk. Sometimes, he’d baaa! like a sheep, or fake epileptic fits, or “the spastic tics” of cerebral palsy. Outside of his group, where he was wearing these masks, he would be alone in the woods, playing with road kill, consumed by profound boredom in the small town of Bath, OH.
In 1978, Beckdorf explains there was no social safety net for children of absent parents. The parents just weren’t around, and Jeff would just wander the woods after school picking at road kill. The style of Derf’s comic book is to blend memoir and journalism. To recreate that lonely experience of the 1970s, both for people who remember it and for people to young, to present what it was like by evoking his memories. So, there was an investigative quality to his art, though not incriminating. In his words, “If you weren’t there, you can be glad you weren’t.” He explains that it was the Stoner Era, so maybe that’s why his drinking went unnoticed, aside from his schticks.
His drinking also masked his dark thoughts and repressed homosexuality. Going through records and talking once again to his former club members, Jeff had fantasies of necrophilia (which he of course later fulfilled; mercifully, no pictures in the comic depict that.) first in high school. Interestingly, he was a big guy, so nobody picked on him, and Beckderf said “There was no revenge fantasy.” He didn’t “get revenge on society, and he wasn’t picked on.” In the last page of the comic has the words “and the rest of his life would be a living hell.” with Dahmer’s face completely dark.
Derf says that Jeff was just a normal kid who led “pretty much the same life as I did; grew up in the same town, fathers were both chemists. But where life paths took us was worlds apart.” He claims that the last photo he has of Jeff in a graduation cap was “his last photo as a human being.” and that after he was separated from his friends “his humanity just fell off in chunks.”
This talk was definitely not what I expected: a “human” comic book perspective of Jeffrey Dahmer in expressionist style. Derf himself plays the role of comic relief. I expected it to be a violent, gritty comic. It was not. It turned darker. But, it never lost its human tone, painting Jeffrey Dahmer as a lonely kid. Also, I never knew he faked cerebral palsy. Interestingly, many people who I think were expecting the comic to be violent left, and we even had a heckler who kept ranting about “The System @#*&ed him up!” who had to be confronted outside by police. Derf even said “Hey, no more comments from the peanut gallery, please!” but the guy would not stop, and was escorted out.
All in all, I’d say the presentation taught me a lot about blending memoir and journalism. Because that’s what I do. Except here we have a very sinister-seeming man, who was remembered as a friend. A lonely kid. And it also cemented in my mind the power of the image not necessarily the word (though that’s what I do.) to represent experience, so the appropriate medium for that is the comic book/graphic novel.