A departure from format today for something I think is well worth it.
It's also not a graphic novel, despite the fact that, on its cover, it says "a graphic novel by Derf Backderf." Like "Mom's Cancer," "Maus," "Fun Home," "Smile" and several other similar books that have come out lately, it is a memoir in graphic form, and a compelling one.
Cartoonist John Backderf and Serial Killer Jeffrey Dahmer were not only classmates at Revere High School in Richfield, Ohio, but hung out, to the extent that the odd loner Dahmer hung out with anybody.
And that is at the heart of this story: They didn't "hang out."
In fact, Derf is quite clear about that. Dahmer was a "mascot," not a friend, to the small group of "band nerds and advanced-placement brains" who called themselves "The Dahmer Fan Club," who imitated his imitation of a spasmodic oddball, added his droll catch-phrases to their own conversations and conspired to sneak the tall, strangely inexpressive Dahmer into yearbook pictures of groups to which he did not belong.
And yet would make social plans in front of him without inviting him to come along.
Welcome to high school, Mr. Dahmer. And welcome back to high school, dear reader.
"With my friends at school, we had a good time. A good social life." -- Jeffrey Dahmer
There are two stories being told here, and told well. Derf is the perfect narrator for this story, not only because his artistic style captures Dahmer's own lack of affect and the bizarre normalcy of high school life for the boy and those around him, but because Derf has, in all his work, a judgmental quality that, while not quite cynical, is well-suited for the guilt that pervades this memoir of his friend Dahmer.
There are moments it is expressed, particularly in his fury at the adults who could not see how much Jeffrey Dahmer needed their help and intervention, and in his contempt for the jocks who did bully the kid for no other reason than that he was strange.
But it is both expressed and implied throughout the book for the cavalier way in which The Dahmer Fan Club amused themselves with their classmate while not befriending him, and -- switching for a moment from reviewer to psychologist -- in the way Derf repeatedly declares that, while he is sympathetic for what Dahmer the boy experienced, he is in no way excusing what Dahmer the monster did.
A more soft-hearted cartoonist would not be mad at himself for caring, a more hard-headed one might not have written the book at all.
It would have been better, he says, if Dahmer had dealt with his monsters by putting a bullet through his head rather than by killing 19 people, and, while it's hard to argue with that, I suspect that, had that been the outcome, Derf would still be asking himself if maybe he could have done something for the kid, if some of the adults in their world could have stepped in, if there were some way this strange, sad boy might have been helped.
But, while this sense of guilt hangs over the book like Banquo's ghost, Derf does a masterful job of letting the story tell itself.
He tells of the pressures in Dahmer's life -- the lack of friends, the tortured home life, the bizarre urges -- in a tone less influenced by guilt than colored (or left uncolored) by Dahmer's own flat lack of response. It's almost a Jack Webb style of narration at times, just the facts with only the blandest overlay of moralizing, and it is a stark contrast with, for instance, the intense emotionalism in "Maus," where even small moments have grave import that you are urged to mark.
Derf's greatest ally in this is the fact that we all know the name Jeffrey Dahmer and we all know more-or-less what he did, but the details are hazy and the background is non-existent at best and distorted at worst. As Derf fills in the backstory, he doesn't have to add emotional elements to express the approach of Doom because we already know where this is all leading.
I was taught, as a creative writer, that the work must speak for itself. In our fiction-writing classes, we submitted our stories anonymously, so that the critiques by our fellow-students were not colored either by personal relationships or by the explanation we might give before they had read the piece. Nor were we permitted to speak up during the round of discussion, until the end, when everyone else had finished.
As a result, I tend not to read prefaces until after I've read the book. I don't want to know the author's intentions. If it's not clear in the work, you've missed the mark and telling me what you meant to accomplish is pointless.
In the case of "My Friend Dahmer," I found myself grousing a little over things Derf couldn't have known, particularly of things Dahmer did and thought when he was by himself, and -- despite a few sources being mentioned within the text -- I was tempted to email him before writing a review, with some questions about how much of this was speculation and how much was actual fact.
But then I got to what turned out to be the end of the story and discovered that the last 25 pages of the book are footnotes and sourcing for the events depicted, and that his preface lays out his methodology, including the major revision and improvements over an earlier, shorter and more hasty version of the piece.
Derf -- whose degree is in journalism -- did extensive, meticulous research in the FBI files and the media interviews, as well as the book Dahmer's father wrote and some other sources. There are places in which he has been forced to reconstruct and, to a very small extent, speculate, but he tells exactly where those spots are, and they are insignificant in the greater scope of this compelling story.
He did what he set out to do, and he did it right. No further questions.
I expected "My Friend Dahmer" to be like "Maus," but it is really quite a different examination of a different type of evil. A more fitting comparison would be to "Fatal Vision," Joe McGinnis's detailed takedown of Jeff McDonald and the Green Beret Murders.
"Maus" describes how people responded to the Holocaust, but does not explain the Holocaust itself.
By contrast, "My Friend Dahmer" sheds light on, if not the unknowable "why," at least the frightening, dispiriting "how" of individual evil that takes place within a completely normal, average setting.
And, along the way, the futility of second-guessing the things we did to, and didn't do for, each other.
Friend-of-the-Blog Richard Thompson's hiatus from Cul de Sac continues, but, starting this morning, he has guest artists producing new strips. Michael Jantze, late of "The Norm," is this week's artist. Upcoming are Mo Willems, Stephan Pastis, Lincoln Peirce, Corey Pandolph and Ken Fisher, and you can read all about it here.