My Friend Dahmer

By Derf Backderf
Publisher: Abrams ComicArts
Format: Hardcover/Softcover, 6 x 9, Black and White, 224 pages, HC: $24.95/SC: $17.95
ISBN: HC: 978-1-41970-216-7/ SC: 978-1-41970-217-4
Reviewed by: Diamond BookShelf


My Friend Dahmer is a thoughtful, creepy memoir about growing up with eventual serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Through his own recollections, supported by extensive research and interviews, author Derf Backderf examines Dahmer's life leading up to his first grisly murder, and the circumstances that allowed it to go unnoticed.

While it may be shelved with sensational true crime stories, this is not that type of book. It depicts gruesome events and leaves behind a lingering chill, but the true horror depicted here is not in Dahmer's crimes so much as it is in the possibility that they could have been prevented, and ultimately were not. Backderf has clearly been haunted by glaring warning signs that went unnoticed by adults, as well as by the surface-level similarities between himself and Dahmer at that point in their lives.

He often compares himself to Dahmer by using the visual metaphor of roads. "All we did was drive around, day after day, mile after mile" explains Backderf to describe the small town existence of his formative years, and frequently builds pages around the image of a desolate road, stretching uphill. He draws himself walking along one side and Dahmer the other. For Derf, the road leads to an ordinary home and a hopeful future. He can look back and feel a sense of growth and escape. This is in sharp contrast to Dahmer, whose own road leads to an abysmal dead end. Backderf relates what he knows, and obsesses over it, but the small stretch of road between him and Dahmer is ultimately unknowable.

The artwork is wonderfully distorted, with wrinkly trees and gangly characters with exaggerated facial expressions. Backderf makes excellent use of busy details, as well as deep solid blacks and empty white space to convey both Dahmer’s extreme isolation and the chaos of the overcrowded school system. Even the most ordinary scenes convey a sense of violence and discomfort, which keeps the reading experience as immediate and engaging as it is disturbing.

With scenes depicting violence to people and animals, as well as its profoundly serious subject matter, this is a book for adults and mature older teens. While most of the characters throughout the story are teenagers, it is adults that Derf is appealing to, wondering where they were and what factors caused them to fail to notice the severely disturbed individual in their care. It is appropriate that a book about what people did not see is rendered in a visual medium, as it forces readers to examine their own habits of observing and ignoring.