The World According to Derf

John 'Derf' Backderf, a childhood friend of Jeffrey Dahmer, has
made a career of turning the grotesque into compelling cartoons

Derf | Jhonen Vasquez | Alternative Press Expo Artist Panels | Dan Vado | Jimmie Robinson

Born and raised in small town Ohio, alternative cartoonist John 'Derf' Backderf worked as a garbageman before becoming an illustrator.

One of the nation's most infamous serial killers, Jeffrey Dahmer was just one more kid that nobody noticed. A bullied misfit in a small, rural Ohio town in the mid-1970s, he dissected roadkill in secret, skinning it to get to the bones. He drank heavily, showing up stinking of booze at school, trying to drown his unspeakable urges. In his own numb, dead-faced way, Dahmer was always willing to participate in pranks. He got a kick out of pretending to be a spastic—lapsing into fits, cawing, bleating and brandishing a twisted-up arm, pranking the squares at the local mall or livening up the school cafeteria.

A fellow student who helped put him up to the tricks was one John Backderf. A relatively contented small-town kid, Backderf was a band geek who liked to draw comics and didn't like to drink or smoke weed. He helped form "the Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club" in honor of the odd kid's fearlessness in shock.

John "Derf" Backderf's worldwide success, the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer, has been called a dark work; it could just as easily be called illuminating. As critic Chuck Klosterman put it, the book is about "being friends with someone you don't like." Next month, the film version debuts, starring Anne Heche, Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser and Ross Lynch as the eerily calm high school kid with a killer inside him.

Fritz Lang's M, an early and brilliant film about a serial killer, considers both the tragedy of a child killer and the humanity of a murderer. The 1931 movie finishes with only this as a moral: "One has to keep closer watch on the children—all of you!"

Backderf has both pity for the student he knew, and scorn for the man who killed so many to satisfy his own urges.

Via phone from Cleveland, Backderf says he's seen the film My Friend Dahmer and is pleased with it. "It worked out very well," he says. "It's quite faithful to the book. It's very creepy, and leaves you with a lot to think about."

During the book's 19-year gestation, Backderf—who will speak at this weekend's Alternative Press Expo in San Jose—always knew he wasn't going to record Dahmer's murders.

"Dahmer's crimes didn't interest me," Backderf says. "What was interesting was the story before that story, right before he was arrested in 1991. There's not much to like about Jeff after a certain point. But he was a tragic figure, spiraling into madness while the adults did nothing. That's the question: Where were the goddamn adults? It was a shocking oversight on the part of his parents, who were admittedly involved in their own toxic marriage and divorce. Jeff was pretty crafty. He fooled people—more so after he left home. He struggled mightily, almost valiantly, until he just snapped. People like Dahmer pop up again and again, every few years. These people are lessons that we as a society are unwilling to learn."

A live action movie based on Derf's book 'My Friend Dahmer' is slated for release in November.

Before he became a student cartoonist for the Ohio State Lantern, Backderf was another addict of Mad magazine and the National Lampoon—two periodicals that taught scads of underground cartoonists the pleasures of grotesquery. He was a vet of the strangely fertile punk rock scene in Akron and nearby Cleveland, with DEVO, The Cramps, The Pretenders and Pere Ubu: "It was very underground, and very small—I've been tapping into that buzz ever since. "

Throughout the 1990s, "Derf" was a fixture in alternative newspapers through the U.S., with his syndicated panel cartoon "The City" peopled by elongated, sweaty figures caught in instances of bad behavior. He was one of the funniest in the trade. Backderf did more than a hundred covers for The Cleveland Scene. One unforgettable example from 1999 saluted the comeback of the Cleveland Browns, with a caricature of a dog-masked woofing football yahoo, jowls quaking, vast belly hanging like a gray apron in front of his pinched crotch.

"The Browns came back, and everyone was slobbering all over them," Backderf recalls. "I predicted, 'This is not going to end well, guys.' Indeed, it has not. The worst expansion franchise in NFL history, just a money pit, good god. I feel a little bit bad about that cover. The Browns fan it was based on was kind of a famous guy on TV, and you shouldn't punch down. Anyway, I was proven right about the Browns."

Backderf looks back on The City with mixed feelings. "It ran longer than it should have," he says. "I should have killed it. People wanted it political, and I was doing really good political stuff for a while, but I couldn't maintain that edge. When I ended it, the cartoon was still in 40 or 50 papers and it was hard to walk away from that income. I struggle with my older work—this includes my political cartoons from the 1980s. To me, it looks like the work of three or four different cartoonists completely. I try to remember how much fun I had, but the work itself kind of makes me recoil. I can barely stand to look at it."

A bout with cancer impeded Backderf's career in his 40s, but he's now a 50-something success with new books on the way, and with another potential movie adaptation to come. San Jose's Slave Labor Graphics was essential to him starting into books, and to Backderf's first Eisner Awards nomination. "By the time I felt well enough again, the comics business had changed," he says. "If it wasn't for SLG, I couldn't have done Dahmer."

SLG were the initial printers of Trashed!, Backderf's uproarious yet learned fictionalized work about a year spent as a garbageman. It ought to be adapted into a movie—it sounds like foolproof slapstick. It's an instructive job clinging to the back of a garbage truck, in heatwaves and snowstorms alike: "It's looking up the butthole of America," Backderf says.

The names were changed, the tale was embellished, but Backderf insists "everything that happened on the truck was true." That would include the hurling of dead possums, the walloping of mailboxes, and the carefully anatomized garbage truck's treacherous capability for blowback. Derf's point is that there is a result of all the baby and puppy cuddling that goes on around here: Matterhorn-sized plastic bags of dog-doo and disposable diapers. And what's buried in the landfill is ever more likely to leach into the water tables.

"We're doomed," he says, noting that there have been no significant improvements in preventing toxic landfill since he was working in waste disposal. "I'm very pragmatic about it. You have to be. Remember, I was a garbageman a long time ago, and it hasn't gotten better. End of story—garbage, it's going somewhere, and it never stops coming. We're Americans, filling our world with shit. That's the way it is."

Asked for comment on these times, Derf demurred a little. "You're looking to me for wisdom? Big mistake." Since he's enormously popular in Europe, he travels to conventions there, and France gets ever harder to come back from: "When I'm in Europe it's kind of struggle to get on the plane going home. Maybe I'll apply for refugee status, or get in a raft in Lake Erie and start paddling."

But the work he's seeing cheers him: "Good God, it's a golden era of comics right now—under 30s, under 40s, they're all showing up. I go to these conventions and see the work, and I'm astounded. Women creators are entering the field in numbers I've never seen before. I got to Europe and see even more! Mind blowing! It's a great time to be a comics fan for sheer excellence. Of course, if you're reading the super-dude stuff, you're shitouttaluck. Meanwhile. I'll be doing book after book. 'Work till you die,' that's my motto. I wish I had 35 years more ahead of me—I'm having the time of my life."

Alternative Press Expo
Sat, 11am-7pm
Sun, 11am-5pm
San Jose Convention Center South Hall

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