Vorneweg eine Entwarnung: man muss nichts vom Surfen verstehen, um von der Graphic Novel In Wavesmitgerissen zu werden. Das Buchdebüt des kalifornischen Zeichners AJ Dungo vermittelt auch so mit fließenden Linien ein Gefühl für das Meer, für seine Wellen und Unwägbarkeiten. In Waves handelt von der Beziehung des Zeichners mit seiner an Krebs verstorbenen Jugendliebe Kristen, einer Liebe, die eng mit der Leidenschaft für das Wellenreiten verbunden war. In berührenden Rückblenden erzählt die Graphic Novel von der gemeinsamen Zeit, von Kristens Krankheit aber auch von ihrem unbändigen Lebenshunger.
Dungo montiert in seinem Buch zwei parallele Handlungsstränge: der in melancholischen Blautönen erzählten Liebesgeschichte stellt er eine in Sepiatönen gehaltene kurze Chronik des Surfens gegenüber und umreißt die Geschichte zweier Pioniere des Sports. Diese zweiteilige Struktur bremst leider bisweilen den Lesefluss und nicht immer sind die Verbindungen zwischen den verschiedenen Kapiteln ersichtlich.
Am meisten überzeugt In Waves mit seinen Darstellungen des Surfens selbst. Der Illustrator Dungo findet eine eindrucksvolle Bildsprache für diese Szenen, einen eleganten Minimalismus, der an die graphische Reduktion der Comics von Adrian Tomine und die präzisen Linien des Zeichners Charles Burns erinnert. In Waves spielt dabei mit den Möglichkeiten des Comics, ohne die Bilder mit überflüssigen Wörtern zu überfrachten. Das Meer, diese sich stets verändernde Landschaft, die für Surfer zugleich Verheißung und Bedrohung verkörpert, wird so zu einem Spiegel der Emotionen der Figuren. Und zu einem Ort für gebrochene Herzen.
Bei manchen Comics fällt es mir schwer eine Rezension zu schreiben, ohne dass sich bestimmte Erinnerungen in meinem Kopf zu Wort melden. So auch im Fall von Unfollow, der neuen Graphic Novel des deutschen Comiczeichners Lukas Jüliger. Der Sommer 2019, der sich eigentlich schon unendlich weit weg anfühlte, war beim Lesen auf einmal wieder ganz nah. Damals ging die Nachricht von riesigen Waldbränden im Amazonas um die Welt und löste eine globale Protestwelle aus. Ich erinnere mich noch an das Gefühl, in meiner Heimatstadt in der demonstrierenden Menschenmenge zu stehen. Einerseits war ich wütend auf die Ereignisse auf der anderen Seite des Ozeans, andererseits beeindruckt davon, welche Macht Bilder und Nachrichten haben, um in relativ kurzer Zeit einen solchen Protest zu mobilisieren.
Um Ökologie und Medien, darum geht es, grob gesagt, auch in der Graphic Novel Unfollow. Dreh- und Angelpunkt der Handlung ist ein mysteriöser Junge namens Earthboi, der eines Tages wie auf dem Nichts auftaucht und über Nacht zum Internet-Star wird. Aus seinem Versteck in einem Nationalpark postet er täglich Content über das Überleben in der Natur, den Anbau von essbaren Pflanzen, Survivaltipps und Ökologie. Nach und nach wird Earthboi zu dem Symbol des Protests gegen die Umweltzerstörung durch den Menschen, gegen die globale Erderwärmung und das Artensterben. Darin ähnelt er der realen Person Greta Thunberg, deren Proteste 2018 die Fridays For Future Bewegung ins Rollen brachte. Doch während die reale Greta als Kind aufgrund ihrer Wahrnehmung der Welt unter schweren Depressionen litt, erscheint Earthboi nahezu makellos und übermenschlich. Der Junge weiß alles über die Geschichte des Planeten Erde, züchtet im Handumdrehen hitzeresistente Korallenriffe und hat bei alldem auch noch ein feines Gespür für sein Publikum und das Potenzial sozialer Medien. Kurzum: Earthboi erscheint wie eine prophetische Gestalt, eine menschengewordene oder (je nach religiöser Anschauung) wiedergeborene Verkörperung der Harmonie von Mensch und Natur.
Spätestens hier kommen beim Lesen Zweifel an der Zuverlässigkeit der Erzähler auf. Richtig, Unfollow wird nicht aus der Perspektive von Eathboi erzählt, sondern seinen Aposteln, ich meine, seinen ersten Followern. Lukas Jüliger entwickelt in dem mehr als 150 seitigem Comic eine Geschichte mit einem düsteren Unterton, deren Ende zwar etwas abrupt kommt, aber dennoch zum Nachdenken anregt. Dies ist umso erstaunlicher, wenn man bedenkt, dass Unfollow keine Dialoge hat, sondern nur von den ‚stummen‘ Bildern und der Erzählung getragen wird.
Die Graphic Novel verbindet auf interessante Weise zwei hochaktuelle Themen, zum einen den wachsenden Widerstand gegen die sich abzeichnende ökologische und klimatische Krise, zum anderen die Eigendynamik der Kommunikation im digitalen Zeitalter und die Wirkmacht von Influencern. Was Unfollow endgültig lesenswert macht, sind die Bilder, die in weichen, aber zielsicheren Bleistiftlinien und atmosphärischen Pastelltönen der Geschichte die Bühne bereiten. Insgesamt eine lesenswerte Graphic Novel in Zeiten von Extinction Rebellion und Fridays for Future.
A lot of things have happened since my last blog post. Back in March, I was still optimistic about my plans to go to Berlin for an internship at a German comics publisher. Little did I know how quickly the spread of the coronavirus would lead to a total lockdown in Europe. (The best image I can come up with is that of someone flicking off the switches of a fuse box, one by one, until there is complete darkness). It is difficult for me to put into words the emotional roller-coaster of the last weeks. All I will say is that I am doing okay considering the circumstances and I am back in my hometown of Bonn, proceeding with my studies.
One of the projects I am working on to keep myself sane during this time is my MA thesis. Maybe it is the experience of being involved in a global catastrophe, but something is pulling me back the work of Joe Sacco, the famous US-Maltese cartoonist and journalist. Sacco is widely considered a pioneer of comics journalism and has reported on multiple armed conflicts including the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (Palestine,1993-1995) and the Bosnian War (Safe Area Goražde, 2001).
This year, Sacco is releasing a new comic titled Paying the Land. Instead of travelling to a war zone, the book is about the Dene, an indigenous people in northern Canada who are impacted by the oil industry and the colonialist politics of the Canadian state.Paying the Land will be released in the US in July this year but the publisher, Metropolitan Books, has kindly supplied me with a review copy that I am reading parallel to the already published French edition.
Paying the Land is a massive book, featuring roughly 260 pages of intricate, cross-hatched drawings and a narrative that weaves together complex issues of climate change, environmentalism and colonialism. It is clearly the work of a master cartoonist in his prime. The comic offers a lot of interesting material for an in-depth analysis, yet the question where to begin is daunting. Anyone who has written papers in the social sciences will know how important it is to formulate a precise research question. It is like setting the foundation of a tall building: if the research question is not precise enough, the entire structure will wobble.
A book that has given me a good clue about which questions to ask is Hillary Chute’s Why Comics? Her thoughts on comics, trauma and catastrophe are a good starting point for an inquiry into Sacco’s oeuvre. Among the traumatic issues addressed in Paying the Land is Canada’s residential school system which forced indigenous children out of their homes and formed an attempt to disrupt and destroy indigenous cultures. To investigate how this complex issue is portrayed in Sacco’s new book seems like a promising starting point for my thesis.
Writing an academic paper of this scope can be a pretty solitary activity. So, I am sharing some of my experiences and thoughts on this blog. If you have anything to add or just want to comment, feel free to contact me. Stay safe and sane!
Zugegeben, allzu viele Gründe zum Lachen gab es nicht in den letzten Wochen. Für alle, die frisch aus der Mondkapsel oder Zeitmaschine gestiegen sind: die per Virus übertragbare Lungenkrankheit Covid-19 hat sich zur Pandemie ausgeweitet, tausende Menschenleben gefordert und in Europa und anderswo das öffentliche Leben weitgehend stillgelegt. Solltet ihr euch derzeit im Lockdown befinden und euch nach etwas Abwechslung vom Nachrichten-Karussell sehnen, dann habe ich hier einen Buchtipp: War and Peas von Jonathan Kunz und Elizabeth Pich.
War and Peas, das ist eigentlich ein englischsprachiges Webcomic, das seit 2011 wöchentlich im Netz und auf Instagram erscheint. Hinter dem äußerst erfolgreichen Humor-Strip, der über die Jahre zehntausende LeserInnen für sich gewinnen konnte, steckt ein Deutsches Autorenduo und jede Menge schwarzer Humor. Die kurzen Gag-comics umfassen meist nicht mehr als vier Panels und steuern zielsicher auf die nächste Pointe zu. Der Humor bewegt sich dabei zwischen absurd und morbide, ganz im Sinne des Titels, eine Parodie von Krieg und Frieden, dem Romanklassiker von Tolstoi. In War and Peas sinnieren Büroangestellte über den Selbstmord, werden im letzten Moment doch durch das Versprechen einer Pizza von ihrem Vorhaben abgebracht. Zugleicht lässt die umtriebige „Slutty Witch“ einen Liebhaber zugunsten ihres vibrierenden Besens sitzen. Visuell ist der Comic minimalistisch gehalten, verzichtet zum Beispiel ganz auf die Mimik der Figuren, was den kurzen dialogfokussierten Strips aber keinesfalls schadet.
War and Peas erinnert auf den ersten Blick stark an den deutschen Comic Nichtlustig von Joscha Sauer, hebt sich jedoch mit ganz eigenem Biss und einer Prise Zeitgeist von diesem ab. Erfrischend ist hierbei besonders das humorvolle Verarbeiten gesellschaftlicher Themen wie Feminismus und Queerness. Das Buch, das im April dieses Jahres beim amerikanischen Verlag Andrews McMeel erscheint, eignet sich als Einstieg in das Webcomic. Es versammelt auf 150 Seiten verschiedenste Strips, die sowohl einzeln als auch in chronologischer Reihenfolge lesen lassen und so eine fortlaufende Geschichte ergeben. Alles in allem vorzüglich kurzweilige Unterhaltung, die mit ihrem morbiden Charme eine willkommene Ablenkung vom Tagesgeschehen darstellt.
War and Peas: Funny Comics for Dirty Lovers Jonathan Kunz und Elizabeth Pich 2020 Andrews McMeel
I will admit, there have not been all that many reasons for laughter in the past couple weeks. Unless you have been on the moon or in some parallel dimension, you will have been affected by the Corona-pandemic which has killed thousands and put public life on standby in Europe and beyond. If you need a break from the news-cycle and are looking for a book to take your mind off things, I have a recommendation: War and Peas by Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich.
War and Peas is originally an English-language webcomic that was launched in 2011 and is being published in weekly episodes on the net and Instagram. The minds behind the strip, which has accumulated thousands of fans, are the German artists Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich. The short gag strips of the duo are seldom longer than four panels and always confidently steer towards the next punchline. The humor can best be described as a fusion of the absurd and morbid, mocking everything as implied by the title, a parody of the Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace. In War and Peas, office workers contemplate suicide but are saved in the last moment by the promise of pizza. At the same time, the mischievous “Slutty Witch“ abandons her date in favor of her vibrating magic broom. Visually, the comic is quite minimalist, reminiscent of the art of Tom Gauld in its lack of facial expressions. But this style clearly suits the sharp, dialogue driven humor.
At first sight, War and Peas reminded me strongly of the German Comic Nichtlustig (English version here) by Joscha Sauer. But it sets itself apart with its own humoristic edge and a sprinkle of millennial zeitgeist. Particularly refreshing is how the comic comically handles issues of feminism and queerness. The book to which this review refers was published in March by the US publisher Andrews McMeel and is a great introduction to the webcomic. It a selection of strips on 150 pages which can be read individually but also chronologically and form a neatly ongoing narrative. All things considered, this is a charming humor strip and I recommend it to anyone seeking a diversion from current events.
War and Peas: Funny Comics for Dirty Lovers
Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich
Hello and welcome to my first blog post. I’ve
been thinking about recording my personal experiences for a while now, but
something always made me shy away from the idea. Perhaps it’s the obvious fact
that the act of writing often seems to take oneself away from the lived
experience. Or that it superimposes a layer of language onto something that is
most often beyond words. Then again, the world is so full of things worth
talking about, resonating with stories that hover under its surface. Also, I
have a pretty bad memory and tend to forget the cool things I’ve done. This is
partly an attempt to remember those things, partly an offer to share some of my
experiences to anyone who cares to stop by. Welcome, whoever you are.
In May 2019, I travelled to Berlin to work for the wonderful German publisher Rotopol at the annual Comicinvasionfestival. I had worked at some festivals before, but this was only the second one where I was responsible for the publisher table on my own. And so, on a clear Berlin morning, I found myself setting up a table at the fancy Museum für Kommunikation, arranging comics between imperial marbled columns underneath a bright dome.
After the first wave of visitors had passed, a tall young guy with a beard showed up, introduced himself as a fellow exhibitor at the festival and handed me the zine he was selling. It was a colorful comic, professionally printed with a distorted alien on the cover. We were talking for a bit when we noticed that we both lived in Bonn, a relatively small city in western Germany. It was a fun coincidence that repeated itself when we spotted each other on the bus on our way back home two days later. This guy with whom I would later become friends is Vasilis Dimopoulos, an amazing Greek cartoonist who has been diligently working on a Sci-Fi/Horror comic series called Barghalever since I’ve met him.
Comics create connections. They brought me to
the small town of Ludwigsburg where I had my first internship, all the way to
Luzern, Switzerland where I sold books for Rotopol at the Fumetto
Festival. I have spent considerable portions of my afternoon hauling boxes of
signed books through central Hamburg and spent two night in a converted bunker
in Switzerland, offered to exhibitors of a festival as a free sleeping place. From
what I can tell, working as a publisher can be stressful at times, and I doubt
I’ll ever have a lot of money. But also, I don’t want these experiences to
If the Corona pandemic doesn’t cause a total
lockdown in Europe, I will be heading to Berlin for another internship in a
couple of weeks. With a semester in Paris on the horizon, 2020 is promising to
become an exciting year and I hope to share some of my impressions (and book
discoveries) here on this blog. Until then: happy reading and stay healthy.
Do you know that feeling when a book or another piece of art is valued so highly by a certain group of people that one is almost hesitant to pick it up? It’s as if all the expectations or assumptions create a barrier to the work itself, at least that’s how it feels to me sometimes. This winter, I tried to leap over some of those gaps, first by reading the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and, more recently, Blankets by Craig Thompson.
Blankets, which was originally published in 2003 by Top Shelf Productions to much critical acclaim is an autographic (an autobiographical graphic novel) about the artist’s childhood and adolescence in rural Wisconsin. The plot begins with the early years of Thompson and his younger brother Phil in the Christian community of their hometown, then gradually transforms into a romantic account of Thompson’s relationship with Raina, a girl he meets as a teenager at a ski camp. This relationship takes up most of the space of book and casts a warm light on the otherwise grim portrayal of the artist’s childhood, which is filled with bullying, depravity and religious doubt. In many ways, Blankets is a comic-turned-love-letter as it relates the meeting of the two misfits, Thompson and Raina, at a pivotal time in their lives, and how their relationship shifted their perspectives.
What struck me the most about Blankets is how it captures the intensity of falling in love for the first time. Romantic love as the subject of fiction is a tricky affair because it threatens to dissolve into cliché, into an emotional language that everyone knows, and no one really believes in. And while Blankets can get quite sentimental at times (perhaps even kitschy), it mostly feels like a highly personal story and reminded me of similar experiences I made as a teenager. The book somehow captures the force of those feelings, the proximity and long conversations that feel special precisely because they are experienced for the first time. It’s like stumbling upon a secret too big for words, like a written note from a crush that you kept tight in your sweaty palm when you were a kid.
As an autographic, Blankets lacks the complex meta-narrative of, say, the work of Alison Bechdel or Art Spiegelman. But that’s okay because the book brings the reader closer to the memories themselves instead of weaving them into a broader life story. Blankets zooms in on momentary feelings that constitute Thompson’s memories, from the way a kiss or a piece of fabric felt, to the view of a snowy sky from below.
Of course, the book mostly radiates these feelings because of its drawings: Thompson’s lines fly boldly across the page, rending characters and their faces in a highly expressive way. Bodies and objects seem to stretch or shrink with emotions of the characters, and ornamental imaginings of heaven and hell accompany renderings of childhood fantasy worlds.
The dynamic nature of Thompson’s art also applies to the composition of panels on the page. In an interview, cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud elaborated on how Blankets was quite innovative for its time, and I can sense why. As with the drawings, the panels underline the characters’ emotions. Sometimes things seem to jump out of the images, sometimes they blend into each other as lovers embrace. Finally, the book is littered with skillfully placed blank spaces that act as pauses in the comic’s rhythm and say more than any image could. Thompson’s playful compositions still feel fresh 17 years later and it is not hard to see their influence on the work of other cartoonists. All in all, Blankets comic worthy of its renown and I will continue to recommend it to anyone who needs a story to get through the cold winter days.
Some time ago, I came into an argument with a friend. We were talking about life after university and the difficult choices that go along with it. “Well”, she said, “all things considered, control is definitely an illusion”. I asked her to elaborate and she replied that because our world is so very complex and we only have a limited set of information to work with, all our decisions are necessarily flawed. We may think we are being rational and in control, but we are more or less like kites in the wind, moved by the forces to which we are oblivious. While I did not necessarily agree with her line of argument, I was strongly reminded of it while reading Rusty Brown, the new comic by Chris Ware.
Throughout his work, and especially in his much-acclaimed graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, US cartoonist Ware has exhibited an acute sensibility for the complexities of life. His comics trace the vast web of causalities in which we are entangled as individuals, including our family histories, upbringing and the mental idiosyncrasies of our times. This panoramic mode of storytelling is inseparably linked to Ware’s unique visual style: his drawings are ‘cartoony’ with clear, yet unadorned lines and flat colors that add up to an artificial, sometimes almost sterile appearance.
What makes the artwork so appealing, however, is the way in which Ware arranges his panels on the page. His work often features exhilarating compositional experiments with vast numbers of images sprawling into different directions. Ware’s groundbreaking Jimmy Corrigan from the year 2000 is exemplary for this as it featured complex tableaus that lapsed remarkably from conventional layouts. The book pointed to the fact that, yes, comics should be treated as a “visual language” of their own and that there is still much room for exploration.
Rusty Brown, the new comic by Ware, published in 2019 by Pantheon Press, is in many ways less experimental than Ware’s previous work, which makes for a different, but no less dazzling read. The book, which is around 350 pages in length, revolves around a snowy winter day in 1975 Ohio. In a style that parodies old soap opera TV series, we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters. There’s the ginger-haired Rusty Brown, a painfully introverted boy who is convinced he has superpowers, his father, a melancholy schoolteacher, his new friend Chalky White who just arrived in town, Jordan Lint, a teenaged long-haired troublemaker, and many more.
At first, the lives of all these characters cross in a way reminiscent of high school dramas: there’s a dose of teenage angst, the fear of not belonging, heartbreak and half-hearted rebellion. But there are also adult characters stuck inside their own routines, caught in the daily drudgery. Just as one has gotten used to Rusty Brown’s mode of narration, the tone shifts again. The snowy day in Ohio is not so much as the setting of a scene but the starting point of a spiral into different characters’ lives.
Just as a snowstorm is comprised of countless individual flakes, the narrative of Rusty Brown dives into the lives of people first introduced in passing. Each episode features a distinct visual style which points both to the characters’ inner life and Ware’s development as an artist. While the stories span a variety of subjects and genres (including a pinch of science-fiction), they also share a particular flavor of melancholy and sadness. Like the perspective presented by my friend in the opening anecdote of this review, Ware’s characters often find themselves dazed by the complexity of life while at the same time dreaming of more.
At its most touching, Rusty Brown deals with forms of regret. The episode of Jason Lint in particular, is a devastating roller-coaster ride that sees its character going through a many-stage metamorphosis, from an angry teenage firecracker to family father. It is a character on the run, who trying to escape his own abusive past while involuntarily causing hurt in others. That Jason still feels like a coherent figure undergoing life changes and not a cluster of ideas on paper is evidence of Ware’s strength as a writer and cartoonist. It also matches his own views of seeing art as a medium of empathy.
Rusty Brown is an incredibly ambitious work because it achieves the balance of both relating entire lives of its characters while remaining attuned to the more ephemeral texture of experience, the seemingly mundane and trivial details that constitute our existence. Despite veering away from formal experiments, Ware still proves he is a master of composition and space by presenting unusual and appealing layouts. All in all, Rusty Brown feels highly atmospheric and emotionally charged. The colors are rich and underscore the shifting moods of the different stories and perspectives. Yes, the complexities of life may make any claim of control seem ludicrous. But thankfully, we are not alone and have artists like Ware who can trace our patterns in the void.
It took a while, but fall has finally reached my German hometown. As the days get shorter, I turn to some of the more somber books on my reading list, beginning with Off Season by US cartoonist James Sturm. Published in the beginning of this year by Drawn and Quarterly, the comic caught my attention early on because of its appealing art style and its references to the 2016 US presidential election. I’m glad I finally read it and can safely say that Off Season is among my favorite books of 2019.
But let’s start from the beginning: Off Season is an episodic comic that tells the story of a family caught in the turmoil of a disintegrated marriage. The events are set in New England during the snowy winter of 2016 and narrated by Mark, a freshly separated husband and father of two kids. From the very beginning, we get the sense that he is struggling, not only with the end of his marriage, but also with financial issues and personal mental health. While their emotional wounds are still sore, both Mark and his estranged wife make efforts to reach some form of agreement in order to take care of their children. Apart from their private struggles, the family is also shaken by the ongoing 2016 US presidential elections and the growing political divide of the country. Mark and Lisa were both avid supporters of Bernie Sanders, one of the Democratic candidates in the primary election, but later disagree on Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party’s final candidate.
What is immediately striking about Sturm’s comic are its drawings and its layout. Off Season’s plot is utterly realistic but its characters are anthropomorphic animals drawn with clear lines and a grey wash reminiscent of watercolor. This gives the images an appealing depth and contributes to the generally melancholic atmosphere of the story, especially during the winter scenes in the later episodes. In addition to its drawings, Off Season also features an unusual format and layout: the book has a rectangular shape and each page consists of two panels of the same size. As the artist explained in an interview, he originally drew the single panels on index cards. While the simple two-panel comic-strip layout sounds like it would impede any form of advanced storytelling, it works surprisingly well in practice. Sturm accomplishes the feat of making each episode feel significant on its own while still advancing the overall narrative. This is also due to the superb writing: Off Season packs an emotional punch, but it never feels overburdened by its themes.
Sturm deftly intertwines the personal and the political in his work while also addressing the growing economic rifts within the United States. Reading Off Season made me feel the intense strain of its principal character who works in construction and is trying to get by, despite being taken advantage of by his employer and supplying for his kids. Ultimately, Off Season invites to be read as a story about the modern struggles of masculinity, fatherhood and the genuine difficulties of family life after separation. It is a great comic and one I will surely return to in the wintry days ahead.
In the realm of pop culture, the stories of celebrities tend to develop a life of their own. Rock stars, famous rappers and activists are all shrouded in a mystical halo, making everything they ever did either point to their inevitable success or failure. The same applies to famous criminals. It would be naïve to assume that our perception of convicted murderers and rapists remains unchanged as soon as they are dipped into Hollywood limelight, wrapped into layers of representation, the faces of actors superimposed upon their own. One interesting question to ask is why people who commit such atrocities even spark fascination in the first place. Why even dive into that rabbit hole of human abyss?
The answer of Derf Backderf, the U.S. cartoonist behind the 2012 graphic memoir My Friend Dahmer would probably be relatively simple: He knew the guy. Backderf went to the same high school as Jeffrey Dahmer, the teenager who would later in his life murder, rape and mutilate 17 males before being killed by a fellow inmate in prison in 1994. Backderf’s comic looks back to a time before these horrible crimes were committed, to his own high school days in 1970’s Ohio in order to get closer to Dahmer as a person. As stated in the comic’s foreword, the intent of the work is not to excuse the actions of his school friend but to contextualize them, to show that the transformation of the shy and severely troubled teenager into a mass murderer was not set in stone and could perhaps have been avoided.
This attempt to humanize a person whose later actions were unspeakably violent and deranged, to add a perspective to the story that suspends judgement and strives for understanding, is constantly under threat within the comic. This is a memoir, not a psychological report, and despite a visible aim for clarity, Backderf’s graphic memories of Dahmer and his high school days are always steeped in emotion and presented by a very prominent narrator. One might even say that there are two conflicting perspectives within the comic: there is one in which Backderf recounts his own personal memories of Dahmer as a teenager, who traces their parallel trajectories from adolescence to adult life, recounts their shared time in hallways, during lunch breaks and car rides. And then there is another in which the narrator attempts to ‘fill in the blanks’ with the help of criminal records and interviews to understand the struggles of Dahmer and the events to which Backderf was oblivious at the time.
The way that these levels blend into each other may be one of the comic’s greatest strengths. Backderf draws parallels between his life and Dahmer’s and thereby asks meaningful questions concerning the forces that shape us in our upbringing and the extent of our own personal freedom. By describing to the peculiarities of 1970’s rural Ohio he points to the paradox of a tight-knit neighborhood that is simultaneously inert when it comes to helping people who are obviously in desperate need, whether this be Dahmer himself or his severely ill mother. In the comic, Dahmer is presented as a vulnerable and isolated figure, neglected by his self-absorbed parents, and isolated from his peers first by his growing mental instability. However, he is also an enigma, a person retreated to far into himself that his personality is hardly more than a small shadow in the corner of a room. The only time Dahmer drew any attention in school was in his role as ‘class clown’ who briefly amused high fellow students (including Backderf) with his antics.
The inscrutability of Dahmer is mostly conveyed by the drawings which present the face of the troubled teenager as a cold mask, almost devoid of any emotion except for the grotesque grimaces during his pranks. In general, Backderf’s drawings are cartoony in the best way, the detailed and clear fineliner art reminding me of the work of Joe Sacco. The comic presents characters, objects and landscapes in an angular and weird fashion that is both clunky and appealing despite its simplicity.
Like the drawings, the narrative structure of My Friend Dahmer also shows Backderf’s skill as a cartoonist. The story has a distinct arc as it zooms in and out of Dahmer’s and Backderf’s lives, sometimes comparing their upbringing in juxtaposing panels. At certain points, however, the comic seems too absorbed by its own meaningfulness. Comparing Dahmer to Jack the Ripper in one unfortunate panel, or making references to the “hellish future” that awaits him are unbecomingly sensationalist and divert attention from the events as they unfold. In keeping with the advice “show, don’t tell”, My Friend Dahmer is at its best when it is at its most personal. Many of Backderf’s drawn memories are certainly haunting and bear the regret of not having known enough.
While this is certainly a graphic memoir worth reading, the question remains whether My Friend Dahmer can contribute to the demystification of its subject or merely adds yet another layer of representation to his story. While the passages that recount Backderf’s first-hand memoires certainly feel genuine and thought provoking, it is only too telling that the cover of the book’s newest edition already points to the next medium, the 2017 film of the same title. The photographed boy on the cover of my comic’s edition may look like Dahmer, but beware, it is in fact actor Ross Lynch.
My Friend Dahmer Derf Backderf 2012 Abrams ComicArts