Comic Review – My Friend Dahmer (Derf Backderf)

© Abrams ComicArts

Chasing Shadows

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.

© Abrams ComicArts

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.

© Abrams ComicArts

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.

© Abrams ComicArts

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 memories 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

Novel Review – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Ocean Vuong)

© Penguin Random House

Ocean Vuong is not a new name for me. Back in 2016, I stumbled over his poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds while browsing NPR’s Book Concierge on the search for holiday reads. What caught my attention at the time was the name (what better word to encapsulate depth and uncertainty than ocean) but also the cover which displays two women sitting at the sides of a small boy in a faded and slightly ominous photograph. The poetry of the US-Vietnamese poet struck me. Vuong’s vivid, yet enigmatic pieces dealing with family, cultural heritage and same-sex desire left a dent in the back of my mind, deep enough that I was excited to hear that he had released his debut novel this year.

© Copper Canyon Press

My expectations were not disappointed: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a fragmented yet beautiful work, the novel’s 240 pages feeling not long at all but condensed and sharp. Plot-wise it is a difficult book to pin down, however. As the falling leaves on the cover of the radiant UK edition suggest, Vuong’s novel deals a lot with transformation and loss. Written as a letter from a young man named Little Dog to his mother, the novel invites to be read autobiographically as the narrator shares many traits with Vuong himself, including his childhood immigration from Saigon to Hartford, Connecticut.

There are many different narrative strands in the book, from the experiences of Little Dog’s grandmother in South Vietnam during the war to the tragic story of the narrator’s drug addicted first love Trevor, who lives with his father in a trailer on the outskirts of town. What binds many of these strands together is that they revolve around different types of trauma and their effect on the body. The physical and mental wounds inflicted during the Vietnam war have painful repercussions in Little Dog’s life, from the schizophrenia and flashbacks of his grandmother to the violence and frustration of his mother.

The novel succeeds in conveying the state of loss and disorientation brought by the family’s move to the US, a foreign country both in culture and language. In one of the book’s many memorable passages, Vuong’s mother is humiliated in front of her son as she tries to buy oxtail for a Vietnamese dish at a local mall. Gasping for words, first in Vietnamese then in broken French, the butcher laughs at her final attempt to communicate with gestures. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous treats the loss of language as a particularly painful wound, a perhaps irreparable blank space between severed connections, a void experienced only as phantom pain.

Many of the novel’s passages feel like memories in the sense that they are carried by a feeling of urgency and visceral sensory experience. This is especially true for the relationship between Little Dog and Trevor which takes up a considerable portion of the book. As the narrator visits Trevor in his trailer, he describes his yearning for the taste of his lover, the flavor of his tongue, the salt around his neck and scent of his fingers. Vuong’s language manages to feel both precise while repeatedly blooming into poetic imagery. In recounting the experience of being bullied during bus rides to school for example, Little Dog remembers pressing his head into the seat in front of him, looking at his electric sneakers which “erupted with silent flares: the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.”

The novel avoids the pitfalls of devolving into a static assortment of such images through its elaborate structure. Vuong skillfully interweaves and juxtaposes different narrative strands, switching from past to present and back in a way that feels like it is creating a meaningful rhythm. At times, the experimental structure of the novel threatens to dissolve the narrative altogether, especially in the middle section where the prose breaks into fragmented sentences that somehow seem unfinished. But it all comes back together in the end, mirroring through its fractured form both the characters and perhaps even the state of the country as a whole.  On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a beautiful novel that I will surely come back to in the years ahead.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Ocean Vuong
2019
Penguin Random House