[This column originally appeared on comiXology in April, 2012]
Backing up personal experience with years of dedicated research, Derf Backderf's recently published biography of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer--his high school classmate--makes one of the most satisfying non-fiction comics I've ever read. Focusing on the dawn of Dahmer's brutal transformation, Backderf's emotional responses to that time period in his life are never far from the page, and yet the sober, honest eye he casts on the decisions made back then is intimidating and unflinching, even more so as the pages fly by and the grisly moments guaranteed by the subject matter begin to approach. The timeline of the book overlaps the first of Dahmer's murders, however, Derf wisely chooses not to depict the crime--or any of the later ones to come--on the page. Even without them, the book is as grueling a portrayal of horror as one can imagine. In no small part, that's because it's founded in the uncomfortable truth that Dahmer was, at one point in his life, just another weird little boy.
As a field of literature, true crime is a category whose sights seem rarely set much higher than the bestseller shelf in an airport bookstore. Often buried at the tail end of the mystery section in larger bookstores, true crime is a genre populated, for the most part, by ripped-from-the-headlines exploitation books pumped out as close to overnight as possible. Few of these books survive on the stands for long; yesterday's Lacy Peterson book is tomorrow's sale item. And yet, it isn't so difficult to suss out what sees some works become long term perennials in the field. Works like In Cold Blood, Homicide, or Helter Skelter stand the test of time, either because of the skill of the writer (In Cold Blood), a depth of research that necessitates serious, long-term commitment (Homicide) or, likeHelter Skelter, a subject matter of such depraved magnitude that historical importance arrives guaranteed. My Friend Dahmer has all three.
It wasn't until after reading My Friend Dahmer that something else clicked with me: American comics doesn't seem to have true crime classics. There have been attempts, certainly, and there's definitely a hungry enough audience for them that these lesser installments (books like Image's Torso, or last year'sGreen River Killer from Dark Horse) are often welcomed with the greedy acclaim of the starving. Theories abound as to why, but the most obvious ones are repurposed versions of the remarks used to explain why Joe Sacco's work in the field of comics journalism remains so unique: there's a lot more opportunities for failure in non-fiction there are in fiction, the audience for comics is historically tilted towards the "escapist" side of the divide, and the amount of money made available for this kind of work renders its creation the province of the few--either the rich, or the crazy. You can make this stuff off of dimes earned doing something else (invariably, that sort of subsidization is an immediate indicator of lesser work), or you make it on spec because you have to, always operating beneath the understanding that most comics readers don't come to this medium looking for journalism--an investment with little popular or financial regard to hope for.
It wouldn't be fair to speak for what motivated Derf Backderf throughout the twenty year creation of My Friend Dahmer, but this being a comics column on the Internet, fairness is a loose and malleable term. Beginning as an eight page short story in 1991, then as a story in a 1997 issue of Zero Zero, and then in 2002 as a 24 page Eisner nominated one-shot immortalized by Chuck Klosterman in his Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs essay collection, the lengthy gestation period ofMy Friend Dahmer carries with it the implication that Backderf hasn't just been haunted by the story, he's been obsessed with it. For those used to the way comics creators bend over backwards to compliment and excuse the most shallow work, Derf's description of that one-shot--which was not only critically acclaimed but also well received by the general public, a rare feat--is so cruel as to be almost brutal. ("Stinks", and "a mess" are part of his own broadside.)
And while self-criticism is so often designed merely so that a creator can then luxuriate amongst their fans' rejoinders that "you're being too hard on yourself", Derf actually followed up his own self-immolation with the exact opposite: he busted his ass. Years of research followed, then rewriting, then--and if you've met comics people, you'll know how tough this next part is--redrawing. The 200 page result is a testament to hard work, and amongst comics, it's the first of its kind--a detailed biography that works as journalism, psychological profile, and exacting social criticism. It's compelling, heartrending work, riding a razor thin line of describing the disturbing circumstances that victimized Dahmer while never descending into acceptance of the ultimate direction the boy eventually took. It's a dark, horrible world that he ended up in. For delving into it so extensively--and for presenting the portion of it glazed with his own culpability--Derf's earned a shot at your attention more than anyone in recent memory. This, they should say, is what journalism feels like.