Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer is part memoir and part deeply researched journalism. The award-winning graphic novel recounts Backderf’s high school years and his experience unknowingly seeing the makings of the serial killer Jeffery Dahmer. Published by Abrams Comicsarts in 2012, the graphic novel is an expansion on Backderf’s Eisner-nominated 24-page self-published work of the same name.
My Friend Dahmer has been challenged multiple times, most notably in 2021, when it was removed as an option from a high school reading list in Leander, Texas. Eventually, they reversed the decision, and the book was available again with the requirement that students receive counseling on the content within the graphic novel. The book depicts the failures of the community and the isolation of one student. When asked about the challenges, Backderf responded, “People are objecting to what he became, but that’s not what I depict in my book.”
Summary of My Friend Dahmer from the publisher:
You only think you know this story. In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer—the most notorious serial killer since Jack the Ripper—seared himself into the American consciousness. To the public, Dahmer was a monster who committed unthinkable atrocities. To Derf Backderf, “Jeff” was a much more complex figure: a high school friend with whom he had shared classrooms, hallways, and car rides. In My Friend Dahmer, a haunting and original graphic novel, writer-artist Backderf creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man struggling against the morbid urges emanating from the deep recesses of his psyche—a shy kid, a teenage alcoholic, and a goofball who never quite fit in with his classmates. With profound insight, what emerges is a Jeffrey Dahmer that few ever really knew, and one readers will never forget.
Reviews for My Friend Dahmer
A powerful, unsettling use of the graphic medium to share a profoundly disturbing story.
If a boy is not born a monster, how does he become one? Though Backderf (Punk Rock and Trailer Parks, 2008) was once an Ohio classmate of the notorious Jeffrey Dahmer, he doesn’t try to elicit sympathy for “Jeff.” Yet he walks an emotional tightrope here, for he recognizes that someone—maybe the other kids who laughed at and with him, certainly the adults who should have recognized aberration well beyond tortured adolescence—should have done something. “To you Dahmer was a depraved fiend but to me he was a kid I sat next to in study hall and hung out with in the band room,” writes the author, whose dark narrative proceeds to show how Dahmer’s behavior degenerated from fascination with roadkill and torture of animals to repressed homosexuality and high-school alcoholism to mass murder. It also shows how he was shaken by his parents’ troubled marriage and tempestuous divorce, by his emotionally disturbed mother’s decision to move away and leave her son alone, and by the encouragement of the Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club (with the author a charter member and ringleader) to turn the outcast into a freak show. The more that Dahmer drank to numb his life, the more oblivious adults seemed to be, letting him disappear between the cracks. “It’s my belief that Dahmer didn’t have to wind up a monster, that all those people didn’t have to die horribly, if only the adults in his life hadn’t been so inexplicably, unforgivably, incomprehensibly clueless and/or indifferent,” writes Backderf. “Once Dahmer kills, however—and I can’t stress this enough—my sympathy for him ends.”
An exemplary demonstration of the transformative possibilities of graphic narrative.
My Friend Dahmer is about Jeffrey Dahmer, and Backderf didn’t rely solely on his memories in writing this. He also did extensive research, showing the reader more about Dahmer than what the teen Backderf knew or suspected. (This is part of what intrigued me: the extensive research for the book).
Backderf’s defense, and it’s a good one, is that they were typical teenagers and self-absorbed and had no idea. Actually, it’s more than a defense: it’s a clear eyed look at how teens thought, how he as a teen thought. I appreciated that he neither downplayed nor exaggerated the time period. (Note to people writing memoirs or stories told about their teen years: yes, sometimes time must pass to be truly honest about that time period.) But where were the adults? Why did his antics go uncommented on at school? How did he get away with being drunk for about two years of school? I wondered — what could be excused by the time period, and what by adults ignoring the obvious because it’s easier?
Readers of Derf Backderf’s the City strip in various alt-weeklies will immediately recognize his visual style (flattened landscapes and blocky characters who look uncomfortable in their own skin), but not the content in this visceral, ambitious new graphic novel. Instead of the City’s surreal, satirical ennui, Backderf explores a hard-to-believe autobiographical story. During the 1970s in Ohio, he attended high school with and befriended Jeffrey Dahmer, “the loneliest kid I’d ever met.” Backderf and his social misfit crew drift in and out of Dahmer’s story, which the author pieced together from memories and more recent research. It’s a barbed-wire portrait of a devil-minded teen with divorcing and neglectful parents. He slices up roadkill to see what it looks like, gets attention in school by doing imitations of cerebral palsy victims, and swims in alcohol to drown out his violent urges. The tone is sympathetic and enraged (“Where were the damn adults?”) while not excusing or making the story unduly fascinating. Backderf’s writing is impeccably honest in not exculpating his own misdeeds (the sections about how he and his friends encourage Dahmer’s spaz shtick while still excluding him make for brutal reading) and quietly horrifying. A small, dark classic.
Awards and Recognition
- 2014 Revelation Award at Angoulême
- 2013 ALA/YALSA Alex Award
- Reuben Award Graphic Novel Nominee
- Ignatz Award Outstanding Graphic Novel Nominee
- A TIME Top 5 Non-fiction Book of 2012
- The Comics Journal Best Comics of 2012
What should I do if My Friend Dahmer is challenged?
Most challenges to comics in libraries come from well-meaning individuals, frequently parents, who find something they believe is objectionable in their local public or school library. These challenges are often difficult and stressful for the library staff who must manage them, but there are resources to help them in the process. Below we’ve identified a number of tips and links to assist libraries to increase the likelihood of keeping challenged comics on the shelves.
1. Make Strong Policies.
Strong selection and challenge review policies are key for protecting access to library materials, including comics. The American Library Association has developed a number of excellent tools to assist school and public libraries in the essential preparation to perform before books are challenged here.
2. Face the Challenge.
What do you do when a comic is challenged? Much of the material in this post can be used to help defend My Friend Dahmer against a challenge. The American Library Association has developed these helpful tools to cope with challenges:
- How to Respond to Challenges and Concerns about Library Resources
- Working with Community Leaders
- Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, and Academic Libraries
CBLDF can also help by providing assistance with locating review resources, writing letters of support, and facilitating access to experts and resources. Call 800-99-CBLDF or email firstname.lastname@example.org at the first sign of a First Amendment emergency!
3. Report the Challenge.
Another essential step in protecting access to comics is to report challenges when they occur. By reporting challenges, you help the free expression community gather necessary information about what materials are at risk so better tools can be created to assist. To report a challenge to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, call us at 800-99-CBLDF or email here. You can also report the challenge to the ALA here.
CBLDF and its partners have been battling ongoing and organized attempts to censor comics and other books in schools and libraries. You can join the struggle by making a donation or reporting censorship today!