I have to say, it took me a surprisingly long time to get to this book. Given that I live in Ohio, I’ve run into a lot of people who’ve read My Friend Dahmer, but I myself never picked it up until recently.
I’ll start the review portion by saying this book is a haunting experience. I think probably everyone knows who Jeffery Dahmer was, but to see a sort of “behind the scenes” look, when he was young and still teetering on the edge, woah, it’s really something. The author, Derf, went to school with Dahmer, and through this experience is able to give us a look at the young man that would turn into America’s most infamous serial killer. Using his experience, that of those around him at the time, and Dahmer’s own words, he is able to craft the story of Dahmers decent. It culminates in a story that I was unable to put down, and finished in just two sessions (both times staying up pretty late to do so).
So, let’s talk about the writing here. Given that this is something that Derf was around, the book feels personal (how could it not?), thus it’s very easy to read. There are no barriers between reader and author. This would have been very easy to do; distancing himself from Dahmer. But Derf tells it like was, even at the end, including a part where he joked (before anyone knew), that Dahmer was probably a “serial killer by now.” My point is, it’s an honest depiction of the events of Dahmer’s youth. Derf also repeatedly calls Dahmer a tragic figure, with the distinction that he remains so only until he killed his first victim. And since this book covers only up until that point, we get a view of what he means.
It’s this aspect that’s so fascinating about the book. We see the psychological and physical factors that led to Dahmer’s decent. Something that his highlighted by Derf contrasting Dahmer’s youth with his own from time to time. But as you read, there is a continued underlying sadness of what could have been. It seems that, through the book, there were many, many red flags, and if they had been recognized, perhaps things would have turned out different; maybe those victims would still be alive. It’s this feeling you get that does indeed put the tragedy into the story. However, it’s twofold. The tragedy is also that this recognition never took place, and so now with hindsight Derf looks back and realizes that there were signs, even though no one could see the whole picture. I’m sure many of these people look back and wonder what they could have done.
And, as I said above, I couldn’t stop reading this story. And what I really appreciated was that this book didn’t aim to sensationalize anything. Like I mentioned, this book ends at the first murder. So it’s not going for shock value. It takes a genuine view of Dahmer and those around him. It aims not to examine the murders, but the killer’s troubled youth. Derf touches only on the years that he himself was around, and doesn’t dip much into speculation. I imagine that would be quite easy given the circumstances. This really helps ground the story and gives an angle that’s less publicized. It’s fascinating but sad, mixed in equal parts that make this story about a man who became a monster, feel quite human.
Derf both wrote and drew this story, and I quite enjoy his art as a whole. That may partly be due to the fact that he is a cartoonist from Ohio, and as you might guess I root for that type. But there is something so honest about his artwork. The people in his stories seem real, they have flaws. They are lanky, or short, or wide, and most everyone has a differently shaped head. It was particularly useful in this story, as much of it dealt with teenagers, so they were covered in pimples or wore braces. It was not a flattering time for anyone (we all remember high school, no thanks) and Derf’s depictions worked well for this. His drawings, I thought, were quite articulate. I took extra time to study the way he drew body language, and it really gave the characters life. It’s pretty easy (guilty as charged myself) to draw characters just standing around. But to give them a sort of meaning in the way the stand, that goes a long way to make good comic art. It was also his ability to convey emotion, or lack thereof in the case of Dahmer that really hit home what kind of guy we were dealing with. I mean, there were a lot of times where you saw the character and his blank face and just knew something was wrong. And even if you somehow didn’t know who Jeffery Dahmer was, you would sense that he wasn’t right from these drawings.
Working on comics myself, I tried to study every panel. There was a lot for me to take in, textures, shading, how he drew cars and houses. It’s the little things that many people probably don’t think about, but to me, it’s these “small” things that give a 2D comic a 3 dimensional feeling. And this comic was not lacking. I stopped several times to look at the way he drew cars specifically (something that I have a hard time with). But hey, that’s not really part of the review unless you like cars.
Let me end with this: I met Derf recently. He was at Cartoon Crossroads in Columbus. I didn’t talk to him much because I was like “This guy’s a big deal” and got nervous. And he was pretty quiet, too. However, I did buy a book of his that had a drawing of Joey Ramone in it (his style works really well with Joey), so that was cool. But I finished this book and couldn’t stop think that I was two feet away from a guy who had physical contact with Jeffery Dahmer. Pretty weird, right? A surreal moment for me, but I guess that’s neither here nor there.
If you like biographies or psychology or Ohio history or if you’re just a fan of plain old fashioned good story telling, pick up this book. And, hey, be sure to read it before you watch the movie, so you can judge the flick, huh?