from graphic novel guest blogger Francisca Goldsmith:
As Derf Backderf cogently lays bare in this memoir, bullying existed for generations before it took to cyberspace; the adults who see and saw adolescents most regularly and for the longest times each day—their teachers—can be held complicit by failing to acknowledge one or another particular teen’s obvious social and/or psychological problems; and what we think of friendship in our teens may, in retrospect, be a kind of convenience of collocation. By extension, we should note that the popular message today of “It gets better” needs to include action now rather than a promise that the future will make the present acceptable.
Backderf serves as apologist neither for serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer nor for his own adolescent lack of insight on a fellow classmate who seemed odd, sometimes scary, and willing enough to be the butt of peer teasing. Instead, he provides readers with a clear-eyed view of the junior high and high school years they shared in rural Ohio (1973-1978), filling in reasonable suppositions of teen Dahmer’s alienated life based on a variety of credible sources during the years that Backderf himself felt all the healthy surroundings of family, friends and academic success.
The graphic novel format is eminently suited to this memoir and not because it allows—or incites—Berckderf to provide images of brutality (we do see the teen Dahmer absconding with a pickled fetal pig from the school bio lab, killing fish, and collecting and dissecting roadkill; we don’t see the actions he took to reduce his first human victim to the garbage bags we do see). Instead, speech balloons allow us to see how Dahmer is talked past and over, panels exploding with a bulked up Dahmer imitating his mother’s mental illness-induced behaviors (to the delight of his classmates), and the solitary Dahmer drinking away the compulsions in his head without any adult intervening to question his evening presence at school or his daytime alcohol breath.
This isn’t a cautionary tale. It’s insight shared—insight arriving too late to save Dahmer’s victims, let alone Jeff himself, but perhaps soon enough to remind both teens and their caretakers that questioning peculiar behavior might be a better tack than ignoring or exploiting it.
Adult/High School–Alternative cartoonist Backderf, whose work has been recognized and lauded within the comics field and popularly through his regular comic strip “The City,” reflects on the adolescence he shared in rural Northeastern Ohio with a social outcast who would later become a particularly infamous serial killer. Far from exploiting the possibilities for depicting human butchering, he concentrates on depicting the cruelty of youth, the assumed blindness and thus neglect by adults of teens, and Dahmer’s attempts and failures to cope with a mentally ill mother, school bullies, and alcoholism. Backderf’s renderings of Dahmer show him to be both hulking and awkward, but no more a monster than any of the other flawed humans in their junior and high school lives. Trained as a journalist, Backderf assures as much accuracy as he can through the use of such source material as FBI files and memories corroborated by at least two witnesses; where he takes liberties with some scenes, he explains, in the appended notes, the visual reasons for so doing. While readers are made to witness Dahmer’s early experiments on animals–both dead and living–the more gruesome aspect of this memoir is how callous ignorance, especially ignorance that causes failure to confront youth who clearly are troubled, can make any of us.–Francisca Goldsmith, Infopeople Project, CA