We review a lot of graphic novels around here (thanks in large part to super-reviewer Francisca Goldsmith) so, as we said on Monday, Angela and I were very happy to see a GN on the Alex Awards list this year. As I somewhat embarrassingly indicated, though, I hadn’t read Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer, so I wanted to read it and take a closer look at it.
First of all–wow. This is a great graphic novel. I saw a goodreads review which criticized this book for being more sympathetic to Jeffrey Dahmer than the narrator, and several others who attacked the book for Backderf’s seemingly contradictory portrayal of himself as both a friend and bully of Jeff. But these were actually the two pieces that I found most compelling about the book. Backderf never quite comes out and accuses himself of being a bully, but he shows it copiously. And his sympathy towards Dahmer’s suffering is both admirable and absolutely necessary for the book to work.
We had four graphic novels on our Best of 2012 list: Gone to Amerikay, Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, Sailor Twain, and Goliath. I’m on record as calling Gone to Amerikay as my favorite, and Angela named Dotter. What My Friend Dahmer has clearly over both of those titles is heaps more teen appeal. Most obviously, the true crime sensationalism of Dahmer, but also the high school setting, the themes of bullying, the clean comic-style art, and the linear plot all make this far more accessible than Angela and my favorites. The only GN from our list that might rival the appeal of My Friend Dahmer is Goliath, which has a similarly linear narrative and a very different but still more accessible art style. It’s also funny, which doesn’t hurt. But if the Alex committee looked at it at all, they may have seen it as a bit too slight in comparison to the thematic weight of My Friend Dahmer.
But is it nonfiction?
The source of my embarrassment, above, was that I didn’t know that this book was a nonfiction title, but as I read it I had to wonder, is it exactly nonfiction? On the most mundane level of library shelving, my library has it in fiction, as do three of the first four libraries in my area that I looked at (Yolo County, Oakland Public, Sonoma County). San Francisco Public puts in True Crime. Of course, where a library shelves a book isn’t always foolproof, as I recently saw.
What interested me more was that Backderf admits to inventing conversations (“Obviously, this conversation is a re-creation, based on Jeff’s recollection,” p. 212). In all the hubbub over Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb and accuracy in nonfiction, one of the most common things I heard was memories of the “bad-old-days” of nonfiction where dialogue was invented from whole-cloth. The examples in My Friend Dahmer don’t seem as bad, but they certainly cross a line we wouldn’t expect to see crossed in a primarily textual book.
Then I started wondering whether a graphic novel (note the word “novel”) can ever hope to be as rigorously nonfiction as a text book. The very format demands that the author make decisions about things he can’t possibly know–the clothes someone wore, the layout of a house, the weather. This was driven home to me as I was reading Dotter of her Father’s Eyes. In this memoir/biography, Mary Talbot wrote the text and her husband Bryan illustrated it. On a couple of occasions, Mary slyly interrupts the graphics with notes like these: “NB: My mother wouldn’t have been seen dead in a frilly apron” (p. 13); “NB: Bryan’s wrong again. In my school boys were seated on one side of the classroom, the girls on the other. Always.” (p. 18). This is clever and fun, but it draws attention to the fact that one never sees these notes in other graphic novels. Does Backderf draw Dahmer in an outfit he would never have been caught dead in? Is the seating arrangement in the classrooms wrong? Who knows?
These are undoubtedly minor points, but I think it is worth pointing out that when we talk about graphic novels as being nonfiction, we are almost certainly putting them in a slightly different category from other nonfiction. By the way, I don’t mean this as a criticism of My Friend Dahmer, or nonfiction Graphic Novels. I just think it is an interesting element about how the ever elusive “truth” is translated into various mediums. I’m more than happy to hear from anyone who has thoughts or opinions on this. Comment away.