A few years back I was sent Derf's thoroughly enjoyable Punk Rock and Trailer Parks by the publisher (SLG Publishing) for review, and I remember thinking that I would need to keep an eye out for more from the writer/artist. His illustrative style is somewhere between Peter Bagge and R. Crumb, yet strangely more accessible than both, not as cartoony as Bagge or as grimy as Crumb. His storytelling was offbeat, humourous and distinct and I definitely connected with it, even if it might have been a bit alien to my own experiences.
I had assumed at the time (and since) that Derf was a more prominent creator than he actually was. His style seemed wholly formed and quite assured, so I had figured that he had numerous works out there that I just haven't been exposed to shopping at a generally mainstream comic book store. Last year I became aware of his new book, My Friend Dahmer, about his teenage friendship with notorious serial killer/cannibal Jeffery Dahmer, as it had hit not just industry trade attention, but major news sources. It wasn't something that appeared in my shop but it's something I meant to seek it out, though eventually forgot to do so. I happened to find a copy today and I snatched it up without hesitation. Looking in the cover fold-ins I learned that Derf has been publishing a newspaper comic called The City for years, but has only one graphic novel predating Punk Rock and Trailer Parks called Trashed, about his time as a garbage collector.
But as great an impact as Punk Rock and Trailer Parks had on me, My Friend Dahmer will easily be his standout work. It's a personal memoir as well as a fractional biography of Jeffrey Dahmer predating his first murder. Derf has a lot of personal connections to the story, but went beyond it, doing his homework, researching the interviews and calling up old class mates and teachers to ensure that recollections were validated and accurate as much as possible. In an extensive Notes section at the back, Derf clarifies the sources of information, provides some behind-the-scenes information, and owns up to any liberties or assumptions made in the making of the book.
But the story itself is at once a memoir of young men in the late-70's and a contrasting portrait of a serial killer in the making. They're not mutually exclusive, however, and Derf ponders how people slip through life, unnoticed, the damage mounting, their inner demons taking over. Here his portrait of Dahmer is sympathetic to a point, but distanced at the same time. Dahmer was all too aware of his own dark urges and sought to fend them off with alcohol and a fascination with roadkill, but Derf and his circle of friends were never close enough with him to identify any problems, or conscious enough of mental illnesses to know that he needed help. There's a lot of "what if moments" which in hindsight seem so clear, but as Derf invests you in the time and era, it's so obvious how it all played out under the radar.
It's a fascinating book, not nearly what I was expecting, but I'm not actually sure what I should have expected. It's more sad than depressing, Dahmer quotes his own tale as "a sick, pathetic, miserable life story, that's all it is." That about sums it up.