Q & A: Derf Backderf

Last month, shooting for the forthcoming film "My Friend Dahmer" (MFD) film took place in Bath, Ohio, about 30 miles south of Cleveland. The roots of MFD trace back to comix creator Derf Backderf, who penned the graphic novel on which the film is based during one of the most difficult trials of his life.

In 2002, Backderf endured chemotherapy and radiation treatments during a battle with cancer. The treatment, however, proved nearly deadly on its own. The Shaker Heights artist suffered extreme arterial damage from the radiation. He was rushed to the hospital in 2010 for emergency cardiac surgery.
The debilitating incident sparked a trying recovery, during which he was barely able to tackle a staircase. "But I could sit on a couch with a lapboard and draw." There he focused on a memoir that would include his years at Revere High School – and fellow classmate Jeffrey Dahmer. The resulting work, My Friend Dahmer (Abrams, 2012), went on to become a best seller and garner a bevy of awards and accolades.
Fresh Water caught up with the legendary graphic artist and chatted him up about the astonishing arc of his career, the view from the movie set and what it was like to revisit history in such a unique way.

Tell us about those days on the couch after your emergency cardiac surgery.
I sat down and started producing My Friend Dahmer, the final version. I really wanted to tell the story. It was already essentially written. I had been researching it for years. I'd kind of been putting it off, but having an episode like that – this was my second brush with mortality – I thought, If I'm going to do this, I'd better get on the stick. How much time do I have left?
I had no doubt that if I could get this book published it was going to be a critical and commercial hit. At that point I'd been working for 25 years as a pro and had some success. I knew as a storyteller that this was going to be an absolute smash hit.
I know it sounds weird that such a dark story would be somehow part of my recuperation, but it was. Just the process of drawing comics is one of the great joys of my life. I just focused on that and it was an essential part of my recovery. It's the restorative power of work and creation.
Comics saved my life - really.

And now Dahmer is moving into the next phase: film. How has the transformation been from your point of view?
It's both fun and exciting to see. It also comes with a little apprehension because it is such a personal piece of work. I didn't have to do it. I chose to do it. I chose the filmmakers – I turned down other offers.

I'm sure there will be things I disagree with, but that's part of the process. It's a reinterpretation.
I made the book I wanted to make and the book will always be there. That's the center of everything. If the filmmakers make a good film, that only enhances the book and it spreads the story to audiences who wouldn't otherwise be aware of it and maybe they'll come back to the book – that's my hope.
If they boot the story, the book will still be there and people will just say: that's too bad, the book was great.
I essentially had nothing to lose. The filmmakers are the ones – the pressure's on them, which I take great delight in reminding them of frequently.
Ross Lynch, the 20-year-old actor portraying Dahmer in the film, is coming off a number of successes as a teen heartthrob, notably with Disney. What's your take on his staggering change of artistic direction?
I'm happy for him. It's the kind of role that reinvents somebody – like Farrah Fawcett doing "The Burning Bed." For an actor, it's terrific.
The crew is absolutely in love with him they say he's doing a terrific job with the role. He's a nice, thoughtful kid. He's been working since he was like five years old. Since he wants to be an adult actor, if this movie's done right, it will really launch him into that world.
I've had this conversation with him. A lot of people are surprised at his selection. I wasn't. I always thought it would be some young actor who was going to get this part. I thought it would likely be someone like him who wanted to remake himself.

It also mirrors my own history with this story.
Suddenly, I came out with MFD after 30 years of being this goofball alt cartoonist and people were stunned. They couldn't believe – first of all – that I could draw this well, and secondly, that I would tell this kind of story.
It totally remade me.

Derf Backderf with Revere High cast member “friends." L-R: Harrison Holzer as "Mike", Alex Wolff as "Derf", Derf as Derf, and Tommy Nelson as "Neal”
Any memorable moments from the set?
We [Ross Lynch and I] were sitting on the porch of the Dahmer house – [MFD is] actually being filmed in Jeff's boyhood home. It's a very unique architectural house, very much a part of the story. It's almost a character in my book because it ties into a lot of stuff: his isolation and all sorts of different aspects of the story.
So we're sitting on the porch and Ross was dressed as Dahmer. He had the glasses on. I said, "Dude you gotta take those glasses off. You're freaking me out."
He laughed and took them off.
How was revisiting Bath in this unusual context?
I don't like to visit the [Dahmer] house too much – and a friend of mine lives there, so this is kind of a problem.
It's sacred ground. Somebody died there – brutally. Steven Hicks, Jeff's first victim, is somebody who has always haunted me because his death was so random.
This was just a guy hitching a ride trying to get home for his dad's birthday and he never made it. I knew so many kids just like him in high school from that era: kind of the affable kid who likes rock and roll and maybe likes to smoke a joint every now and then, just kind of hanging out, trying to figure out what he's going to do next and BLAMMO his life was cut short. Whenever I'm at the house, I think of him [Steven Hicks].
And we were so close to that murder – my friends and I. Some of us were within mere yards of that body at certain points.
Your own home from back in the day is also depicted in the film.
They picked an empty house in Bath as the set for my house when I was a teenager. They recreated my bedroom. I had this crazy mural that I had drawn on my bedroom walls when I was 14 or 15. I just covered all four walls in magic marker with this bizarre, very 70s, mural full of Roger Dean rip offs, Steve Ditko rip offs - just this kind of crazy, surreal space scene.
[The filmmakers] recreated that. They hired a local kid from Firestone High, an art student, and she did it very quickly. So I walk in this room and there's my teenage mural. I'm like: holy shit!
The funny thing is my mom sold the house I grew up in a couple years ago. It still had that mural on the walls. The new owners said: "Well, we'll probably just leave it. We kind of like it." So there are actually two houses in my hometown with this same crazy teenage 70s mural in the house, which kind of cracks me up.
Also as it turns out, the [teenage Derf] house, as I was pulling up to it, I'm like – I know this house. It belonged to a friend of mine in high school who was a member of the Dahmer Fan Club. You get all these weird threads lining up and connecting.
Welcome to my world.
Is Dahmer sympathetic?
Well ... only to a point.

This is the fine line you have to really cleave to. I've had many conversations with Marc Meyers, the filmmaker, about this. I've had many conversations with Ross about this. You can't make him too sympathetic.

You can empathize with him to a certain point and perhaps see the humanity in him, which falls away in chunks as the story progresses. But what comes at the end is a monster. The tale of My Friend Dahmer is the story of this sad, lonely, dysfunctional boy who marches inexorably towards the edge of the abyss and then falls into it.
What you have to remember is what is at the end of the story – and that is a pile of bodies and thousands who mourn his many victims. Dahmer – at the end – there's nothing sympathetic about him.
He chose to kill. Whether that choice was inevitable or not, he still made that choice and he chose to keep on killing. He was a pathetic parasite who did nothing but spread misery and heartache to anyone he came in contact with including the people he purported to love – his family.
I think that by humanizing him, that's important, because if you just write somebody off as a monster, with that comes a certain air of inevitability: Oh, he was a monster. It was always inevitable he was going to do what he did.
Well I don't believe that. Mistakes were made.
My Friend Dahmer at its heart is a story about failure. Everybody fails. The adults in his life across the board failed. His friends failed. Jeff himself failed. Sometimes that's the way life is. If you just write it off as inevitable, then we learn nothing.
I see this happen again and again and again where people like Dahmer pop up in the news: the mass shooters, the people who kill their whole family … It happens almost every month.
Though I understand the motivations are different in every case, I see the same kinds of traits in those stories: the missed signs, the kid who was having trouble and his parents either tried to get him help and failed or didn't try at all, indifference of the authorities, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
There is value in this story and that was what I was trying to get across.
To that end you recently put the kibosh on claims of exploitation regarding My Friend Dahmer, noting, among other things, "Mine was also a story that hadn’t been told. Most concentrate on [Dahmer's] infamous crimes. My book isn’t about those crimes. It’s the story before that story."
So with that said, what has been a positive takeaway from this evolving project?

I like the fun aspect of this whole thing: surprising people. Not just with my own product, but the story itself, which is such a surprise. You think it's going to be something completely different than what it is. You think it's going to be this story of death, dismemberment, cannibalism and all the horrible things that Dahmer did.
But when you read the book, you get to the end of it and you find you've read something completely different than you thought you were going to read.
I enjoy that people were so surprised that I was able to pull it off from a purely egotistical standpoint. That's very gratifying. It remade me and I think it will remake Ross. It could do the same for Marc [Meyers], the filmmaker. It could really launch him as well.
This project has always had a bit of magic associated with it.

from The Baron Of Prospect Avenue
Speaking of magic, how does it feel to grab the brass ring at the age of 56?
I'm lucky that I came to books as this mature writer and thinker. I was 50 years old when my first book was published. I'm not a 20-year-old kid still trying to find his way in the world. I found my way – or as much as I'm ever going to find it – and that's been to my advantage.
The fun thing is that doing the strip for many years – that was its own little world. There's not a lot of crossover between comic strips and graphic novels. I landed with these books and it was just like a hand grenade, like: where did this guy come from?
When I meet people at festivals and things like that I hear this at least two to three times every time: They'll look at me and get this funny look on their face and go, "Gee, you're a lot older than I thought you would be," because they're only familiar with my work from the last five years.
They think I should be in my late 20's, not this grizzled old warhorse standing in front of them.

While Backderf is working on his "next big book," he's tightlipped about it as "nothing I'm ready to reveal at this point." In the meantime, his latest projects include the highly acclaimed Trashed (Abrams, 2015), a graphic novel depicting life as a young garbage collector in suburbia – an experience Backderf had in 1979 and 1980 in his hometown. For those pining for Derf's True Stories from back in his days with the Free Times and Scene, his second collection of the series debuted last month. For more immediate fixes, The Baron of Prospect Avenue, which was funded by a CPAC 2016 Creative Workshop Fellowship, is available online for free.

Read Backderf's extensive first-person write up
about his experiences on the set of "My Friend Dahmer" here. The page includes numerous photos.
Backderf's answers have been lightly edited for readability.

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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