I just finished Derf Backderf's excellent graphic novel "My Friend Dahmer." "My Friend Dahmer" is a memoir about Backderf's teenage years in Ohio during the late seventies. During this time Backderf was apparently good friends with classmate and future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Backderf's memoir is compellingly drawn. Backderf, like his contemporary Allison Bachdel, has a real gift for illustrating the everyday details of suburbia in Jimmy Carter's America.
Backderf inserts actual photos of himself and Dahmer at Revere High School in between chapters. One especially chilling group photo shows the clean cut, smiling high school students of the National Honor Society posed in an orderly, tiered crowd. One student in the photo has his face blacked out. This student was Dahmer, a failing alcoholic "D" student, who photo-bombed the National Honor Society group picture. Dahmer had snuck into the photo on a dare from his friends. A teacher, furious that Dahmer was in the photo but unable to retake the picture, blacked out Dahmer's face with a marker. The result, which was printed in the '78 Revere High School yearbook, is truly creepy.
Backderf's recollections of Dahmer show a great deal of red flags.... though to be fair it is impossible not to see red flags since no reader comes into the memoir innocent of Jeffrey Dahmer's reputation. Backderf blames the teachers of Revere for not intervening in Dahmer's slow slide into alcoholism, truancy, sadism and eventually murder. Dahmer's first murder occurred shortly after Dahmer and Backderf graduated from high school. Backderf is also straightforward in how he and his friends would also occasionally torment Dahmer. The relationship between Backderf and Dahmer was never a friendship of equals. Backderf would patronize, tease and manipulate Dahmer frequently. The picked-upon Dahmer would put up with Backderf's ersatz companionship just to have any relationship in high school that resembled friendship.
In the end, however, there is really no one to blame for Jeffrey Dahmer's murderous fate except Dahmer. Though Backderf tries to lay blame on Dahmer's parents' messy divorce and the Revere High School teachers' lack of involvement in their students' lives for Dahmer slipping through the cracks... Backderf's explanation rings a little weak. There is only so much the teachers could have been expected to notice. Dahmer was very manipulative and oddly charismatic in his own weird way. In one amazing scene Backderf describes Dahmer managing to sweet-talk his way into a meeting with Vice President Walter Mondale during a class field trip to DC. Dahmer was very adept at hiding his alcoholism, necrophilia and mental illness from the people in his life. Whether it be smoothly manipulating Walter Mondale or distracting several traffic cops from the suspicious garbage bags in the trunk of his car, Jeffrey Dahmer was that most dangerous breed of psychopath: insane enough to murder and stable enough to meticulously hide his deranged crimes from even those obsessed enough with him to remember every detail of his life forty years later.