Portrait of the Monster as a Young Man

Reading between the lines.
March 3 2012 12:02 AM

Portrait of the Monster as a Young Man

This month’s cartoonist Derf Backderf and his fascinating new graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer.

My Friend Dahmer
My Friend Dahmer
by Derf Backderf
Abrams ComicArts

This month’s issue of the Slate Book Review features illustrations (and a sweet logo) by Derf Backderf, the cartoonist behind the fascinating, discomfiting graphic novel My Friend Dahmer, out this month. The true story of Derf’s high school interactions with a young Jeffrey Dahmer in the mid-1970s, My Friend Dahmer offers a portrait of the monster as a young man, struggling with the demons that would soon drive him to murder—while trying, and failing, to fit in at a typical suburban high school.

Derf’s vibrant art in My Friend Dahmer is reminiscent of the work of the great comics artists of that era, especially R. Crumb’s. But his storytelling is thoroughly modern—an empathetic attempt to dig into the mind of a young man whose psyche was crumbling day by day, using research, reporting, and his own memories of the time. It’s a book that never shies away from the horrors Dahmer would perpetuate—indeed, that views them as the terrible results of a family and school (indeed a decade) that let its kids run wild. Often that parental neglect was benign, but sometimes—when there were no adults to notice a young man driven by mental illness dangerously off the rails—it was tragic.

My Friend Dahmer is one of the most thought-provoking comics released in a long time. I’m very pleased that Derf is illustrating the inaugural issue of the Slate Book Review.

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Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor, co-host of Mom and Dad Are Fighting, and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

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