Derf Draws a Different Toon

John Backderf, known to everyone but his mother simply as Derf, draws the comic strip “The City,” which is featured in more than 50 alternative weekly papers nationwide. Derf, who launched the cartoon in 1990, has just published two comic books relating strange-but-true stories from his own life.

"My Friend Dahmer" (self-published, $2.95) depicts Derf’s teenage friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious serial killer found guilty of 17 killings in 1992 and murdered in prison two years later. The disturbing, gripping book details how the author and his high school buddies encouraged the young Dahmer’s bizarre, drunken behavior in school and at the mall, and how Derf would meet some of those friends a decade later -- before Dahmer’s crimes came to light -- and jokingly remark that Dahmer was “probably a serial killer by now.”

"Trashed" (Slave Labor Graphics, $6.95) is much more what you’d expect in a comic book: It’s comic. The story, which chronicles the year that Derf spent working as a garbage collector after dropping out of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, packs plenty of gross-out humor for pimply comics fans while also capturing the poignancy of watching one’s aspirations stagnate in a shit job. “I can’t believe it’s come to this,” reads one panel in which the author hovers over roadkill. “Scraping dead animals off the asphalt ... GOD!!”

We caught up with Derf in Cleveland, where he had just given a talk at the Andy Warhol Museum.

When did you become a professional cartoonist?

What did I first get paid for? A portrait of my sixth-grade teacher. One of my classmates asked me to draw a nude picture of her because he had a boner for her. I assume he used it for masturbatory purposes. He paid me two bucks for it. Of course, this was before Internet porn -- I don’t think I could compete with that.

You went to art school, right?

The Dahmer book leads up to when I went off to the [Art Institute of Pittsburgh], and then "Trashed" picks up when I came back home six months later. In Pittsburgh teachers hammered me for wanting to do comic books. I was so depressed by this barrage of counseling that I dropped out and came back home with my tail between my legs and wound up on the back of a garbage truck. I mean, obviously my confidence was not exactly at a high.

What compelled you to write in the introduction of "My Friend Dahmer" that you didn’t want “serial killer ‘fans’” to either buy the book or write to you?

There are some real freak-jobs out there. I run into them all the time. They write me because they run across [the first chapter of the Dahmer book, which appeared in a compilation a few years ago]. They want to talk about it, because they’re fascinated by it. There are people that are fascinated by [John Wayne] Gacy or [Charles] Manson. I try to avoid them or write back to them telling them to fuck off.

Why do you often draw Dahmer in shadow?

Dahmer was a shadow, you know? I wanted to draw him like you really didn’t know what was going on behind that face. That’s the way I remember him. I mean, I can’t say I really knew the guy even though I went to school with him and he was around a lot. I hardly knew anything about him at all. No one did, obviously -- that was the whole Dahmer thing.

It seems that you and your pals thought him amusingly creepy, but not so much that it precluded you from sitting next to him in a car or putting him up to stuff.

Right. Well, I don’t think I ever would have considered being alone with him at any time because he was just kind of a freak. But with other people, I thought he was pretty harmless.

In a way, the book explains how Dahmer was socialized -- without, of course, excusing his crimes. Are you perhaps doing something quasi-sympathetic and on a slippery slope?

Well, it will probably get me in trouble with some people. My premise is that I consider Dahmer a tragic figure, which I know a lot of people have trouble getting their hooks around. You can’t think anything about the types of crimes he committed without thinking that guy was an animal and he deserved a bullet in the brain. And I can’t argue with that. But this guy was just a disturbed kid who could have been helped if just one adult in his life had stepped up and said, “There’s something wrong with this kid. Let’s get him some help.”

And that’s the same lesson you see in Columbine and other school shootings with kids who freak out. You just can’t write off a 12-year-old kid and say there’s no hope for this guy. By the time Dahmer was 18 there was no hope for him. At every major point in his life the adults in his life failed him -- although he was crafty enough that he was able to fool a lot of people.

By the time he was in high school, wasn’t Dahmer less crafty?

Yeah, I mean this guy was drunk -- falling-down drunk -- reeking of booze every fucking day of senior year. At 7:30 in the morning. And nobody knew about it but us? I find that hard to believe.

Did your garbage truck experience shape your attitude about trash?

Oh, I’m so anal about my trash. It’s bundled up neatly and all the bags are the same weight and neat by the curb. And my wife laughs because I’ll fill the garage with trash but only put out a little at a time. I won’t put it out all at once -- I’ll even it out over the course of a month so as not to overwork the trash man.

So it’ll just get ripe in your garage?

Well, you know, I’m willing to suffer a little.

Andy Newman is the the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper.

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