Non-Fiction, Reviews

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf (2012)

IMG_4278This is one of those books that I have no memory of first discovering – but somehow it made its way on to my radar, and my GoodReads TBR. I am fascinated by the true crime genre, and so my interest in My Friend Dahmer came from that. I’m the kind of person who has heard of a lot of serial killers, with a mixed amount of knowledge, and I already knew plenty about Jeffrey Dahmer when I picked up this graphic novel (if you don’t, you’re lucky).

The author, John ‘Derf’ Backderf, went to school with Dahmer and this book recounts his memories of him at that time, supplemented with material from interviews, news coverage, and the memoir written by Dahmer’s father. This last especially helped the author to depict a broader view of Dahmer’s teenage life both at school and with his family. This is all explained in the notes section at the end of the book – Backderf talks about his sources, as well as why he wrote the book, and what he really thinks of Dahmer, both in school and later on. It turns out he wrote a few short stories about Dahmer once his crimes became public, a few gained attention, and he eventually put his memories together in this book.

My Friend Dahmer is short and stark. Backderf’s black and white style makes the uneasiness that underlies everything even more palpable, and the exaggerated features of both people and surroundings really lift the story from the page and make it seem more real. You get a sense of the claustrophobia of 1970s small town life, and the routine of school and home; you see how limited their world was, and that there was no outlet or relief for Dahmer’s increasingly disturbed mind. More than once Backderf states his opinion that if the adults in Dahmer’s life had paid more attention to his behaviour, and had intervened, he might not have grown up to be a serial killer. He was clearly different, with his propensity for collecting and dissecting roadkill, and his burgeoning alcoholism, among other things.

But as Backderf shows, his mother was increasingly fragile and unwell, and due to his parents’ deteriorating relationship and subsequent divorce, his father was largely absent. In Backderf’s notes he writes about how once Dahmer’s father, Lionel, realised that his son was drinking so much, he did try to help, and he did support him, but it was too little and too late. This would have been in the summer after Dahmer graduated from high school, after he had been left alone in the family home for a few weeks – at which point he had already committed his first murder. Once his parents’ divorce was initiated, Dahmer’s mother moved away with his younger brother, leaving him to wait at home for his father to move back in. A perfect example of how the adults in his life left him to his own devices far too much.

Given the subject matter, My Friend Dahmer is pretty heavy going, even though it never goes into the nature of his crimes beyond the fact of murder. But the dread of what we know comes later hangs over the whole story, creating an oppressive atmosphere. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that this troubled teenager will become what he becomes. His experience throughout this story is miserable and lonely, and more than anything the whole thing is incredibly sad. There is an unsettling inevitability to Dahmer’s giving in to his fantasies and abandoning any attempt at normalcy. Backderf draws excellent and jarring comparisons between his own happy teenage life with his loving family, and the misery of Dahmer’s experience. He acknowledges that he and his friends sometmes excluded Dahmer, and made fun of him, and played along with his cruel impressions of what turned out to be his mother’s drug-induced fits (at the time they thought he was impersonating a mutual acquaintance with cerebral palsy, and Backderf later learned it was really about his mother – though neither is excusable). He knows that they were clueless teenagers, never really thinking about their actions, or what was really going on with this strange guy they knew. They never spoke to him about his obvious drinking, or how unhappy he seemed. Like the adults in Dahmer’s life, it was easier for them to keep their distance. At one point Backderf states that most people figured he could just become someone else’s problem – and then he was.

Despite how dark it is, I really enjoyed reading My Friend Dahmer. It is brilliantly constructed and Backderf’s style is perfect for such a multi-layered and deceptively simple story. Once you reach the end you are left to think about what came next – the years in the military where Dahmer allegedly abused and raped two separate men, and was eventually discharged because of his drinking (not because of the abuse, even though it was reported); and then the later rape and murder of 17 men and teenage boys. Even when you consider his later statements that he didn’t want to do any of it, that he wished someone had stopped him, the fact is that he still did these things, and he didn’t turn himself in. Backderf states that he has sympathy with Dahmer up until the point he commits his first murder at the age of 18, and I agree. He had a miserable and damaging adolescence, but that doesn’t excuse anything. It depresses me how easy it could have been for someone in his teenage years to step in and try harder to help him. He might not have had a normal happy life (he was clearly very disturbed) but he wouldn’t have become a rapist and murderer.

So, My Friend Dahmer is not the easiest book to read. But then I like weird stories about weird people, and I’m fascinated by this kind of stuff. I plan to watch the movie adaptation that came out recently, which looks like it’ll be good. I’ll have to write about that once I’ve watched it.

Would you read My Friend Dahmer, or watch the movie? Or have you already read it? 

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Published in 2012 by Abrams Books (paperback edition pictured above).

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Articles, Comment

Some Reasons Why Tintin Is Amazing

I didn’t do much this weekend just gone. I went to the pub on Friday, slept late, ate pizza, and went with my boyfriend to his mum’s house for Sunday lunch. But in between, I read The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

Though I read a lot of Tintin as a child, there are still a lot of stories I haven’t read – which I kind of like, because it means I’m still discovering them. I read the A4 paperback ‘albums’ when I was little, and had a couple of the compact editions (A5 hardback with three stories in each volume), and I bought a couple of the young readers’ editions a while ago in the lovely Blackwell’s on Broad Street in Oxford.

photo (1)

Those these editions are meant for youngsters, they are a very convenient size and have a section at the back with background information about how Herge put each story together, and the research and inspiration behind them.

It’s ‘educational’ but also fascinating and genuinely interesting. Par exemple:

photo 1

Lots of little facts and anecdotes, but then also genuinely cool and amazing stuff, like THIS:

photo 2

Herge actually got a master shipbuilder to draw plans of The Unicorn so that he could make his drawings accurate. He also researched Royal British ships in the 1600s. Amazing! It’s things like this that make Tintin so much more than a kids’ comic for me – and for many others. In particular, the Tintinologists, who have a very active website and social calendar, including a Tintin conference (which I just missed this year, it was 10th January at UCL). Nerdy yes, but when you read what they have to say they are intelligent, interested people with a variety of interests who have been brought together by the charming character, created by a Belgian (as someone with Belgian heritage, I can say, not the coolest place) 85 years ago.

There is of course also The Tintin Shop in London’s Covent Garden, which opened in 1984 and has always been an absolute treat to visit. They also have an ace website where you can browse and buy everything they sell in the store – though nothing beats an actual visit there.

I’m writing this post because I was reminded this weekend of how much I love the Tintin stories, and why I love them, and why they have been so important to me. Reading them as a child, they were always fun and exciting, and the drawings were attractive. The stories themselves were always interesting and a little different from anything else I read at the time – and I can say that now too. I think an adult can enjoy them just as much as, if not more than, a child because as an adult you can appreciate the subtleties and nuances, as well as the in jokes and contemporary references. I personally also love the old cars, technology and clothes, and the sense of adventure – round-the-world voyage anyone?

Tintin lives in a funny old world, but it’s one I’m very happy to visit him in.

Image: us.tintin.com

Image: us.tintin.com

PS – I’ve not seen the 2011 movie, but I plan too. Also the American Tintin website is pretty good too.

[Apologies for the terrible quality photos – taken on iPhone in living room! But I think they convey my point.]

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Tintin, Hellboy, Comic Books, and Me

When I was little, I read a lot of Tintin. My mum watched the cartoon adaptations as a child, and we always used to go on holiday to France, where Tintin is very popular, so I guess that’s what got me into them. The first one I read was King Ottokar’s Sceptre.

Image: us.tintin.com

Image: us.tintin.com

The gist of it is that Tintin finds a briefcase on a park bench one day, and after returning it to its owner joins him on an adventure to the fictional country of Syldavia to prevent a fascist group from their mission to rob the King of his ceremonial sceptre (which once belonged to his ancestor King Ottokar), which will undermine his rule and create political instability. When I was seven (or however old I was when I first read this – under ten), I didn’t care about any of that. I just cared about the adventure, the travelling to foreign lands, the battles with bad guys and the triumph of Tintin. Rereading it in later years I began to understand and appreciate the political side of the story and the intelligent subtleties in Herge’s work, which you can read more about on the official Tintin website here.

That’s the thing about comic books, whatever they’re about: there is always more to them that you first think. I also read a lot of The Beano and The Dandy when I was little (remember them?) so reading panels instead of paragraphs has always felt natural. Only as I grew older and my big sister started reading Batman did I realise that there was a whole world of comic books and graphic novels that I not only had no idea about but also did not realise was often considered ‘specialist’ or a particular interest. As I’ve grown older (I’m now in my mid twenties) and comic books have become more popular thanks to a more mainstream appreciation of the artwork and ALL THE MARVEL MOVIES (phase two anyone?), as well as shows like The Big Bang Theory and non-Marvel movies like Batman, Kick-Ass, Hellboy and Dredd, I am very excited to discover new ones.

Image: totalfilm.com

Brilliant and only a tiny bit over the top… Image: totalfilm.com

After seeing the Hellboy movies I decided to give the comic books a try, knowing that there were several I could read. I’m now up to volume five and am desperate to read more. I love Hellboy, as it combines amazing artwork with intelligent writing and plenty of references to legends, folklore and myths, much of them British. The movies are great too, though they didn’t do that well commercially so it seems there won’t be any more. However, I will continue to read Hellboy and I hope it remains popular and more come out in the future.

Image: geeksofdoom.com

Hellboy Volume One; an amazing origin story. Image: geeksofdoom.com

The important thing to remember is that people who like comic books are not ‘geeks’ but people who appreciate a good story and good artwork, and often who like sci fi and fantasy too. Given that the SF and fantasy genre is HUGE in the book world, it stands to reason that the comic world is massive too. Shows like Game of Thrones, though not based on a comic, draw attention to the genre by being associated with events like Comic-Con and shops like Forbidden Planet. And how popular is Game of Thrones?

Luckily my boyfriend likes comic books too, and he has recently lent me one called Zombo (which is part of 2000AD, who also do Dredd), which I am currently reading. It’s about a secret government experiment who is part zombie, part human ghoul. I like it so far.

Image: 2000adonline.com

Image: 2000adonline.com

What are your favourite comic books?

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