Comic Book / My Friend Dahmer

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Portrait of the Monster as a Young Man.

"When I was a kid, I was just like anybody else."
Jeff Dahmer

During his teenaged years in suburban Ohio, aspiring cartoonist John "Derf" Backderf attended Revere High School. He led a normal existence, with a close circle of friends, a loving family, and aspirations of leaving small-town life after entering an art college. He went through the same triumphs and travails of adolescence as most of his peers. There were no details in his life which stood out in any significant way. Except one.

His classmate was Jeffrey Dahmer.

Derf's graphic novel chronicles the years he spent together with Dahmer in high school, unknowingly witnessing his friend's transformation into the most depraved Serial Killer in modern history. Along the way, Derf asks pertinent questions about why nobody – especially the adults – ever figured out Dahmer was tormented by what in hindsight were painfully obvious personal demons.


Tropes:

  • Adults Are Useless: The whole point of the book. Jeff's parents are too consumed with their marital strife to notice his problems; his unstable mother eventually abandons him. Meanwhile, Jeff's teachers are either clueless or indifferent to his binge drinking at school. Derf speculates that if someone had taken notice and gotten Jeff help, he might not have led a happy life, but it would have been better than the path he took.
    Narration: "My friends and I, we were just clueless small-town kids, wrapped up in our own lives. And none of us had a hint about what was really going on in his head. A better question is, where were the damn adults?"
  • Ax-Crazy: This book shows a more detailed insight into Jeff's psyche as he slowly loses his mind, eventually becoming a full-blown case of this.
  • Affably Evil: Jeff gains a reputation for being a popular, if strange, Class Clown after he starts pulling loud stunts imitating a cerebral palsy sufferer. Derf and his friends are so amused by Jeff that they form a fan club in his honor.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Derf maintains that Jeff is a "tragic figure," but only until he killed his first victim.
    "My memories of [Dahmer] are of the tormented kid spiraling into madness, not the monster who later committed those horrific crimes. I remember him as bullied and shunned, much as I was. A quiet young boy who devolved helplessly into a twisted soul."
  • The Alcoholic: Jeff routinely cuts class and drinks copious amounts of alcohol to numb his homicidal urges. The teachers remain oblivious to this even after Jeff shows up late to class stinking drunk. They are so oblivious that Jeff considers it safer to drink at school (showing up early in the morning, staying late at night, and putting his bottles in hiding places all over the campus) than at home where his parents could catch him. Derf decides to break things off with Jeff on the way to the stunt at Summit Mall when Jeff gulps down an entire six-pack during the ten minute drive.
  • Art Evolution: The artwork from Derf's original 2002 one-shot Young Jeffrey Dahmer is very scraggly while artwork in My Friend Dahmer, published ten years later, is much more streamlined. Compare this panel from the original work and this panel from the graphic novel.
  • Artistic License History: As Derf wasn't in the house to overhear them, Jeff's final interaction with his mother is entirely conjectural.
    • As is how the staked dog head was found. Accounts vary on how many kids found the carcass, so Derf just sticks with one.
    • In reality, Jeff was pulled over by one police officer in one cruiser, who then received backup from another officer in a second cruiser during Jeff's sobriety test. Derf depicts two officers in one cruiser to make the scene less complicated.
    • Derf couldn't remember what the walls, carpets, and furnishings in the Dahmer house looked like, so everything inside is based on the general fashions of the time period.
  • Black Comedy Burst: In the middle of what's mostly a very bleak and depressing story, there's the bit about Derf doing an impersonation for his school's talent show. An impersonation of Adolf Hitler. It's amusing in a "should I really be laughing?" kind of way.
    Yes, I did an impersonation of Hitler. In my defense, it brought the house down.
  • Bold Inflation: There's quite a bit.
  • Book Ends: The book begins with a junior high-aged Jeff walking up a country road and picking up a dead cat. The penultimate scene shows late-teens Jeff, fresh off his first murder, walking up the same country road and being given a ride by Derf's friend Mike.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Jeff's dumbbells.
  • Class Clown: Jeff gets a following by pranking students and teachers with fake cerebral palsy behavior.
    • Sad Clown: Derf and his friends assume that Jeff is parodying his mother's interior decorator, who suffers from cerebral palsy. What they don't know is that Jeff, caught in the middle of his parents' constant bickering, is mocking his mother's own psychotic "fits."
  • The Collector of the Strange: First roadkill, then skulls belonging to live animals he has killed. It's a Foregone Conclusion what Jeff will move on to next...
  • Cradling Your Kill: Jeff cradles the skulls of the animals he has killed in the woods.
  • Creepy Child: The book begins with an adolescent Jeff finding a dead cat on the side of the road and taking it to a toolshed behind his house:
    Jeff: "I like to... study... the bones."
  • Depraved Homosexual: Guess.
  • Disappeared Dad: Despite doing his best to get his son less introverted and more interested in doing things, Jeff's father Lionel frequently made himself absent to escape his volatile marriage to Joyce. Like all the other adults in his life, he is not there when Jeff needs him most and thus completely misses the warning signs of his evolving pathology.
  • Downer Ending: Dahmer becomes a Serial Killer, and the reader is left with the impression that his murders could've been prevented.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: The more and more his necrophiliac fantasies take shape, the more and more Jeff depends on the bottle to keep them at bay. Soon he is showing up late to class (if at all) and stinking of booze, but the faculty at Revere are apparently none the wiser.
  • Elmuh Fudd Syndwome: Mr. Burlman.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: According to Derf's notes, even Jeff was outraged when Lloyd Figg — a classmate with severe behavioral problems that he briefly befriended — ran over a neighborhood pet for yuks.
  • Evil Counterpart: Derf notes that he and Jeff had almost the exact same background. Both boys were the sons of chemists, both had one younger sibling (a brother), both lived in Fifties ranch houses on hillsides. The main difference was that while Derf's family was stable and supportive, Jeff's was neither
  • Evil Former Friend: Jeff qualifies to Derf, although he states he always kept a safe distance:
    Narration: "Some instinct warned me off. I was always wary of Dahmer. I was willing to hang out with him at school, but there was no way I was going to forge a closer friendship."
  • Failed a Spot Check:
    • On the part of Revere High School. Back in The '70s, public schools did not have the stringent security practices of today. Jeff carried his bottles of alcohol to school in a briefcase — something students then and now simply don't carry — and no school staff thought to look inside the briefcase because it didn't fit their profile of the average "stoner."
    • Also the police. They pull over Jeff after his first murder and believe his story that the bags in his trunk are full of garbage, even though he's driving to the landfill at 3 a.m. and the body parts inside the bags (in the middle of summer) would have reeked.
  • For Want of a Nail:
    • Jeff picks up his first victim, Steven Hicks, on a whim. Derf later quotes Jeff as saying that he wished he kept on driving.
    • Derf points out that Jeff's killing spree would have quickly ended if the police had searched the trash bags in his car during the traffic stop.
  • Freudian Excuse: Derf contrasts his own home life with Jeff's, which was marked by constant fights between his parents, the erratic and possibly insane behavior of his mother Joyce, and the lack of any support from either his family or the teachers at Revere High when Jeff's gruesome sexual fantasies begin to manifest and he feels the need to drown them with alcohol.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: The book explores the early process for Jeff, as well as how every adult who could have taken him off that path didn't.
  • Hormone-Addled Teenager: Since this is Jeffrey Dahmer we're talking about, this manifests in very disturbing ways.
  • I Hate Past Me: Derf doesn't hate his teenage self, per se, but he is terribly embarrassed by how ridiculously insensitive he and his friends could be.
  • I Love the Dead: Jeff's first sexual desires are for the male jogger who runs past his house... as a corpse.
  • Invoked Trope:
  • Jerk Ass: Lloyd Figg, a crude, disruptive, kleptomanical student that Derf regards as the class psycho and someone even Jeff is offended by. He's even Derf's first guess when he hears that someone from his high school class is a serial killer.
  • Jerkass Woobie: Derf notes that Jeff was not completely sympathetic. Case in point is Jeff's hysterical amusement when a classmate slips in a puddle and injures his shoulder.
  • Kubrick Stare: Jeff has a permanent one.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Derf notes that the manner in which Jeff was killed in prison (being beaten to death with a dumbbell) mirrored his murder of Steven Hicks.
  • Living with the Villain: Closer to Going To School With The Villain.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: In junior high, Jeff collects roadkill and dissolves the carcasses in pickle jars filled with acid, and later steals a fetal pig from the school lab to dissect. He moves on to live animals capable of feeling fear and pain, and leaves their bones strewn around an altar-like rock in the woods. Then Jeff realizes he is sexually aroused at the thought of corpses, his fantasies of which become so obsessive that he claims his first victim after graduating from high school.
  • Parental Abandonment: What triggers Jeff's final Moral Event Horizon. First, Lionel abandons Jeff by leaving the house and divorcing Joyce. (In fairness, The Other Wiki mentions that Lionel did continue to look after Jeff and urged him to turn his life around. Though Derf argues it was too late by this point.) Then, Joyce secretly moves to Wisconsin with David, leaving Jeff completely alone in the house. Derf considers these incidents to be devastating blows for Jeff, and links the abandonment by his parents to his desire to keep his victims from ever leaving him.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • In the middle of the book, Jeff comes across a dog in the street and takes it into the woods with the intention of killing it. Jeff can't bring himself to go through with it, throws his knife to the ground, and lets the dog go free. Derf notes this is the last time Jeff will ever show mercy.
    • Ultimately subverted when Jeff kills another dog and mounts its skull on a stake.
  • Police Are Useless: After his first murder, Jeff attempts to drive to a local landfill to dump the body. He is pulled over by two cops, who believe his story that the bags in his trunk contain garbage he is taking out – at three in the morning. Derf later points out that Jeff was taking the body to the landfill because it was starting to smell. You'd think that the cops, being cops, would have been able to identify the stench of a dead body. In short, Jeffrey Dahmer would have easily been stopped if the police hadn't Failed a Spot Check.
  • Sadist: Jeff gets off on seeing animals being butchered, and laughs when other people get hurt.
  • Sanity Slippage: Not that he was a paragon of normalcy to begin with, but realizing that he is turned on by corpses triggers this for Jeff. It becomes worse when Jeff moves from collecting dead animals, to killing living animals, to finally killing a person.
  • Serial Killer: Guess.
  • Start of Darkness: The book depicts one long gruelling one for Jeff, leading up to his fateful encounter with Steven Hicks.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: To a point. The book explores the turmoil Jeff faces as he lives in a broken home, is ostracized by his peers at school, and is regarded with total indifference by authority figures at considerable length. Derf maintains that Jeff as a "tragic figure," but only until he murders his first victim, Steven Hicks (just weeks after graduating from Revere). After that, Derf prefers that Jeff turned himself in or even committed suicide rather than embark on his killing spree.
  • The '70s: The period Derf and Jeff spent in high school. The Values Dissonance of the time played a role in how the school approached (or didn't approach) Jeff's obvious problems.
  • The Sociopath: Jeff of course, although Derf and his friends don't immediately realize it.
  • There Are No Therapists: There certainly wasn't any kind of professional attention towards Jeff, as Derf repeatedly points out.
  • The Stinger: At the very, very end of the book, after the comic epilogue, after the text epilogue, after the author's notes, comes two final comic pages depicting the moment Derf finds out that Dahmer has become a killer.
  • Team Pet: Dahmer's fan club regard him more as a mascot than anything else; they hang out with him because they find him hilarious, but he's just too creepy to consider an actual friend.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Almost all of Derf's sketches from high school show cameos of Jeff as a humorous character. He becomes the mascot for a fictitious candidate for student body president and appears in the inner cover art for Revere High's 1978 yearbook, with all of the characters surrounding him speaking in "Dahmerisms." (Jeff would have been on the cover proper if the yearbook committee hadn't spiked it.) The book also shows a photo of Jeff joking around at school.
  • Un-person: The Dahmer Fan Club organizes a prank where they sneak Jeff into group photos of student organizations where he doesn't belong. A faculty member furiously scribbles over Jeff's face in one of the pictures when she finds out, while all of the other pictures are removed by the yearbook committee. That picture becomes a symbol of "Dahmer's wasted youth."
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: Averted. Everyone, even Derf, thought Jeff had a creepy aura from the outset.
  • Villain Protagonist: Jeff.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: On top of being used as comic relief by his friends, bullied by the jocks, and neglected by his parents and teachers, Jeff had to deal with realizing he was gay in a time and setting where admitting so would have bred even more contempt. Made even worse by the fact that being gay was the LEAST troubling aspect of Jeff's sexuality.

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