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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 teenage 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. At the time.

Then, his classmate grew up to be Jeffrey Dahmer.

Derf's comic, later expanded into a much longer graphic novel released in 2012, chronicles the years he spent together with Dahmer in high school, unknowingly witnessing his friend's transformation into one of the most infamous serial killers in modern history. Along the way, Derf asks pertinent questions about why nobody – especially the adults – ever saw the warning signs of what Dahmer was becoming.

A film adaptation was released in 2017 starring Alex Wolff as teenage Backderf and Ross Lynch as teenage Jeffrey Dahmer.

Tropes in the Comics:

  • Adaptation Name Change: A number of supporting characters' names are not what they were in Real Life, presumably for legal reasons. Lloyd Figg was not really "Lloyd Figg", while "Neil" and "Kent" were likely also pseudonyms (only John/Derf and Mike go by their real names). Cindy Zlatka (the suicide discussed in the fishing scene) likely didn't go by that name.
  • Adolf Hitlarious: Derf's talent show act.
  • 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 and his eventual fate in prison.
    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?
  • 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 invoked 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. Lionel isn't aware of Jeff's alcoholism until after Jeff leaves high school, and even then isn't aware of the magnitude of Jeff's drinking until he drops out of college. 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.
  • An Aesop: If someone shows signs of distress or mental illness, intervene as soon as possible or those problems will get worse.
  • Art Evolution: The artwork from Derf's original 2002 one-shot comic is very scraggly while artwork in the graphic novel version, published ten years later, is much more streamlined. Compare this panel from the original work and this panel from the graphic novel.
    • In fact; Derf's earlier art style was a lot cruder and more grotesque rather than awkwardly cartoony-yet-pleasantly-polished Graphic Novel. The dialogue and general language is also less sophisticated and with a bit more profanity. For example; Comparing the dialogue from the fishing scene...
    • From the Original Comic version of the suicide discussed at the "fishing scene" is minor example...
      Neil: Can you believe the Cindy Zlatka thing?...Who'd have figured she'd kill herself? I hear she blew her head half-off with her dad's .44 Magnum.
      Jeff: I wonder who found her body?
      Neil: I dunno. What a waste. She was cute...Nice tits.
    • From the Graphic Novel version of the suicide discussed at the "fishing scene".
      Neil: Hey; Didya hear about Cindy Zlatka?
      Jeff: Yeah.
      Neil: Suicide! Guess she blew her head half-off with her Dad's gun.
      Jeff: I wonder who found the body.
      Neil: Dunno. It's so weird. I didn't really know her well, but she didn't act suicidal. She was cute...Nice bod. But to off yourself! I just don't get that! I mean, at our bad can life be?
  • Artistic License – History: Not everything in this comic is really what happened.
    • 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.
  • Attention Whore: What Lloyd Figg, with all his Ax-Crazy antics (though no doubt a troubled kid with serious issues 'upstairs') likely turned out to be.
  • 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.
    • Lloyd Figg comes off as this, to the point that Derf mentions that when he first heard that one of his ex-classmates became a serial killer, Figg was actually his first guess and Dahmer was second. Subverted in that Lloyd merely grows up to be some troublemaker who still lives with his mom rather than a homicidal maniac. The "Class Psycho" was really just a very disturbed edgelord whose existence is to be the Red Herring.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals:
    • Downplayed with Dahmer. The animal carcasses he finds and dissolves for their bones were roadkill he finds already dead. The worst we see him do is disembowel a live fish during a fishing trip, and getting really close to killing a neighborhood dog but thankfully stopping himself before carrying out the deed. Derf's author's notes and testimonies from Dahmer himself stated that the mutilated dog head on a stake in the woods was already dead when Dahmer found it; Derf clarifies that this was not the same dog he was close to killing earlier in the story. It's stated in subsequent notes that Dahmer did hunt and kill small animals like squirrels and toads, and people around town found dead animals nailed to trees.
    • Played straight with Lloyd Figg in the graphic novel, who ran over dogs with his car for kicks. Even Dahmer of all people was mortified by this and he stopped hanging with Figg as a result.
  • 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. There's even photos of this real-life's actual Revere High yearbook pics of Derf's big blockbuster Hitler routine.
    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.
  • Brutal Honesty: Derf in the back material states that ultimately Dahmer was a coward given that he did not have the courage to get help, be honest with his father, or just kill himself and spare the world of his reign of terror.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Jeff is depicted as being frequently bullied and beaten by jocks in school. While he was initially quite scrawny, Jeff grew tall and muscular during his high school years, thanks in part to frequent workouts with the dumbbells his dad gave him. The bullying and beatings continued despite this, but Dahmer never retaliated despite being more than capable of doing so. Derf notes that he recalls wondering what would have happened if Jeff finally had snapped.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Jeff's dumbbells. They never play a part in the actual story itself, but Derf mentions that they were used to kill his first victim in the afterword.
  • Class Clown: Jeff gets a following by pranking students and teachers with fake cerebral palsy behavior.
  • 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...
  • Consummate Liar: Derf notes that Jeff is great at deceiving others, which would become a very useful skill once he becomes a Serial Killer.
  • 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.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The homophobia of the 1970s is touched upon. Dahmer hiding the fact that he was gay is mentioned to have been "the norm" back then.
  • 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 makes 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 have 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.
  • Dying Town: Akron, Ohio, which Bath is a suburb of. Like most Rust Belt cities at the time, Akron's once booming rubber industry was struggling from the 1970s economic recession.
    Narration: Dahmer lived in rural Bath, Ohio, in the rolling countryside just outside grimy, crumbling, Akron. The Rubber City was an industrial powerhouse gone bust in the great Seventies recession. Times were tough. The tire factories were closing. Once bustling, Downtown Akron was now a ghost town of boarded-up stores. People were leaving the area in droves. Akron was dying.
  • 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 neithernote .
    • Subverted in regards to Lloyd Figg, whom Jeff is compared to. Lloyd appears blatantly Ax-Crazy next to the more quiet and awkward Jeff... but Jeff is the one that became a Serial Killer.
  • 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 three in the morning and the body parts inside the bags (in the middle of summer) would have reeked.
  • Fat Bastard: Lloyd Figg in the comic.
  • For Want of a Nail:
    • Derf speculates that if Jeff had gotten help his life would have been a miserable one where he would be on prescription drugs mostly. But Derf adds, he is certain that Jeff would still have preferred that to the life he did live.
    • 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.
    • Jeff was all set on the jogger who ran past his house being his first victim, but on the day he waited for him, he didn't jog by, unknowingly sparing himself from being the first of many victims.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Double-Subversion in Jeff. On one hand, he does become one of the grisliest serial killers in modern history. However, he's presented somewhat semi-sympathetically (at first) in the comic and comes off more as a Reluctant Psycho than a gleeful sadist.
  • 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 began to manifest and he felt 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.
  • Harsher in Hindsight: In-Universe:
    • The very end of the book. In 1988, Derf meets up with two high school pals and they reminisce about other classmates. Jeff (just beginning his spree in earnest at this point in time) is brought up. Derf jokes that Jeff is "probably a serial killer by now."
      "And we all laughed."
    • The sketches Derf drew of Jeff as the "Minister of Propaganda" for the Dahmer Fan Club. He put Jeff in his drawings for student election flyers and Revere High's yearbook (where the other characters are all speaking in "Dahmerisms.")
    • The very idea of the Dahmer Fan Club in the first place.
  • 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.
  • Irony: A lesson of sorts in not judging books by their covers; Lloyd Figg makes a big show of being a huge psycho edgelord while Jeff looks relatively normal and well-behaved (even Derf in the lunchroom lampshades this when Figg's having a meltdown) in comparison... but it is the latter who becomes a genuine Serial Killer.
  • Jerkass:
    • Lloyd Figg, a crude, disruptive, kleptomaniacal 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.
    • When recounting an incident where a kid fell and landed on his shoulder near Jeff, Derf notes that the latter was very much this. Jeff's response was to laugh at the kid's pain, rather than help him up or at least express concern, showing that he was always an unpleasant person at best even before he became a Serial Killer.
  • Joke and Receive: "Dahmer is probably a serial killer by now!" "And we all laughed."
  • 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 Prop: Jeff's little brother, David, comes off as a borderline case. He doesn't get much characterization and only a few lines. Justified in that not much is known about him other than him being "the normal one" who was a high-achiever, was favored by Jeff's parents, was beneath Backderf's notice at the time given his younger age, and has legally changed his name and lived in anonymity since Jeff's crimes were exposed.
  • Living with the Villain: Closer to "Going To School With The Villain".
  • Loners Are Freaks: Freaks of the "awkward, bespectacled, roadkill collecting/dissecting, alcoholic, Class Clown, closeted-homosexual, future Serial Killer" variety.
  • Memetic Mutation: In-Universe, Jeff's "Dahmerisms". BAAAAA!
  • Moral Event Horizon: In-Universe. While initially viewing him as something of an endearing weirdo, Derf makes it clear that he loses all sympathy for Dahmer as soon as he actually commits murder.
  • 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 just weeks after graduating from high school. Downplayed in that Dahmer wasn't a regular animal-killer (apart from small things like frogs and bugs) and not a zoosadist in Real Life. The dog that was gutted and it's skull put on a stick was already dead when Jeff found it.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer:
    • After Derf's standup routine as Hitler, he goes to get some water and runs into Dahmer, having a brief chat with him. Derf makes a note that yes, he did indeed have a conversation with Jeffrey Dahmer while dressed as Adolf Hitler and that in hindsight it's one of the most surreal moments of his life.
    • Also invoked later when, during a field trip with classmates to Washington DC, Jeff uses a payphone and talks an aide into letting him and Neil visit the Vice President of the United States.
  • 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. It's probably no coincidence that Dahmer's murder of Steven Hicks took place shortly after these events.
  • 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. Double Subversion in that, in Real Life, the dog was already dead when he found it. Dahmer may have been a horrific Serial Killer of young men but he wasn't a zoosadist. He was a huge animal-lover and was horrified at Lloyd Figg's evil pastime of vehicular dogslaughter.
  • 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.
  • The Quiet One: When Jeff isn't "pulling a Dahmer", he's pretty much this.
  • Reluctant Psycho: Dahmer comes across as one during his high school years, drinking himself into insensibility as his only way of dealing with the sadistic and necrophiliac drives that would cause him to become a serial murderer.
  • 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."
  • Sadist: Jeff 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.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: Jeffrey in the darker moments in the Graphic Novel.
  • Serial Killer: Guess.
  • The '70s: The period Derf and Jeff spent in high school. The invoked Values Dissonance of the time influenced the school's handling (or lack thereof) of Jeff's obvious problems. Also, young people hitchhiking was a regular thing (how Jeff met his first victim) and mimicking the severely-disabled was considered the height of comedy rather than Dude, Not Funny!.
  • The Sociopath:
    • Jeff of course, although Derf and his friends don't immediately realize it.
    • Figg certainly comes off as this and even freaks Jeffrey out!
  • Start of Darkness: The book depicts one long grueling one for Jeff, leading up to his invoked fateful encounter with Steven Hicks.
  • 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 been arrested for multiple murders.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Derf is the narrator and viewpoint character, but the comic is clearly Jeff's story.
  • 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 is 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.
  • 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.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: Pretty much Jeff's attitude after his mother moved out. Until this point, he was mostly mortified by his own sexual urges and became The Alcoholic in an attempt to drown them away. But when Joyce moved away, he gave in and killed Steven Hicks.
  • There Are No Therapists: There certainly wasn't any kind of professional attention towards Jeff, as Derf repeatedly points out. Derf speculates that the Dahmer family didn't consider getting Jeff help, since his mother had previously sought mental care herself with little results.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: A point of sorts concerning Jeffrey Dahmer and Lloyd Figg. Jeff, while creepy, was mainly a quiet, withdrawn, somewhat nice-looking young man (with occasional bursts of Black Comedy-goofing off). Lloyd Figg, however, was a violent, cruel freak who was blatantly Ax-Crazy. Yet it was comparably-more normal-ish Jeff, not Lloyd, who turned out to be the gruesome cannibal serial killer.
  • 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 class 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."note 
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: Averted. Everyone, even Derf, thought Jeff had a creepy aura from the outset.
  • Villain Protagonist: Jeff.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Downplayed. Derf remembered Jeff as being someone who was "off". Still, his behavior was seen as mostly humorous by his classmates.
  • 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.