Interview: Derf Backderf
Derf Backderf can’t recall a time when he wasn’t drawing. He considers it almost like a “compulsion,” but his inspiration came from wanting to tell stories. “Storytelling is what comics are,” said Backderf, “so when I first became fascinated with comic books at age 10, that’s when I started thinking about how to tell stories.”
Backderf is best known for his 2012 graphic novel My Friend Dahmer, an award winning, and international bestselling memoir artfully detailing his high school days north of Akron while he was acquainted with a troubled young man named Jeffrey Dahmer.
On Thurs., Apr 12, Backderf visited the Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale to meet participants of The Reading Collective and discuss his lifelong love of drawing, as well as the difficulties encountered in pitching this particular book, this particular subject, to publishers.
“Oh, it was near impossible to sell,” said Backderf. “(My Friend Dahmer) was simply a book that could not be pitched. All a publisher had to hear were the words: ‘Jeffrey Dahmer’ and the first thing that came to mind was murder, cannibalism, and necrophilia, and it was ‘NO THANKS!’”
Backderf’s memoir is just a snapshot of time: illustrations of his days as a high schooler in the mid/late 70’s, becomes a frank and forthright coming of age story wherein our main character keeps an uneasy eye on the introverted, sullen and socially ostracized student, ignored or overlooked in the corner of the cafeteria. “The emotions are very raw, and right there on the page for all to see,” said Backderf.
“This project was, at one time or another, rejected by every publisher in the biz,” Backderf said, “which, of course, I take great delight in reminding them of now. What that taught me was I had to finish it before trying to sell it. That’s what I submitted, the completed first draft. My belief was that a publisher would start to read it out of curiosity, get pulled in and not be able to tear themselves away…and then I’d have them!”
In college, Backderf fell into a journalism major. He started out as a political cartoonist for The Ohio State Lantern and became a staff cartoonist for professional publications like the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In the 90’s, he served in the newsroom at the Akron Beacon Journal in the 90’s and produced a weekly comic strip (The City) up until 2014, which was featured in several publications like The Village Voice and The Chicago Reader. His first graphic novel, 2009’s Punk Rock & Trailer Parks covered the punk rock music scene of Akron. “Mostly what I look for are stories that haven’t yet been told,” said Backderf. “That interests me.”
Backderf said that most people who object to reading My Friend Dahmer are objecting to the concept. “They think it’s a story about (Dahmer)’s crimes, or something that glorifies him, or they think it’s a sleazy, exploitative comic book, like a Serial Killer Archie, or something. It is, of course, none of those things. I don’t have a lot of patience for those who think a work has no right to exist, especially when they know nothing about it.”
Local libraries like Berkley, Ferndale, Huntington Woods and Oak Park regularly host literary events and book clubs, but it has usually been rare for a graphic novel to receive a spotlight, as it has with The Reading Collective. Maybe it’s been a while since you visited your local library—but you’d be surprised at the expanded graphic novel section, along with an ever widening endorsement of the art form throughout the literary world.
“We’re in a golden age (of graphic novels),” Backderf said. “All I meet are happy throngs of fans and very supportive institutions, such as libraries and schools, and even museums. The media is coming around on the worth of comics, even if they still have an unhealthy obsession with the lowbrow superdude stuff. Attitudes towards comics are still less enlightened than those in parts of Europe, but I see a change.”
Backderf said that this memoir pushed him to raise the bar for his art, particularly because it necessitated a slower pace. “My other books have a frenetic energy, whereas MFD is a slow, steady march to the edge of the abyss. I struggled with that. I had to force myself to slow down and to insert pauses into the page. It was an artistic challenge, but a fun one. I like to push myself. When I decided to make (graphic novels), I approached it with a motto of ‘no fear.’ I wouldn’t shy away from any drawing challenge. Whatever the story called on me to draw, I’d throw myself at it, whether I thought I had the chops to pull it off or not.”
Even though he called himself “an old warhorse,” Backderf emphasized that even that since he didn’t publish his first book until he was 50, he’s still a “fairly young” comics creator. “So, it’s all new to me and the learning curve is great, but that also means the improvement from book to book, at least in terms of drawing, is great too. It’s a lot of fun. I feel like I’ve been given new life.”
This book “put a supercharge” into Backderf’s career and that success, after 30 years of working, gives him an appreciation of “every little thing.” Last fall, as a featured guest at the CXC Comics Festival in Columbus, produced in partnership with his alma mater, Ohio State’s Cartoon Museum, there was a screening of the recently released film adaptation of My Friend Dahmer. When the credits rolled and his name popped on the screen, the sold out crowd cheered. “I felt like a rock star,” said Backderf.