Story and art by John “Derf” Beckderf
Published by Abrams Comic Arts (2012)
Length: 1 Volume
“My Friend Dahmer” provided some disturbing insight into the mind of future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and the poisonous roots with which his conception was laced. While sympathy for Dahmer may end after his first act of atrocity, to see such depressive events unfold leaves the reader reflecting on the morality of our world. Unfortunately, my reading of such fascinating stories was spoiled by facetious storytelling and over 200 pages of the “blame game”, ultimately putting into question the author’s validity as a writer.
What this piece lacks in self-reflection, it sometimes makes up for with interesting stories. Beckderf recounting Dahmer’s manipulative personality, highlighted by his ability to get a group of piers a free tour of the Vice President’s office (with him in it), both humanises the killer and displayed how “Milwaukee Cannibal” interacted with the outside world. The numerous stories create a dense character profile to fit a deeply complex individual, much of which can be extracted in discussion about serial killers in general. It was also nice that Beckderf states in the introduction that Dahmer should be pitied, but not given sympathy, for his crimes have relinquished all right to it. Most events were explained through causal relationships, with no justification or romanticism of his life. Unfortunately, after this introduction, Beckderf’s narration becomes far from detached. In fact it’s quite accusatory, and derails these straightforward stories in order to execute agendas.
Also included in the introduction, Beckderf mentions that the art in this piece’s original conception wasn’t satisfactory for him, and while I haven’t seen it, the art in its final rendition was very impressive. The characters manifest in a cartoony art style which is incredibly unsettling, particularly when discussing serious topics. But his art style allows him to exaggerate features and expressions on his character’s faces, leading to instances of horror for reader. Further, the grosser, or harder to swallow moments of Dahmer’s life can be depicted freely without fear of reader withdrawal, as the art style blunts the potency of his actions/thoughts.
My main worry going into this piece was how loosely the author had used the word “friend”. Obviously the title is catchy enough to draw readers in, but I was concerned that it may suffer, for me at least, by being based on facetious claims. Unfortunately, the term was used very loosely. The first important point to make was that Beckderf was never Dahmer’s friend. He rarely hung out with him, and when he did it was to bully him, justifying it by allowing Dahmer the opportunity to laugh at himself with Beckderf’s group. The entire narration felt condescending, and Beckderf seems to suggest he could have predicted the outcome of this whole tale. Even when saying things that are true, the way in which Beckerf articulates his thoughts seem dubious, as if he has his own agenda. The first part of this piece is to highlight his experiences with Dahmer, but, almost anticipating the criticism he will get for the way he treated him, also spends a majority of the time attempting to mitigate himself from any blame whatsoever.
Throughout the piece he constantly criticises the parents for their neglect and selfish approach to parenting. They continually ignore his needs over theirs, and while going through their separation, spent more time consumed with petty squabbles than tending to their oldest son. Dahmer’s upbringing has been documented in multiple instances as a key cause for his descent, but once again, the way Beckderf provides this information seems self-satisfactory. In many monologues, the author constantly says he couldn’t believe that Dahmer’s parents didn’t notice anything strange about their son, and their cluelessness or neglect was lamentable. However, Beckderf frequently tells the reader that he could “see the signs” when others couldn’t, that when Dahmer would act out or make a scene, while others laughed, he silently worried. Yet, he did nothing with these worries! In the one panel where he addresses why he didn’t reach out, his answer was that “It was 1976”, “I wasn’t a nark” and “I had my own life”. Further, when discussing Lionel Dahmer’s (Jeffrey’s father) book, “A Father’s Story”, he described it as a piece “about what (his father) didn’t know”, whereas the current piece is about what he and his friends did know. Even if his father and mother were not attentive parents, which means blame would rest on them, Beckderf spends a lot of this piece condemning them for not knowing, while simultaneously recounting every time he knew something was wrong, but didn’t say anything.
This was a massive issue for me, and effected my read drastically. Stories about Dahmer that didn’t directly relate to Beckderf were still fascinating, but in scenes where the author was a focal point (or his narration was), I had a hard time discerning what was fact and what was fiction. And this is my main issue for it: If Beckderf and Dahmer weren’t friends, than I would totally understand why he wouldn’t be concerned with reaching out. I vaguely knew people at my high school that were going through difficult times, but didn’t think it was my responsibility or right to intervene or talk to someone about it. But Beckderf has marketed this piece as a memoir from the friend of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, yet spent the entire piece separating himself from him. He teased him, was condescending and if he really was his friend a friend, he was a neglectful one. Now, I’m not suggesting this piece was created solely to capitalise off of another, but it does feel disingenuous. And there are occasions where Beckderf explicitly says he wasn’t friends with Dahmer, or he didn’t want to be friends with him, so to then market their relationship as such seems scummy.
The ending of this piece, our narrator finding out about Dahmer’s crimes and exclaiming “What have you done Dahlmer!”, feels just as facetious as a majority of the piece. Throughout the piece I’ve had to question the relationship between the characters, the truth to their narration and the author’s intentions. This is not a positive form of reflection a reader has to undertake, particularly when their in the middle of the piece. “My Friend Dahmer” does provide some interesting stories and insights into the mind of a serial killer, with many depressing conclusions to be made about society and the human condition, but is skewed by the author’s validity. While I usually donate pieces that I don’t love, I’ll keep this one for its artistry, though the narration itself will often be ignored.
Art – 8
Story – 4
Writing – 4
Overall – 4.5