Serial killers are able to arise the curiosity and the interest in many of us. Most people find themselves browsing Jack The Ripper’s Wikipedia page, or Ted Bundy’s, or Ed Gein’s. Somehow, serial killers can drag all of our attention. Somehow we crave for more. Somehow we want to see. At least until it remains a pure theoretical research. I’m pretty sure no one would like to face the next Zodiac killer.
There could be many reasons why some of us find serial killers fascinating. I think the main explanation behind it is to investigate, in a very personal way, how dark the human soul can be. Most of us would never commit such crimes, but at the same time we cannot deny that Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy and Ed Gein belong to the human species, just like us. But don’t worry, today we are going to have a different approach to the topic and we are not going to fall into endless philosophical questions.
This long and unnecessary introduction helped me to highlight the main reason why I liked so much the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. We like to think that serial killers are so different from us, but the truth is that, at least at some level, they are not. But let’s procede in a more organized way. Derf Backderf was a high school friend of Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal, the Milwaukee Monster. That Dahmer. This already sounds promising. And this comic book is his version of that story.
Why is Jeffrey’s story so interesting? Or better, why is Backderf’s point of view so interesting? Well, part of the answer lies in the tool he uses: the comic book. Even if I like words and language I must admit that visual impact has always a strong impact. It is also interesting to notice how Backderf uses this medium in the best way possible. The first sign of that can be found when we take a moment to analyze the arrangement of the pictures in the page. Unlike some other comic books, they are ordinary, simple. There are no overlapping, or objects that cross the border line. Everything is ordinary, and it creates a huge contrast with what is happening inside of them. There is also the choice to use only black and white, which turns out to have a symbolic meaning. Even if it can be banal, it happens often that Jeffrey’s face is black, while the face of the other people with him is white, such as underlining that his thoughts are different, that are evil.
The story of the Milwaukee Monster has been narrated from many and different point of views, but this case is different, because it is more personal. What we get to know is not Dahmer the serial killer, but Dahmer the schoolmate. What Derf Backderf does is to recreate Dahmer’s school years and to look for something that could explain his behaviour.
Jeffrey Dahmer is in and for all a monster. He rapes his victims, he kills them, he performed necrophilia on many of them and ate them. Derf doesn’t justify any of this, and it is crucial for him to make it clear since the beginning. But he can’t prevent himself from still seeing Dahmer as a schoolmate. In the last page of this comic book we have the moment when Derf gets to know what Dahmer has done. What he says to himself is not “What has he done?” or “What has Dahmer done?”, but “What have you done?”. The “you” is personal, is close, is how you would talk to a person you know. There is also the other realization: I could have been one of them. This is the main sensation that get stuck with the reader. It almost leads the reader to wonder if he or she has some close friend that could turn out to be a serial killer.
Backderf work leads us to another consideration. Many people wondered how it was possible that Dahmer’s schoolmates didn’t notice anything different with their friend, but, according to Backderf, there is another question that is more relevant: where were the adults? Why didn’t anyone noticed anything? Why didn’t anyone did something when Dahmen went to school drunk? And again, here the real question is another: have there been a point when, if someone did something different, all of this could have been prevented?