“My Friend Dahmer” author reflects on his time at Ohio State and praises the new film adaption of his graphic novel
Graphic novelist John “Derf” Backderf grew up in Richfield, Ohio, about half an hour north of Akron, but it wasn't until he came to Columbus to attend Ohio State University that he found his voice as an artist while making political cartoons for campus newspaper The Lantern.
“It was transformational,” Backderf said recently by phone of his time at OSU from 1979 to 1983. “The work was terrible, of course. I look back on it and grimace. [But] it was the first time my work had been noticed by a large number of people in any way. I've been chasing that buzz ever since.”
As a student, Backderf discovered High Street's punk-rock scene, taking in Nowhere Fest and concerts at long-gone venues like Crazy Mama's and Stache's. “I discovered so much new stuff that resonated. It was inspirational,” he said.
He also stirred up controversy during his time at The Lantern, particularly when he drew a cartoon poking fun at former Ohio State football golden boy Art Schlichter, whose gambling addiction sabotaged his NFL career. “I was getting threats, phone calls. The athletic director demanded I be thrown out of school. People were yelling at me as I walked across the Oval. It was intense,” he said. “[The university] was in a pickle, because I was on a journalism scholarship. They couldn't just get rid of me, but they really wanted to. There was a pitched battle in the faculty over me. It was hairy.”
After graduation, Backderf briefly worked as a political cartoonist (“The editor fired me for ‘general tastelessness,'” he said) and then syndicated his strip “The City” in alt-weeklies across the country. But it was his critically lauded 2012 graphic novel “My Friend Dahmer” that catapulted Backderf into a new echelon.
The book tells the true story of Backderf's years at Revere High School in Richfield, which future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer also attended. Backderf's group of friends included Dahmer for a time, and the book explores not only Dahmer's troubling behavior, but also the way classmates and adults responded to him.
“[Dahmer] just kept getting darker and darker,” Backderf said. “At a certain point, my instinct was: ‘There is something seriously wrong with this kid. Get as far away from him as you can.' He just had this air of doom around him. And that was a pretty good instinct. I'm surprised I was able to conjure that up given what a clueless, small-town rube I was. But I never imagined in a million years he'd become what he became.”
In April, a film adaptation of the book screened at Tribeca Film Festival, which Backderf attended. “It was weird. It's not my scene. … The photos of me on the red carpet look like I'm not having a good time at all, and it's very accurate,” he said.
But Backderf said the film, written and directed by Marc Meyers, is outstanding. “I think it's one of the best comic-book adaptations ever made, honestly,” he said. “I think it'll have the same effect on Marc — and on Ross Lynch, the star, who is astounding as Dahmer — that it had on me. It's really gonna elevate them.”
As part of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, the Wexner Center will host sold-out screening of My Friend Dahmer at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29, followed by a Q&A with Backderf, who also said a film is in the works based on his 2015 graphic novel, “Trashed,” a fictionalized account of his time working as a garbage man.
All of Backderf's work as a storyteller is built on the journalism instruction he received at Ohio State years ago. “That's the way I learned how to tell stories. You go out and research it, gather the facts, and then you tell the story,” he said. “It's the one thing that stuck with me from college. That and High Street.”