Friday, March 30, 2012

The rock

Like many schools, Revere High has a school rock. This boulder was unearthed when they first built the school in the 1950s and plopped in front of the main entrance as a feeble stab at landscaping. Almost immediately, students started applying paint to the rock, using it as a People's Billboard to announce everything from which class ruled above all others, to which rival football team was facing an impending humiliating doom to the occasional (and quickly removed) insult directed at the officious asst. principal. By the time I reached high school, the rock had an outer coating of two inches of paint from 1,000 previous whitewashes.

The rock was a gathering point for members of the Dahmer Fan Club. The band practice field was just across the street and, weighed down by a heavy brass sousaphone, I used the rock as a convenient resting place (if the paint was dry, that is) to take a break and shoot the crap with friends. On warmer days, the front lawn was filled with kids, especially members of the massive marching band. Dahmer was usually lurking about, too. He liked to hang out outside the band room. It was a large, windowless wing of the school building, which shielded him from observation from other parts of the building. Unless a teacher made a point of walking around the perimeter, and none really did, he could spend entire periods here in a drunken stupor. And it also afforded him the opportunity to be near us, even though he had dropped out of the band after junior high.

The big double doors of the band room, below, were usually open, except during the coldest months, to offer meager ventilation to the 200-some, sweaty bandies who were crammed elbow-to-elbow on the risers inside, blasting out tunes in teeth-rattling volume. Most of the fan club were band nerds, so Dahmer was naturally drawn to these doors, since he flitted about our periphery, desperately latching onto what little social contact he could. He'd often leer at us during rehearsal through the opening, cracking us up and then magically disappearing if the straight-arrow band director caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of his eye. He was never caught once. 

As always in this tale, there was a darker flip side to our goofball antics. In the mornings, before the first bell, Dahmer would stumble through these doors into the band room, which also served as our home room, reeking of booze. The band room was essentially unmonitored by a teacher, since the director was usually squirreled in his office. School officials were watching the parking lot for trouble from the school stoners, not monitoring the band room full of compliant nerds. Dahmer always skillfully managed to find the flaws in school security.

The school rock also served as a convenient photo setting for various yearbook pictures. Below is one such club. Friend Neal is taking the picture, In the background to the left, are those band room doors. The figures in the doorway are Dahmer, myself and friend Mike. Mike and I are trying to convince Dahmer to sneak up behind the group and position himself in the photo. It was our running gag to slip him into as many yearbook group photos as we could. We obviously didn't pull this one off.

When the news of Dahmer's crimes first exploded in July 1991, I drove down to my folks' house to rifle through the boxes of high school material stored in the basement, as art for stories in the Akron Beacon Journal, where both my wife and I worked at the time. My parents live very close to the high school and I passed it on the way. As I did, I observed that some smartass had already painted "Class of '78- Dahmer" on rock, mere hours after Dahmer had been arrested! The first of many surreal moments. I stopped and snapped the photo below.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The eBook is here!

People have been asking about an eBook version of My Friend Dahmer, and, yes, there is one.

I had eBooks in mind when I put this book together. My previous book, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks had a lot of two-page spreads. It was constructed with traditional book reading in mind, where the reader opens a book and turns the pages and takes each open spread in at one glance. With MFD, however, I was thinking of one page at a time, since that's how eReaders display the pages. I think comix work great on tablets and eReaders and their potential is unlimited, but the price of that format shift is we lose the way comix have been laid out for their entire history. But why fight it? It's inevitable. Ten years from now, eBooks will account for 75 percent of book sales. Hopefully in a couple years, tablets will have evolved into devices that fold out into magazine-size double screens and we can regain the spread.

For you completists, the eBook of MFD comes loaded with extra material:

•Three extra scenes, cut from the print version for various reasons.

Young Jeffrey Dahmer, the first eight-page short story I drew in 1995.

•Some pages from my first attempt at a full-length graphic novel in 1998.

•A small selection of pencil pages from the final book. I ink directly over pencils, so most do not survive unless I make copies somewhere along the way.

•Some sketchbook pages from 1991 and 2006.

•And some source material, including drawings from my high school sketchbook and photos from back in the day.

Unfortunately, the Kindle version is still in the pipeline somewhere at Amazon HQ and not yet available on the Amazon site. They had it weeks ago, so hopefully it will be up soon.

USAToday has a preview of the eBook extras HERE

Here's where it's available now:

Available on Nook

Available on iTunes

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Derf on CBC Radio

Interview this morning with Jian Ghomeshi and his show The Q on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio. Good discussion. 

Listen on iTunes HERE

Or listen to the MP3 HERE

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Under the media glare

The summer of 1991 was a strange time.

Things were going great. I had moved back into the city a year prior, after an ill-advised move to the burbs to ease wife's commute and mine. We were traveling a lot then and plans were laid for our second trip into nearly-liberated Eastern Europe later that summer.

My comic strip The City had debuted in Spring 1990 and was a big hit in Cleveland. I had just started syndicating it to other weekly papers and picked up six clients with that first promotional mailing. More importantly, I had at last found my creative voice, after five years of struggle as a young pro. The future looked bright. It was an exciting period in my career, in many ways my favorite period.

And then the news that exploded out of Milwaukee on July 21 threw everything out of whack.

My wife and I lived in Cleveland, but both of us were working at the Akron Beacon Journal, located in the Rubber City, an hour to the south. My wife was a young reporter. I had a sweet part-time gig in the art department as a staff cartoonist-illustrator-designer. Union wages and flexible hours made it a perfect job to finance my nascent career as an alt-underground cartoonist. The Beacon at that time was a journalistic powerhouse, by far the best newspaper in Ohio. It was part of the big Knight-Ridder media corporation, which owned a dozen or so papers around the country, but since the Beacon was owned by Akron press baron John Knight, the Knight in Knight-Ridder, it was really a locally-owned entity. It was a great place to work, one with very high standards and an enviable record of accomplishment. The paper won a Pulitzer every five years or so. It had just won one in 1989 and was soon to win another (likely its last, but that's another, quite sad, story) in 1994. It was also Dahmer's "hometown" paper, since sleepy Bath, Ohio, is a bedroom suburb of Akron. Dahmer grew up reading the Beacon, as did they rest of us. I, in fact, was a Beacon paperboy, biking around my rural route with a heavy bag of papers slung over my shoulder.

The Tuesday paper. By this time tv news had already reported the arrest and the first shocking revelations, but, of course, didn't have the chops to uncover anything other than the most obvious or what details the police gave the media.

The story broke Sunday morning. Hard as it is to imagine now, this was early on in the 24-hour news cycle. The internet was still unknown to most people and only used by a few hundred academics who blathered about its unlimited potential. There were no smart phones, early laptops were heavy and unaffordable. 24-hour cable news was on the rise, but had yet to take over the media landscape. The first Gulf War, which put CNN on the map, had ended earlier in 1991. In fact, CNN was the only cable news channel. FoxNews was still five years from launch! So a Sunday news event really didn't blow up until Monday, when news staffs returned to work. Weekend newspaper shifts had only a skeleton crew, as the weekend papers were put together on Thursdays prior. In the case of the Dahmer story, that meant the first story was reported and written on Monday and didn't make print until the Tuesday paper! As I wrote, it was a different, much slower-paced world.

I wasn't scheduled to work that Monday. I was in my home studio working at my "real job," punching out the week's City comic strip. But when my wife excitedly called me with the news about Dahmer (see the book for details) I threw down everything. The Beacon cops reporter was the first to call. I coughed up what info and memories I had off the top of my head to help him start his reporting. I didn't have time to process anything. I couldn't believe this was happening, and was almost dizzy with disbelief, but the journalist in me kicked on the auto pilot. There was a huge story breaking and I had a job to do. I drove down to my parents house to fetch my yearbooks for the Beacon to reproduce. I well remember digging through dusty boxes in the folks' dimly-lit basement, uncovering material I hadn't seen since I lived at home in high school. Pictures and drawings that now had a new, utterly chilling, meaning. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck as I pawed through my papers, not the last time I'd have that sensation in the weeks and months ahead. I drove to Akron from there and spent the rest of the day working with reporters and editors to piece together the tale of Dahmer's young life.

Over the next week, a team of Beacon reporters tore into this story. They were competing tooth and nail with the larger Cleveland Plain Dealer, 50 miles north, for ownership of the story from the Ohio end. The PD, however, was a lousy newspaper at that time, one the Beacon regularly scooped. And the Akron paper had a huge advantage. Me.

To make it even a more personal battle, I had worked at the Plain Dealer from 1986-1989 as a staff cartoonist and had left, with quite a few hard feelings, to develop The City. I took some shots at the PD in my strip, and monolithic dailies at that time, before the internet and enjoying a virtual stranglehold on local news and opinion, were not used to being criticized, and certainly not viciously satirized. so I was, in 1991, persona non grata to Plain Dealer management. I took great delight in assisting the Beacon as the Dahmer story unfolded. PD editors were livid and my sources at the paper passed on several of the rants the editors directed at me.

Note: All that has now changed. The once-mighty Beacon has changed ownership several times and is now eviscerated and irrelevant. The Plain Dealer has also changed and is now the best paper in the state and one of the finest in the Midwest, largely thanks to a mass influx of Beacon personnel. Most of the top editors are former Beacon ones, as are many columnists (including my wife) and writers. The strangest twist of all? The City now runs in the Plain Dealer!

The Beacon put our an entire special section devoted to the Dahmer story. Very well done. It was the high-water mark, not only for local coverage, but something that easily topped anything the national media produced.

But back to 1991. I worked elbow to elbow with the reporters. I provided them with names and places and contacts. I tracked down other people who were willing to talk (there weren't many). I provided yearbooks, photos and drawings. And, most of all, I recounted the strange antics of Jeff and the Dahmer Fan Club.

Everything that came out about Dahmer's young life, originally came from me. The fake fits, the drinking, the bizarre behavior, the Command Performance, everything. It was reported in the Beacon in the morning and then later that day the local TV news stations did the classic rip-and-read, re-reporting what the Beacon printed and pretended the scoop was theirs. Local radio did the same. By mid-week, the national media was swarming around the story. Cars and tv trucks lined the quiet country road, where Dahmer's boyhood home was, for several hundred yards in either direction. And the NY Times and Time and all the rest followed in the Beacon's wake, pouncing on anyone who appeared in a Beacon story for quotes and comments. I was amazed at how many big-time media outfits lifted quotes. I popped up in all manner of publications, ones I had never spoken with directly! I didn't talk to any other media, much to their respective frustration. Eventually, my recollections became the stuff of urban legend. It's a strange feeling, being the originator of something like that, but there are so many aspects of this tale that are surreal to those of us who swept up in it.

Above: the Beacon's political cartoonist, Chuck Ayers, weighs in on the media feeding frenzy. The editors weren't altogether pleased with his opinion here, as I recall. Give Chuck high marks for kahones.

I thought the Beacon did a good job with the story overall that summer. But the very nature of a daily paper limits the scope. Stories aren't long and everything is rushed into print, especially when the competition is so hot. The stories are dry– just the facts, ma'am– and don't really delve into details of the time and place, or of the culture of the school. By the middle of August, the story had pretty much played out in the media, at least until Dahmer's trials in January and May 1992. As I packed my backpack for my trip to Czechoslovakia, I noted that there was a story here that was not being told, not well enough anyways. Not like I could tell it.

The seed for My Friend Dahmer was planted.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The House on the Hill

Above: sketchbook drawing of the interior of the house.

As I mention in the book, Dahmer's boyhood home was purchased by a dude I know about five years ago. This unexpected stroke of luck allowed me access to the interior of the house where a good deal of the book is set. I hadn't set foot inside this structure since high school, so at that point I was operating on fuzzy visual memory alone. Being able to take a sketchbook inside was a key part of my research, even though at that time I hadn't yet decided to finish MFD. In fact, I was still working on my previous graphic novel, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks. But you have to take advantage of opportunities when they arise, and the long history of MFD is dotted with similar events.

Chris Butler is a musician of some repute. You may remember his band, The Waitresses (above), who scored several hits in the early 80s. Before that, he was a member of the art-punk band, Tin Huey. And lately he's been making a glorious noise with Chris Butler and the Cranks. Who else but a rock star would buy an infamous house like this? And, as I've told him, what better way to chase off bad karma than with music?

Butler did this great piece for NPR about living in a house with "ghosts." HERE

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Derf on Disinfocast!

Interesting chat with Matt Staggs, host of the popular Disinfocast on He was having technical difficulties, so the audio isn't great.

Staggs also gives MFD a rave review on Suvudu!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

It's selling out fast!

Received word that the first printing was sold out by the day of the official launch on March 2. By "sold out" I mean the warehouses were empty of stock. All copies were either already purchased or out in the retail food chain somewhere. Amazon sold out of copies the following day!

I'm told a second printing has been ordered. So if you want a first printing, I wouldn't procrastinate. They'll all be snapped up sooner than later.

Amazon has already been restocked. It is selling the book at cost, because it's Amazon and they don't care if they make a profit or not. Not until they crush all their competition, that is. I prefer you purchase the book from your favorite indy brick-and-mortar bookseller, but 30 percent off is admittedly hard to pass up. I made my pitch. I leave it to you. Buy the book HERE.

For those who'd like signed copies, William Busta Gallery in Cleveland, Ohio, site of my book launch and exhibit, has a number of them. You can contact the gallery HERE.

Rave reviews rolling in

Fear not, I won't post every review that the book receives. But here's a sampling. The acclaim has been almost universal. It's a nice payoff after working on this project for 20 years.

A review at Slate

A review at USA Today

A review at the Cleveland Plain Dealer

A review at the Chicago Sun-Times

A review at

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Dahmer Fan Club

Those of you who have already the book, know all about the Dahmer Fan Club. For those who haven't, this was a small band of band nerds and advanced placement brains, my inner circle in high school, that became fascinated with the strange kid who performed bizarre antics, faked epileptic fits in the halls, pretended he had cerebral palsy, etc. Sometime in our junior year, we began referring to ourselves as the Dahmer Fan Club and cheered Jeff on in his strange, scholastic performance art. These typical, goofball, teenage antics became the stuff of urban legend once Dahmer's grisly crimes came to light 13 years after high school.

Above is a sketchbook drawing of the Fan Club from 1977 that we used as an official roster. For readers of the book, that's Dahmer up top, with Kent next to him. Mike is directly below them and I am below Mike, dead center. Neal is in the lower right. Kent, Mike, Neal and I were the four principle members. The others here were lesser participants that I winnowed out of the story to keep the cast of characters to a manageable number.

As the self-proclaimed Minister of Propaganda of the Dahmer Fan Club,  I slipped Dahmer into dozens of drawings: cartoons in the school paper, theater posters, student council election flyers, sports pep posters, etc. Most of these alas, did not survive. But at one time there was indeed a massive football banner featuring Jeffrey Dahmer! It just doesn't get any more surreal than that.

The yearbook cover (above) was to be my "masterpiece." The school was Revere, the teams were called the Minutemen so everything had a tiresome Revolutionary War theme to it, despite my hometown having virtually no patriot history. In 1776, it was little more than pine forest and Indians. This is my rendition of the iconic Spirit of '76, with, of course, a spazzing Dahmer as the drummer on the left. Alas, the yearbook advisor and editor had caught on to us by that time, recognized Dahmer in the above sketch, and killed the cover. The finished pen & ink drawing is unaccounted for. Only the sketch survives.

I was, however, allowed to contribute the following cartoon to the yearbook, a big 2-page spread.

All of the various members of the Fan Club are represented. Dahmer himself is lower right, looming larger than life over the crowd, and contorted in one of his trademark fits. Almost all the word balloons up top are "Dahmerisms," catch phrases we invented and sprinkled in our daily patter. Note one balloon says "BAAAA!," which was Dahmer's signature sheep-like bleet. Another says "Dahmier" which is how we often pronounced his name, with a heavy French accent, although I can't recall why we did this.

I look back at this stuff and just shake my head in disbelief.

Monday, March 5, 2012

This needs to be said

I've been getting emails from Milwaukee media, particularly from the TVnews and AM radio types. I won't talk to you. I'll just let the work speak for itself, if those of you trying to reach me have bothered to even read it. And it is very obvious the loudest critics have not.

If you can't muster up even the journalistic curiosity to order the book from Amazon and read it, then I can confidently state the following; whatever you think this book is about, it isn't. This story is not about Dahmer's crimes. It's about his tragic, inexorable march toward the edge of the abyss. My Friend Dahmer does not take place in Milwaukee. My tale ends in 1978, years before he even moved to Wisconsin. Milwaukee is not even mentioned in the text of the story. My book is the story before that story.

Look, I understand that there are people in Milwaukee who object to anything being written about Dahmer at all. I get that. There are hundreds, if not thousands, who still mourn Dahmer's victims. None of them will read this book. Why would they? But to state that the very existence of my book is some kind of affront is just nonsense. Who are you to decide what can and cannot be written? What's the bar there? There are tens of thousands of people who died by the hand of Saddam Hussein. Does that mean there can never be any books written about him?

The events in my book occur 34 to 40 years ago. That's akin to saying an author can't write about the Vietnam War because of what happened in Afghanistan this week! There have already been dozens of books written about Dahmer. Dozens of tv documentaries. There was a feature film released in 2003. Metal bands have released Dahmer tribute albums. Joyce Carol Oates fashioned her novel Zombie on him. Dahmer has even popped up in Saturday Night Live skits and as a character on South Park. We are well past the point where one graphic novel can inflict pain and heartache.

Some in Milwaukee are accusing me of "exploiting" Dahmer's story. Twenty-one years after he was arrested? Eighteen years after he was killed? If that's "exploitation," that's a pretty sorry example of it! Were I in it only for the bucks, I would have rushed something into print a year after he was arrested, not two decades later. Fact is, I didn't want to be part of the tabloid frenzy that surrounded his arrest, trial and death. I waited to tell the story I wanted to tell, how I wanted to tell it.

Some have objected to me crafting my story as a graphic novel. The implication there is that graphic narrative is lowbrow kidstuff. You'll get nowhere with me if that is your position. This is the artform I use to tell stories. If I were an opera composer, I would have written an opera. If I were a poet, it would have been poems. I'm a comix creator with a long body of work and a prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Award on my resume. Besides, this isn't Archie & Jughead. Serious graphic novels for adult readers are a genre that is critically hailed around the globe and appreciated by millions of readers. In this country, comic creators have written acclaimed graphic novels about Auschwitz, the War in Bosnia and child abuse. Graphic novels have won National Book Awards, MacArthur Grants and Pulitzer Prizes! If you believe this to be a sleazy, exploitative "funny book," a cursory perusal of the reviews that are rolling in daily offer evidence to the contrary. My Friend Dahmer is a near-universal critical hit.

I realize that Milwaukeeans feel Dahmer's story is theirs and theirs alone. With all due respect, it's not. A piece of it belongs to my hometown and that's where this book is entirely set. I was there. This is what I saw. This is my story and I have every right to tell it.

Noted blogger Erin O'Brien has an interesting take on the My Friend Dahmer gallery exhibit. HERE

Saturday, March 3, 2012

My Friend Dahmer is officially launched.

The big corporate bookselling entities  jumped the starting gun, but yesterday, Mar. 2, was the official launch date of the book. I marked the long-awaited day with a signing and exhibition at the William Busta Gallery in Cleveland.

Thanks to the several hundred friends and fans who turned out for the evening. The entire stock of books was nearly sold out. It was an incredible turnout on a mean, stormy night.

For those interested, the exhibit will be on display until April 21. The exhibit documents the 20-year-long effort to bring this project to fruition, from source material, to sketchbook pages, to the earlier short stories and an aborted graphic novel, to pages from the final incarnation. Lest any accuse me of crass commercialism, none of the material is for sale. For those interested in the process of making a graphic novel, especially one as difficult as this, it's something worth checking out. More info on the gallery is HERE.

The Facebook album of the opening is HERE

Thursday, March 1, 2012


If you're in my home base of Cleveland, Ohio, stop by William Busta Gallery this Friday, March 2, from 6-9 p.m. for the official book launch of My Friend Dahmer. I'll be there, signing books. Purchase copies at the gallery, or bring a copy you've already bought.

The event is in conjunction with a gallery show, displaying original art, preliminary work and sketchbook drawings that detail the 20-year work-in-progress that was the My Friend Dahmer project. I think it's a pretty interesting show about the process of making comix. I'll also have some of my high school drawings of Dahmer on display.

William Busta Gallery is in downtown Cleveland at 2731 Prospect Avenue, just east of Cleveland State University. There is ample free on-street parking.