Friday, July 27, 2012

Recreating the ' sinister Seventies adolescent world'

To shamelessly name drop here, Lev Grossman, the book critic for Time magazine, wrote that MY FRIEND DAHMER is "like Proust’s madeleine to anybody who was alive in the 1970′s." I freely admit my study of Proust, as a largely disinterested college student, is far in the rearview mirror and I had to Google "Proust's madeleine" to refresh myself on this particular literary device.

"Madeleine" is a technique developed by Proust. The author writes in such a way that his descriptive prose triggers similar memories in the reader, and, the theory goes, an emotional response based on those similar memories. In other words, reading MFD transports a reader (who remembers the Seventies) right back to that era, and invokes all the stress and sleaze and kitschy weirdness of that era. I wasn't trying to be highfalutin' about it, but Grossman is very perceptive here– that's no surprise, he is after all Lev Grossman!– and that is exactly what I was trying to do. This book is, after all, a period piece. We are all of us a product of our time and place. And so was Dahmer. I thought it was crucial to the story to detail what that time and place were like, because they were so very different than the current day. These are events that happened 34-40 years ago, after all. It's gratifying that so many reviewers have lauded my detailed portrayal of the era. It would be a very different book if I hadn't concentrated on that.

The kitschy monstrosity of a sign dates from my era. I was thrilled to find a pic of it. 

No way I could conjure up something like that on my own!

Which brings me to the Mall.

The Summit Mall on the suburban outskirts of Akron is the setting of one of the book's major, and most bizarre, scenes: Dahmer's Command Performance. Me and my friends paid Jeff to perform his strange antics in front of horrified shoppers in our local mall.

The Summit Mall opened in 1965, built by the infamous Edward DeBartolo, one of the pioneers of shopping malls. It was constructed on the very suburban edge of Akron, which at that time, was the southeast corner of Bath, our sleepy hometown. It was a godsend to the local teenage population, who suffered from the stultifying boredom of life in a small town. We Seventies kids were the first generation of mallrats. I myself spent endless hours here, flipping through the vinyl at Disc Records, or the blacklight posters at Spencer Gifts, searching (mostly in vain) for interesting books on comix at Waldenbooks, or simply following a fetching teenage butt as it wiggled throughout the mall. It wasn't a famous mall. It wasn't one of the biggest, or one of the most architecturally flamboyant. It was just a mall, no different than 100 others. But it was, sad to say, the center of my teenage life.

The Harvest House, opened onto the Mall. Dahmer famously knocked over diners'
water glasses here during the Command Performance.

So I was keen to recreate this place as accurately as I could. And that proved to be a problem. The mall is still there, but it has been remodeled many times and no longer resembles the mall of my youth. I needed to recreate that mall. Here's how I did it.

I'm a huge proponent of photo reference. I don't copy from photos when I draw, but I do pull details from them, building a setting with signature features almost the same way I draw a character's face. I collected a trove of reference photos for MFD, as I do with all my books, divided by chapter into separate files. I spent years steadily collecting the reference I knew I'd need. The Summit Mall proved to be tricky. Who, after all, takes pictures, of an inside of a nondescript mall in suburban Ohio? Keep in mind, this is long before the digital photography revolution. 

Taking pictures in the Seventies was a much more lengthy and expensive process. You had to take the photos, which you couldn't view after you shot them, so you had no idea if they were decent or even in focus. To shot inside, you'd have to use a large flash. And then have the film developed and prints made, unless you were a photo bug and your own home darkroom.  Average cameras were cheap crap back then, too, and didn't work well indoors, especially in large spaces. I exhausted all my sources looking for reference, the Akron library and the photo files at the Akron newspaper, and only managed to come up with a few precious visual clues. They proved to be just enough.

This is a floor plan from 1970. This was crucial, as it listed all the stores. Virtually all are long gone, so once I had those names I worked them into the scene. Store logos were surprisingly easy to find, since most advertised in the Akron paper and I had a pile of those from 1978. 

The above photo, from 1977, was the only decent one I found of the period Summit Mall. But it offered enough visual evidence to jumpstart my own memory banks. Look at the pic. Today's malls are soft, cozy places. The colors are muted, greenery is abundant, plump chairs and sofas offer respite for weary shoppers, and the lighting is soft and intricately designed. Compare that to the above photo. A mall in 1977 was all hard surfaces, shiny tile and metal storefronts and white ceiling tile. Lighting was fluorescent and harsh. Even the benches were hard and uncomfortable! No rest for you, consumer! Keep buying! I remember how shoppers clomped up and down the tile mall in their hard shoes and how voices reverberated off the cold surfaces. Muzak, not the actual tunes but dreadful "elevator music" versions, blared from tinny speakers. At the Hammond Organ store and salesman hauled an organ out into the mall and tempted shoppers with Barry Manilow tunes. A mall was a very noisy place.

Here's something I regret not working into this scene. Booklein was a newsstand in the center of the mall. Just look at this kitschy marvel! It was supposed to look like (I think) a shipping crate. The knotty pine, the Helvetica type, wonderful. Booklein, for those of you who don't know what newsstands were, sold magazines and paperbacks and out-of-town newspapers. Before the internet, a good newsstand was the internet. I was a pop-culture vacuum and spent a lot of time in newsstands, and this one in particular. I remember being in there one day, face buried in a National Lampoon or Creme, and suddenly Dahmer peered over one of the bookshelves and bleated loudly at me! 

So the Summit Mall, as I depict it,  is visually accurate, right down to the sign out front, the benches, the stores, even the kiosk that displayed a map of the mall so shoppers could find their way about.  Obsessive? Yeah, indisputably. But concentrating on recreating my teenage world was how I made this book, a dark and troubling tale, fun for me to produce. Even if the reader doesn't recognize that accuracy, I think he picks up on the layers of detail that I work into every scene. The result is a much, richer, complex work.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dahmer and Death Metal?

I'm often asked what kind of music Dahmer liked. I wrote about this on the Derfcity blog a while back, but since I just received a couple more queries, I think I'll re-post it here.

The stereotype, of course, was that Dahmer listened to heavy metal. In 1978, that would have been Sabbath and Judas Priest. There wasn't much else. It was mostly kid stuff like Kiss and Alice Cooper. So he sat in his dark room, headphones on, blasting his brain with Priest's Beyond the Realms of Death. Except that's not what happened. 

This story comes from friend Neil, one of the small group of band nerds who befriended Dahmer in high school and formed the Dahmer Fan Club to egg him on in his various acts of weirdness. You'll read all in the book. Neil contributed much material, through many emails and conversations, as I was putting together this book over the past several years. But he dropped this tale on me top late, well after the book had been shipped to the printing plant.

In the Summer of 1975, between freshman and sophomore years, Neil and Dahmer went to a concert together. The Cleveland area, on the far edge of which our hometown was located, was known at that time as the Rock Capital of the World, due to several powerful FM stations and a huge, rabid rock fandom. There were many venues in the area where legendary concerts were held, but none was more beloved than Blossom Music Center.

Blossom Music Center and a sold-out show

Blossom was WAY out in the boonies, in the rolling countryside far south of Cleveland (it's now the Cuyahoga Valley National Park). It was an outdoor amphitheater, surrounded by a vast, sloping lawn where concert-goers could spread out with blankets and picnic dinners and enjoy a live performance. It opened in 1968 to serve as the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra (which it still is). Looking for extra revenue, the following year Blossom began booking rock acts and immediately became THE place to see live music.

The official capacity was 8,000. But because of its rural setting, fans would simply abandon their cars on the berms of the surrounding, gridlocked country roads and hike through the woods to crash the gates. There was no fence or barrier, the local police force was comprised of Goober and Barney, and Blossom security was totally overwhelmed as kids poured in from every direction. A Blood, Sweat & Tears concert in 1969 drew a crowd of over 80,000! It was Woodstock every weekend! Concert-goers drank wine out of sheepskin jugs and passed joints and bongs. A giant fog of pot smoke hung over the throng, at times obliterating the amphitheater itself. Couples frolicked naked in the nearby woods. All over the lawn, lovers crawled into sleeping bags to hump, the bags moving in time to the beat, like giant caterpillars.
I saw my first live music (and my first naked woman!) here. Tickets were so cheap, $4 a head, and it was so easy to sneak into a show, that it really didn't even matter who was playing. You went for the experience and to try to meet girls. Never had any success there, despite the frequent naked nymphs dancing through the crowd.

So in the Summer of 1975, Neil and Dahmer decided to attend a Blossom concert. Neil suspects it was Dahmer's first show. It may well have been his ONLY concert. Neither was driving yet, so Dahmer's dad , Lionel, drove them as close as he could to the Blossom entrance, until the traffic gridlocked and then the boys walked the rest of the way, probably a couple miles. Heck, the driveway into the grounds was a couple miles long, so it was likely a four-or-five-mile hike! Made a few of those myself. Lionel picked them up at the same spot at a designated time after the show. Traffic leaving Blossom shows was just as bottlenecked as it was before events. Many kids just slept in their cars until the following day!

The headliner for this show? Priest? AC/DC? Nope. Neil Sedaka!!!!! That's right, the chubby, little schlockmeister who penned some of the most vile Top 40 dreck of the Seventies!!! Friend Neil recalls that Dahmer was quite taken with Sedaka's music at the time. I had MY young guilty pleasures, too, before I discovered punk rock later in the Seventies and my tastes refined, but NEVER something THIS godawful!!


So the  bible-thumping, FoxNews crowd's insistence that heavy metal poisons the minds of America's youth doesn't apply to Dahmer. And the claims of today's metal crowd that Dahmer was one of them is equally false.  Much like  most of the urban legend that the Death Metal/ Serial Killer sub-culture has constructed out of Dahmer's life, it's bullshit. And now friend Neil confirms it.

This is especially hilarious considering how Death Metal has embraced Dahmer's story. The band Macabre released Dahmer back in 2000, a concept album devoted entirely to Jeff's life and killing spree. Here's a song from the album about our high school antics, Do the Dahmer. Yep. That's right. There's a metal tune about my high school career!


There's others. Apartment 213 (named after Dahmer's pad in Milwaukee) has released a number of albums, all featuring various photos of Dahmer on the cover. A Canadian metal band simply calls itself Dahmer and most of its discography is inspired by various aspects of his life and crimes. There's a Brit metal band called Trophies of Dahmer, referring, of course, to the heads and skulls he kept as "trophies." The metal community is fascinated with the guy, and views his miserable life as a mirror of the metal philosophy. Picked on and shunned as a kid, wallowed in misery and drink, and then snapped and got his "revenge." Blah blah blah. It's all total crap, of course.

A Neil Sedaka fan. Sorry, metalheads.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Drawing 'My Friend Dahmer'

Thought you might be interested in a look at process. 

I've written before that this book took 20 years to produce. That's true, but a bit misleading. I didn't work on it continuously. I was doing other things, a weekly comic strip and two other graphic novels and lots of other work, as well. But I did work on it regularly. This was mostly research, digging through files and reports, interviewing friends, classmates and neighbors, and slowly assembling the photo reference I needed to re-create this "sinister, Seventies adolescent world," to shamelessly name drop and quote Robert Crumb.

The result of all this homework was when I finally sat down to write the book, I wrote it in two weeks! That's how clear it was in my mind. In contrast, my last book, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, took nearly a year to write! Here's how I work:

I write in thumbnails (above). I take 8.5" x 11" paper and cut it in half to make little comic pages, then sketch in the action. These scenes play like film loops in my head. I see and hear the dialogue very clearly and I get them both down as fast as I can. As you can see, they're very rough, just enough there for me to remember that initial film loop. Sometimes I need to work a scene, but mostly they came very easy.

From there, I go straight to pencil. Many creators do a series of layouts, each one more detailed than the last. I don't. I like to get pencil dragging over paper as soon as I can. I think this brings an energy to the art. As you can see, it's a pretty tight pencil.

And then I come in with the ink. I ink directly over my pencils. A lot of creators use a light table, so they have both pencil and inked pages when they're through. Not me, although I do make xeroxes of my pencils, just in case. The grey shading is added in Photoshop.

Here's another page. You can see how little pencil work I need before the inking. I know how I draw the texture of things– grass and trees and clothes– so I don't need to pencil in all the details.

It's a fairly quick process. I drew four or five pencil pages a day, depending on how complex the scenes were. Inking takes longer. On a good day I could ink three pages, using a variety of Micron artists pens and Sharpie markers,  before my hand gave out. I spent about six weeks adding the grey tones. It's a long, hard slog. In mainstream comics, Marvel and DC and the like, a whole team of people works on a book: writer, penciller, inker, letterer, colorist, maybe more. It's like an assembly line with page after page constantly running down the conveyer belt to the different people in the process. So the turnaround time is very quick. Book after book can come flying out of these publishing houses, like the corporate product it is. Some are good, most are dreck. When you look at My Friend Dahmer or other "indie" books, in contrast, all that you see and read, every word, every pen stroke, every shade, was put there by me, by my hand.  The result is as personal a work as you can get in comix. No compromises. It's my vision.

That's all there is to it. Making comics is easy. Making good comics is hard.

Derf on NPR's 'To the Best of Our Knowledge'

Here's my interview with NPR's Steve Paulson. Good interview, although they cut out all the (I thought) interesting bits about process and how I put various scenes of the book together, in favor of the usual discussion about what I saw and what I think. This show is based in Madison, WI, and is the only interview I have granted to Wisconsin media. Paulson, in fact, told me he was living in Milwaukee when Dahmer's crimes were revealed. But this is NPR, not some AM-radio clown, and Steve had read the book (you'd be surprised how many interviewers had not before talking to me!) and his questions were perceptive and measured.

Note some of the comments on the podcast page. I like the one that cites Buddha! What else would you expect from NPR? Another comment, however, is a criticism that has become virtually cliche,  that I am somehow "complicit" in Dahmer's crimes because, as a 15-year-old kid, I encouraged Jeff to act up in school and didn't rat him out to school authorities when his behavior became troubling and bizarre. It's obvious this critic has not read the book, and has no intention of doing so, since I address both these points at length in my story. He closes with the hackneyed argument that I should "donate any profits to help the victims." Were similar demands made to Art Spiegelman to compensate Holocaust victims after writing Maus? Or any author who has written about 9/11? The comparison to Spiegelman is particularly apt. It was his story to tell, just as My Friend Dahmer is mine. We were both part of our stories. These things happened to us.

If you object, feel free to ignore the book. But don't dare preach to me that I had no right to pen it.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Why not piss off another of my alma maters?

I'm probably persona non grata at my old high school, as you can well imagine. Especially with all the worldwide press this book has received. The names Dahmer and Revere High School are even  more cemented together, thanks to me. Sorry about that. But why stop there? Dahmer and I also both attended Ohio State University, although not at the same time. Might as well cheese off the suits at that institution, too, no?

Jeff attended OSU in Fall Quarter 1978, starting in mid-September. Ohio State had an open admissions policy at the time, meaning any resident of the state was admitted without question. A high school diploma was all that was needed. It was either sink or swim and Freshman dropout rates were embarrassingly high, but it was an admirable, populist system.  Me, I excelled at Ohio State, a school I wouldn't even be accepted at today. By the time I was done, I had earned a full scholarship. Today my photo hangs in two buildings and the Derf Collection is in the famous Ohio State Cartoon Museum, the world's top institution of comix and cartoon art. Dahmer's experience at OSU, however, was altogether different.

His Dad, Lionel, forced him to enroll, as he writes in his memoir A Father's Story. Jeff displayed very little interest in college, or in anything, after high school. He loafed about all day at home and drank. So great was his consumption that Lionel, for the first time, became aware of it. Even then, Lionel didn't realize the shocking amount of alcohol his son was consuming on a daily basis. His admonishments fell on deaf ears. Jeff languished in the house, staring out the large windows at the wooded hillside. Inside his head, a film loop of murder, necrophilia and butchery played non-stop. A horror show he couldn't switch off. Jeff's terrible secret, of course, was the reason for his drunken state. He had already killed, and had sex with and butchered his first victim's corpse. In fact, the remains of Steven Hicks were hidden in a drainage pipe mere feet from the driveway at the Dahmer house! Lionel hadn't the slightest hint of the thoughts and all-consuming compulsions that were gurgling in his son's brain. But he was alarmed at Jeff's total lack of purpose or interest in his future. Lionel was a driven man, a research chemist, and his distant and disinterested son perplexed and frustrated him. Jeff had always been an inscrutable mystery to Lionel. Now he was a fast growing source of aggravation.

Come September, after a summer of idleness, Lionel forced Jeff to pack his things and Lionel and his new live-in girlfriend drove him to Columbus. Jeff had a room in the dreaded Morrill Tower, one of two recently constructed high-rise dorms on the far west side of campus. They were only a few years old in 1978, but already had the rep of being hellholes. Students were housed in "pods," which were as awful as they sound. A pod consisted of a central living area with four cramped bedrooms off it, each with four residents and two bunk beds. The 16 "podmates" shared a bathroom and a living area.  Roommate squabbles were common. Freshman who were unlucky enough to be assigned to one of the Towers scrambled to get transferred to other dorms.

Morrill Tower (foreground) in 1977.

Floorplan of a Morrill Tower "pod"

To make it even worse, the Towers were completely isolated from the rest of the campus. It was a long hike across the open intramural athletic fields  and past hulking Ohio Stadium to the main campus. It is even farther to High Street, the mile-long strip of bars, eateries and shops that borders the eastern edge of campus and is the heart of student life. 

Dahmer had no interest in college. He slept until afternoon, ate a solitary lunch at the dorm  cafeteria, walked to High Street bars or carry-outs in the late afternoon, got shitfaced, and  staggered back to his dorm in the wee hours of the morning, collapsed in bed, and slept until the next afternoon when he rose to do it all over again. Every single day. Week after week. There were 20 or so high school classmates who also went to Ohio State, but the only one who ever saw Dahmer was Penny Smith (name changed) who came across Jeff passed out cold on the sidewalk outside a HIgh Street bar.  She was unable to revive him out of his drunken stupor and left him there, sprawled among the filth and litter, and puddles of sick and urine.
Occasionally, probably out of boredom or fear of his father's anger, he attended a class or two. Often he would sneak booze in with him in a pop can, much in the way he had hidden booze in a styrofoam coffee cup as he lurched through the halls of Revere High School. Jeff's roommates regarded him as a freak. He was ignored, and within weeks, disinterest turned to open dislike. They grew increasingly alarmed by Dahmer's drunken state and bizarre manner. And for good reason! I can tell you firsthand that Jeff was completely unlikeable by the end of high school. And that was before he committed his first unspeakable, depraved crime! Now he was an inhuman wretch, haunted by the monstrous acts he had committed on poor Steven Hicks and living in blind terror that someone would discover the decomposing remains in the drainage pipe. A pathetic parasite, wriggling through the rotting rubble of his life while sucking on a bottle of booze.
I cannot imagine being trapped in a dorm room with this guy! Can you picture his roommates' confusion and shock over those first few days together as Dahmer's everyday dysfunctional behavior came sharply into focus? I saw how Dahmer drank, gulping down booze. It made my skin crawl. And these guys had to sleep in the same, small room with him! Dahmer decorated his area in the bedroom with a small picture of his dog, Frisky, a snakeskin he found in the woods around his house (one of his many dead animal treasures and they only one "normal" enough to keep with him at college) and, mostly, with empty booze bottles. This was a fairly common trophy in the party-hearty Seventies, but the collection grew so fast and his consumption was so obviously excessive, far beyond even the most stoned-out loser, it quickly became creepy. 

Tensions grew. One of his roommates moved out when a space in another bedroom opened. The others complained to a dorm official about Dahmer, but were told to "work it out." As long as it didn't come to blows, this was the common "solution" back then to roommate troubles. (I myself was having horrible roommate problems at my dorm at the Pittsburgh Art Institute). Things began disappearing in the pod. Dahmer was immediately suspected of the thefts. His podmates called campus police and Jeff was detained and questioned in November 1978 about the theft of a radio, watch, and $100 cash from the room during a party but, as would become his m.o., Jeff admitted nothing and didn't crack under questioning. No charges were filed. His podmates started locking their doors and hiding their things. They threatened Jeff, but he responded only with the blank stare that was his trademark. 
As the quarter progressed and the weather turned colder and wetter, Dahmer became less willing to go out and make the long trek across the wind-whipped tundra. He bought cases of beer and bottles of wine and whiskey and consuming them alone in his dorm room bunk until he passed out. Booze wasn’t cheap and Dahmer quickly ran through the weekly allowance his father sent him to live on. To fund his alcohol purchases, Jeff sold plasma and blood at a blood bank on South High Street for $10 a pop. It was a joking cliche for cash-strapped students to sell plasma, but  Dahmer became such a frequent visitor that his name was put on a list with junkies and winos whose visits were restricted for their health’s sake. 
Ad for the Plasma Center from the student newspaper, 1978

The quarter ended in early December. Dahmer returned home to Bath. When his grades arrived a week later, he had failed almost every one of his courses. His overall GPA was 0.45. His dad was aghast and furious. Jeff responded with a shrug and a silent stare at the floor as Lionel chewed him out and told him he would not be returning to Oho State. Lionel writes that Jeff seemed "relieved" at the news.
The first week of January, when school resumed, Lionel drove down to Morrill Tower to collect his son's things. Jeff did not accompany him. When he met Jeff's roommates, they described in detail his son's daily regimen of alcohol. Lionel was absolutely dumbfounded. For the first time, Jeff's shocking and disturbing behavior emerged from the shadows. At that point, Jeff had been binge drinking... for TWO AND A HALF YEARS!

I started at Ohio State nine months later, after dropping out of art school and working as a garbageman in our hometown. Dahmer was long gone by that point, having joined the army under his father's insistence and shipped off to a base in Germany. I ran into many old classmates during my four years on campus. Dahmer's name never came up.

Dahmer's brief time at Ohio State is now part of campus lore.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Another high school sketchbook drawing

Here's another recent find from my time as the self-proclaimed Minister of Propaganda of the Dahmer Fan Club back in high school (read the book for a full explanation of this). As I wrote in an earlier post, last month while cleaning out my Mom's basement, I pulled a box from under the stairs, one that was buried beneath a pile of other things. It was full of old sketchbooks and drawings from high school. Sure enough, there were several drawings of my old pal Jeff.

Our little hometown was on the outskirts of Akron, the recession-devastated factory town that was, in the late Seventies, the dying Rubber Capital of the World. Akron had, as I wrote about in loving detail in my last graphic novel PUNK ROCK & TRAILER PARKS, an influential and incredibly lively punk rock scene. In fact, Ohio Punk, now largely forgotten, was just as much a spawning ground for punk rock as was the New York City scene! Akron alone produced seminal artists like Chrissie Hynde, The Cramps, the Dead Boys and a host of other lesser-known bands. But the earliest and most successful band was Devo. By 1978, after years of playing small clubs and house parties around Akron, Devo broke big with the release of Are We Not Men?, their major-label debut album.

I, and others in the Fan Club, intellectual nerds all, were huge Devo fans. The drawing above is Dahmer as a member of Devo. Note I spelled his name "Dahmier." That's not an error. We often called him this, pronouncing his name in a French accent "Dah-mee-AY!" I had completely forgotten about that until this drawing reminded me.

Twenty one years after Jeff's crimes came to light, and the hair still stood up on the back of my neck when I uncovered this drawing in Mom's basement.

Derf on NPR

NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge interviewed your humble scribbler. Listen to the podcast HERE

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book tourin'

Sorry for the long layoff, friends. Sucking wind as the first leg of the MFD book tour winds down. Had a great talk and signing at Cleveland's Brooklyn Library last night. Thanks to all who packed the house and to the Cuyahoga County Library for putting on a successful event. That's about it for local appearances here in Ohio. Think I've reached the saturation point.

I have a break for the rest of July. Next stop is Chicago and the awesome Quimby's Books on Thurs., Aug 9 at 7 pm for my slideshow talk and a signing. Really looking forward to that one.

The book tour picks up again in the Fall, with appearances at the SPX Comix Fest in DC, the Miami Int'l Book Fest and the annual Conference of English Teachers in Las Vegas. Details to come, and very likely more events to be added. Stop on by if you're near any of these places. Always happy to meet readers and fans.