Friday, June 28, 2013

It was a very different time, part 2

How different? Here's a few photos from the school and the era where My Friend Dahmer takes place..

Above: students and teachers take part in the annual Student Council Slave Auction. Students bid on the "slaves", who all wear paper and balloon balls & chains. Note the set, made to look like a slave auction house, complete with barred window. The winners are the "masters" for the rest of the school day and can order them about as they wish, to carry their books, fetch their lunches, etc. Slaves often spoke in a comic "Yes suh, massuh!" jargon as they shuffled behind. It was truly appalling. And the most popular fundraiser the school had!

This in a school that had ONE black kid.

No, your eyes do not deceive you. This was a classroom skit! The assignment was, as I recall, to recreate a historic political convention. Naturally, some smartasses chose the Ku Klux Klan party. Can you imagine what would happen to a kid who wore a hood and cloak into a public school today?

Of course, here's yours truly (above), as described in an earlier post, dressed up as Adolf Hitler for a talent show sketch.  I'd be led out of the school in handcuffs today and charged with a hate crime!  

The boots are authentic German ones from WW2, borrowed from a schoolmate who was a...  ahem... "WW2 buff." What that really meant was he was a closet Nazi! He collected Nazi artifacts, which were plentiful and inexpensive in 1978, only 30 years after the war. He went on the amass quite a collection of uniforms, flags, and weapons from Nazi Germany. Often he wore bits of uniforms, minus the swaztikas and other telltale insignias, to school! There is reportedly a large Nazi Flag on his living room wall now (not surprisingly, he still lives with his parents). He has run for various local elected offices, proclaiming himself a "far-right Republican," but everyone in town knows what he is and he always loses by a landslide. 

What's more, there were two other closet Nazis that I knew of in the student body!

This guy (above), one of the school's top students, models the popular "Reefer High" t-shirt, a riff on the proper Revere High name. He wasn't a stoner, he just liked razzing the old alma mater. Again, what would happen to a kid who showed up at a zero-tolerance school with such a shirt today?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

It was a very different time

Over and over, people press me about how Dahmer got away with the things he did, especially the  drinking. How, they ask, astonished, could he stumble through the halls of the high school drunk? How could the adults be so oblivious? Why didn't any of us kids speak up?

The events in this book take place 35-40 years ago. Many of the themes in My Friend Dahmer resonate with readers who grew up in subsequent decades, but the Seventies were a very different time than any that followed. Dazed and Confused, (above) Richard Linklater's  chilling and hilarious film about this era, is spot on in its portrayal of the Seventies. 

It's not that there was an acceptance of stoner behavior by the adults. It's simply that many didn't understand this behavior at all. This might have been the last era when a true generation gap was in play. Most of our teachers in 1978 came of age in the Forties or Fifties. Recreational drugs, outside of booze, weren't part of their experience. Veteran teachers at Revere High told me it was the Class of 1969, a decade before my class,  that changed everything. And you can see that in the old yearbooks I used as reference. The 1968 yearbook is full of cleancut kids in suits and ties, with neatly trimmed hair and big poofy bouffants. In the 1969 yearbook, it looks like a spaceship from San Francisco dropped into the center of town and passed out goodies and love beads to town youth!  These same veteran teachers state that year was when they stopped enjoying the job. They didn't understand the kids, their attitudes, or their views. It was all alien to them. This generation gap was in place throughout the decade, into my era. There were some younger teachers by the time I reached high school, fresh out of college, who had been hippies themselves. They were clued in and weren't facing this generational chasm.  Five years later, they took over schools completely, and that's when the "fun" stopped. Or, at least, when it stopped being so open and casual.

Revere High was known far and wide as Reefer High. A legendary senior prank (above) by an earlier class replaced the letters on the outside of the school to the latter. Those shrubs there btw were Dahmer's favorite drinking spot, one I depict frequently in MFD.

Drug use, and abuse, of course, is more rampant in today's schools than it was in my time. But the kids are craftier, and the drugs harder to detect. You can snort the contents of a prescription pill in a few seconds in the hallway, with no one the wiser, unless the kid flips out in class. The substances of choice at Revere were pot and booze. Maybe some acid, among the hardcore stoners. 

The adults weren't watching in My Friend Dahmer, simply because that's how it was. There were no locker searches, no drug-sniffing dogs, no metal detectors. There were no cameras in the halls or the classrooms. Revere didn't have security personnel. And our parents weren't paying much closer attention! There were no cellphones with built-in GPS. Kids were on their own, to do as they pleased, usually with no adult the wiser. Restraint was up to us, not forced on us by the adults. Now it so happens, I was a straight arrow. I didn't drink, smoke or do drugs. This also cemented my status as an unpopular band dork, but I'm thankful that was the path I followed. Especially looking out over the carnage the stoner life inflicted on those caught up in it: the heavy smokers who died horribly of cancer, those who lost decades to booze and drug abuse, and those who died from their excesses. It's a, if you'll pardon the pun, sobering role call.

 Thing was, even if you weren't a stoner, you operated by the Stoner Code. And the great rule of that code was: never narc. Ever! If you were branded as a narc by your schoolmates, your life became a living hell. You would friendless and in constant danger of a beating.

This was drummed in to us starting in junior high. As alarmed as I was by Dahmer's behavior, it never entered my mind to turn him in. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't going to risk my neck for him, especially by the end of our time together when he really wasn't very likable. I've taken quite a lot of shit for that from people that just don't comprehend what it was like in the Seventies. I tried to drive the reality of it home in the book– I feared I may have hit this theme to hard– but some still just can't grasp it.

Shortly after we graduated, things changed. Reagan was elected and he began the disastrous War on Drugs, which wasted trillions trying to stop the drug trade. It failed miserably, of course, but it dramatically changed the high school experience, because teenagers had no say in the War of Drugs. Suddenly, cops were in the schools, lecturing students and searching lockers. I well remember the very first locker search at Revere, around 1983 as memory serves. The local paper reported the haul of drugs, booze, and even a couple weapons, to a shocked populace in our small Mayberry-like (or so everyone thought) town. At the same time, teachers and administrators were trained to spot drug behavior and zero-tolerance policies became the norm. They couldn't stop kids from getting stoned, but they could kick out the stoners. Within five years, it would have been far more difficult for Dahmer to drink as he did. I'll bet, however, he would have adjusted to the new reality.

Monday, June 24, 2013

In the stacks

This weekend, I'm off to Chicago to appear at the annual convention of the American Library Association.

My Friend Dahmer was, much to my delight, one of the most talked about Young Adult reads of the past year. It was honored with an Alex Award, one of only ten books selected, for outstanding YA books. That's the primary reason for my attendance at the convention, to pick up the hardware.

It wasn't by design that MFD fits into the YA category. In fact, I didn't give it a thought when writing the book. Call it a happy accident. I made the decision early on, when making my early MFD short stories years ago, to strip this book of everything that would be deemed offensive. There is no violence to speak of, no depictions of grisly butchery or sex with corpses or any of the unspeakable acts that Dahmer committed. Heck, there's not even any swearing! My view was that the book was controversial enough just in concept, without giving critics additional ammo to riddle it with holes. I also like that the book isn't what people think it is when they first crack it open. Many expect a certain tale, and when they get to the end, found that they have read an altogether different one. As an author, that's a bit of a rush to pull that off, and to hear that from readers over and over. I like being surprising.

Now, I freely admit the title is purposely provocative. That was a tad manipulative on my part, I can't argue that. But titles have to be provocative. The point is, after all, to sell books.

I suppose I should have anticipated the YA appeal. This book is about teenagers, and their secret world and their interactions, as much as it's about Dahmer. Even though it took place long ago, in a very different world, most of this stuff is universal. Apparently, I nailed that. And it's about a serial killer, which teenagers of any era dig big time.

In any case, I'm extremely grateful to librarians for championing My Friend Dahmer, You've been a real boon. If any of you would like me to Skype in for a book club or a chat, feel free to

Friday, June 21, 2013

30% Off on Derf Books!

Derf books from SLG Publishing. Feet not included.

SLG Publishing, who put out my first two books TRASHED and PUNK ROCK & TRAILER PARKS, as well as a collection of THE CITY comic strip, is having a 30-percent-off sale to fund a move to a new location, having unexpectedly lost their longtime home to a real estate developer. He's in a tight spot. here's a way to help out one of the nice guys in comix and stock up on summer reading!

The nice thing about having a hit book is that many new fans are working their way through my back catalog. My two other books are vert different from MY FRIEND DAHMER, so don't expect more of the same, but I've very fond of both works. TRASHED was nominated for an Eisner Award (the Oscars of comix) and was named "the funniest book of the year" by Time magazine. It's an early work and doesn't look at all like my current stuff, but many fans cite it as their favorite of mine. There's an ongoing webcomic, too. PUNK ROCK & TRAILER PARKS, which came out in 2010, is more like, stylistically, MFD. It also was a critical hit and was selected by guest-editor Neil Gaiman for the prestigious BEST AMERICAN COMICS.

And don't just stop with my books. There's a cornucopia of great comix in the SLG catalog by Ben Towles, Chris Reilley. Jhonen Vazquez, Evan Dorkin, too many to list. All on sale.

It's a deal too good to pass up. Tell your friends. Here's the LINK to the Derf page.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The graduation

Thirty-five years ago I graduated from high school. That day, to the best of my recollection, was the last time I saw Jeff. My own son just graduated, from a different school, and the traditions of his last week of senior year really took me back. That last day of high school was, at that point, the best one of my life. Everything stretched before me, full of possibility, like a road vanishing into the horizon. I would cast off the old labels and remake myself. I would leave the tormentors and creeps behind. The realization that I'd never see 90 percent of my schoolmates again filled me with absolute joy. I couldn't stop smiling. 

I remember every detail of my final day of high school like it was yesterday. I arrived early, and hung out with  my friends, as usual. I only had a couple morning classes, since I completed most of my required academics the previous semester. I made a cursory appearance in the art room and cleaned out my file drawer of completed assignments. The art teacher, sitting at her desk by the door, bid me a fond farewell by calling me her "biggest disappointment." I had squandered my talent, you see, on too many comix and cartoons that year, instead of making "real" art. I glared at her without rebuttal. I dramatically tossed my unwanted portfolio of still lifes and model drawings in the large trash bin by the door and left without a comment or a backward glance. Needless to say, she was no mentor and I didn't bother to keep in touch, even after I became the most illustrious art grad that school ever produced.

I spent the rest of the day in the band room, the only place in high school that I felt at ease, with my friends, the various members of the Dahmer Fan Club. We ate as a group in the cafeteria one last time, huddled together at "our" table, the band nerd table, and wolfed down the familiar cafeteria gruel. The tater tots and fries were quite tasty, actually. We didn't give the slightest shit if anyone snickered in our direction. That stupid high school crap was behind us. Onward! I could've left at any time. It was an open campus and seniors came and went as they pleased, not that any teachers, who were as anxious for the year to end as we were, paid attention. When that final bell rang, we burst through the bandroom doors onto the lawn outside with great whoops and high fives. I lingered for awhile, soaking up every moment, until the long line of buses pulled away in clouds of dust and exhaust and the sudden afterschool quiet settled over the grounds. Only then did I make the short walk home. I remember the smell of the trees and freshcut grass, the sound of birds, the feeling of the springtime sun on my back, and when I walked through the front door of my house, a great sense of relief washed over me. I was done. I was out. I was free at last!

Dahmer's last day, as I recount in the book, was quite different. There was no joy. I doubt he was capable of joy, or almost any emotion, at that point. I remember seeing him in the halls that day, and briefly lurking around the band room, as he often did, even after the Dahmer Fan Club ceased to be and we pushed him away. He was drinking a prodigious amount of booze by then and spent much of that day in a drunken stupor. Then he staggered onto his bus and rode away, never to return.

Commencement was the following Sunday. The ceremony took place at the Richfield Coliseum, a 20,000 seat arena, now long demolished,  that was stupidly built near the highway on the outskirts of my sleepy hometown. Even with families "swelling" the assemblage to 1,000 or so, we were swallowed up by the vast, empty cave of a space. It was a spooky venue, especially since only half the lights were on. Darkness loomed far overhead and in the upper reaches of the stands. Amplified voices echoed into the void. I remember Dahmer was seated in the row behind me, a little way down. We gave each other the traditional spastic greeting. I didn't see him after the ceremony. I posed for pictures with my other friends, but Jeff had vanished. 

That evening was the traditional Senior All-night Party at a country club in Akron. I made an appearance, I don't know why, except that's it's hard to break away completely, even from a high school society that you loath. I certainly wasn't welcome there. And when an effeminate classmate showed up (who would later come out) and was immediately hurled into the pool for being "a fag" by a group of cackling jocks, I beat a hasty retreat. I drove around town all night with friends, cruising the familiar routes as we had done a thousand times before, and watched the Monday morning sunrise on the front steps of the high school. There was no sense of what we were losing. Indeed, several of the friends I sat with that morning would soon vanish from my life altogether. No, there was only joy. When the buses pulled up with underclassmen (who still had a couple weeks of school to go), we greeted them with mocks and jeers. It was liberating!

I took this photo of the sun rising over the high  school the morning after graduation.

I never saw Jeff again. Not around town, not at the mall, not at any of the familiar haunts. I ran into plenty of schoolmates at those places, but no one ever reported seeing Jeff. We still worked "Dahmerisms", recreations of his spastic schtick, into our group patter, and did so all through our college years until we either tired of it or realized just how indefensibly tasteless it was. I wondered about Jeff's disappearing act at the time, and thought it very odd. There were plenty of classmates who I never saw again, but my friends, close or casual, materialized every now and then. At the very least, word reached me about what they were up to. With Jeff, nothing. I was around often that summer, even though I started college in Pittsburgh summer semester I returned frequently, and then moved back home for good at winter break in December when I left art school, but it was as if he just dropped off the face of the earth. Thirteen years later I would learn why. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

German radio!

Mein Fruend Dahmer continues to generate all sorts of buzz in Deutschland. For those who speak German, here's a very well-done piece from DRadio Wissen. I like the dramatic readings of several scenes, complete with sound effects!

Seven Degrees From Jeffrey Dahmer

I've written about this before, but last week I once again encountered the strange phenomenon I call Seven Degrees From Jeffrey Dahmer.

I spoke before the combined english classes at Kent Roosevelt High School here in Ohio. I met teacher Jeff Harr last year at an English teachers convention in Las Vegas. Sounds lame, but it's not, especially to publishers. Several thousand English teachers and school librarians gather at this thing and if they take a liking to your book, it can mean big sales, so my publishers flew me out on a nightmarish cross-country trek for an 11-hour stay, an hour-long appearance and a madcap race back to the airport. At the con, I met Harr, who told me he loved the book and asked if I would come speak at the school if he added it to the cirriculum. I immediately agreed, since the school is only an hour from my Cleveland base. Man, I would have killed to be able to study comix in high school English! 

It was a good day. Bummed around Kent for a couple hours, which is a pretty college town (of "Four dead in O-hi-o" fame). I spoke before 500 or so kids. Great audience, despite the rampant Spring fever that infects all during those last few weeks of the school year, and some really fun and interesting questions, since the kids had spent a week analyzing the book. 

After the talk, I was chatting with a small crowd of kids and teachers and signing books. For some reason, my Seven Degrees of Jeffrey Dahmer thing came up, and I explained this very common phenomenon: that almost everyone seems to have some connection to Dahmer.

"I'LL say!" said a voice loudly from the back. There was a parent, who had dropped in to pick up his kid (it was the final period so school was now letting out). I stared at him a bit, as he seemed familiar. Then burst out laughing. John was an old friend from my hometown! I hadn't seen him in years. Last I heard he was living in Chicago. Turns out he was now in kent, and his kid was a senior and studied MFD. Not only was John, who was a few years ahead of me at Revere High School, very familiar with all the antics and stories recounted in MFD, he grew up in Jeff's neighborhood! You could heave a fottball from John's front yard and hit the Dahmer property. What's more, his sister was in my class... and was the editor of the senior yearbook, who had the unhappy task of fending off attempts by the Dahmer Fan Club to sneak photos of Dahmer into the yearbook! 

Seven Degrees.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Chicago appearance canceled

I had to back out of my talk and appearance this coming weekend, June 14-16, at the Chicago Alternative Komix Expo (CAKE) for personal reasons. I was really looking forward to it, so this is a bummer, but it can't be helped.

If you're anywhere near Chicago and are a comix fan, it's an event I highly recommend. CAKE is quickly becoming the indy comix fest in the Midwest and there's a full slate of pretty amazing events, as well as the expo itself, featuring several hundred top creators. Check it out. Hopefully, you'll see me there in 2014.

Friday, June 7, 2013

At the House

Last week I attended a fundraiser at Jeff's boyhood home.

This is probably indefensibly tasteless, but I'll go ahead and defend it nonetheless.

As I've mentioned before, a friend of mine bought the Dahmer house back in 2007, the one I depict in MFD and where Jeff killed his first victim. This was an incredible stroke of luck for me as a writer, as it gave me access to the house. I hadn't set foot in this place since high school, at that point 30 years earlier. So I was able to sketch out the interior space and views out the windows and research this major setting in the story, none of which would have been possible otherwise.

The guy who bought the house is a rock star. Chris Butler is his name and he best known as the founder and songwriter of the seminal Eighties punky band, The Waitresses. I've gotten to know him over the past decade or so and done some work for his other band, the artpunk outfit from the same era, Tin Huey. So I've visited this house many times, for reasons other than My Friend Dahmer. It's always a little bit weird, to be perfectly frank. 

Back to the fundraiser. The Cleveland area is blessed with some of the best college radio in the country. In fact, college radio was pioneered here as much as it was anywhere. One of the long-dominant stations is WRUW, owned and operated by Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  Case is a brainiac school, particularly for sciences like genetic eyeball design and other things I have no hope of even remotely comprehending. It's also affiliated with nearby music and art institutes in a vibrant area of town known as University Circle, so it enjoys an extremely high hipster factor. Thus, WRUW has always been on the front edge of underground music. This doesn't matter as much as it once did, thanks to the intertube, but from 1980 to 2000, college radio was a vital cog in the music world, especially as commercial radio became ever more corporate. I can't even imagine how much college radio I've listened to over the years. It's on (still) all day long while I work in my studio. Anyone who has read my previous book, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, knows how important music is to me.

So because WRUW is commercial free it relies totally on university support and listener donations to keep going. Several times a year, WRUW has fund drives. One of my favorite shows is Erie Effusion, a retro Eighties show that I often listen to on Sunday evenings while working in my studio. DJ Bridget, who knows both me and Butler, arranged for a visit to the Dahmer house for the top donors to her program. I agreed to make an appearance and talk about the book. It's a worthy cause and one near and dear to me. That was my rationale and I offer no apologies. 

Now this is great, creepy fun for the winners. I get that. But, of course, a young man was also brutally killed and butchered here, and I get that, too. I was respectful during my talk. I don't make Dahmer jokes, not anywhere, but especially not here. The murder of Steven Hicks in this house, Jeff's first victim, haunts me. Mainly because I was so close to it. It happened just two weeks after our high school graduation, and I was still in town, and often in Jeff's neighborhood, hanging out with other friends. It was also so random. This wasn't like Jeff's other murders, which were carefully plotted. This one just happened. It could have been anyone. It could have been me. 

Hicks, age 19, was thumbing his way home from a daytime rock concert at Chippewa Lake Park, an old (and shortly to close) amusement park in the middle of Amish country in rural Medina County, due west of Akron. Hicks attended a kick-off-the-summer concert with some popular local bands. It’s about fifteen miles as the crow flies from Chippewa Lake to Coventry, the Akron suburb where Hicks lived with his parents, through what was then farmland, but the most likely route on well-trafficked roads would be more like thirty miles. Hicks was trying to get a ride to his house due south of downtown Akron and got as far as the Summit Mall on Akron's western border. This was a frequent cruising strip for Revere HIgh School kids like me, with the mall, several theaters, pizza joints, and a drive-in restaurant that was Revere’s unofficial hangout. Dahmer was driving around out of boredom, passed Hicks, then, on a whim, stopped and picked him up. Hicks was a typical Seventies stoner. By all accounts he was affable and well-liked. He wasn't a troubled kid, he just liked to party and hang out and listen to rock music. I knew 50 kids just like him. Dahmer lured him back to his house with an offer of pot. Steven never made it home.

At the gathering, I was talking to Butler about ghosts. It's widely believed in my hometown that the Dahmer house is haunted. Frequently, carloads of teenagers pull into the driveway and then quickly back out. I'm not a spooky type and don't believe in ghosts, but if there were a phantasm at this house, it isn't Jeff. After all, he wasn't killed here, he was murdered in Wisconsin prison. The only ghost that would be lingering around the Dahmer house would be Steven Hicks.

So if Hicks is there, he's probably a pretty happy ghost, because Butler has filled that house with music., and Steven dug music. Butler had frequent jams with fellow musicians, and the rec room, where Jeff initially attacked Hicks, was full of guitars and musical equipment. Whatever bad karma was there has been driven away with music, or so I believe. Isn't that what music does?

I'm covering a lot of ground with this explanation, and maybe it doesn't make any sense at all, but I felt I should make my case. Some will bash me for it, as they bash me for making My Friend Dahmer.  So be it. 

MFD video!

Here's a nifty video my publisher put together to advertise the book. Pretty cool, no?