Monday, September 16, 2013

The Clubhouse

My Friend Dahmer opens with a very powerful, and unsettling, scene in Dahmer's clubhouse in the woods. 

This particular episode was recounted many times in the media. The clubhouse, which Jeff always called "The Hut" was where he kept his road kill collection. The carcasses were stored in pickle jars full of some kind of liquid (he bragged that it was acid, but more likely it was either some household chemical or plain water). By the time he was 12, there were several dozen of these jars, neatly arranged on wooden shelves that covered the inside walls of The Hut. It was the first manifestation of the dark thoughts and urges that were gurgling in the crankcase oil of his brain.

I initially heard of this episode (and I won't give it away here) when I first met Jeff in junior high. It was part of Dahmer's schoolyard legend. Eastview Junior High was where the contents of the district's three elementary schools came together for the first time. So roughly 70 percent of the kids were complete strangers. The result was a cruel hormonal scrum as kids elbowed and clawed their way to their spot in the social hierarchy. There was a lot of gossip, and the Bath Elementary kids, who had known Dahmer since 3rd grade, all had tales of how weird he was. Soon, the tale of Jeff's clubhouse and his jars of roadkill were known to all. It was an episode that cemented his rep as a bizarre freak and sent him straight to the bottom of the social ladder.

When I wrote this book, there was no doubt I would start with this scene. It fit perfectly in the timeline, the summer before the start of junior high, and it's a very visual scene that afforded me the chance to make a big artistic statement right from the get go.

This scene had been recounted before in newspaper and magazine accounts. It was not something that I uncovered during my research. But, in those articles, It was always just a short paragraph, and never captured the true creepiness of what went on there. This is, of course, the power of comix. I could recreate this scene in a way that a reporter could not. 

The ruin of the clubhouse, in 1992

Now when the story exploded in 1992 and there was a mad scramble to cover it, I was working as a staff artist at the Akron Beacon Journal. Bath, our hometown, was a rural suburb of Akron, so the Beacon was the paper of record. At the time, it was a very fine paper, one that won a Pulitzer every five years or so. It was well-positioned to "own" this story, and indeed did just that. And, of course, by sheer dumb luck I was on staff, with all my knowledge and contacts and memories, and worked hand in hand with the reporters covering the unfolding story. The clubhouse episode was first reported there, based on my information, and then was quickly picked up by media worldwide, who just lifted it from the Beacon article, or re-reported it on their own. When the reporter on the police beat first went to Dahmer's House, using his contacts to get through the police tape that ringed the property and get a private tour, I told him to be on the lookout for Jeff's clubhouse. He found it. The above photo is all of it that remained in 1992, 20 years after the scene in my book took place. A pile of rotten rubble, strangely mirroring Jeff's own life.

Most kids in the country had a similar clubhouse. I had one. I used to build my own in the woods around my house from pilfered scrap lumber. My dad would find them eventually, proclaim them "eyesores" and tear them down, giving me and my brother a tongue lashing in the process. Finally he had my grandfather, a carpenter, build us one. It still stands, as a storage shed for lawn equipment. 

Jeff's dad built his clubhouse, around 1970. What did it look like? Well, I had only a few clues. I guessed it was probably constructed like my clubhouse, from 2x4s and plywood. Popular magazines like Boy's Life regularly printed plans for constructing such structures. In fact, the interior in the book IS my clubhouse. I made sketches there for this scene. I didn't have much to go on from the picture of the ruin itself, except that it had a flat roof, which you can see in the photo. Mine had a pitched roof. I also wasn't sure where its exact location was on the Dahmer property. By the time I started working on the book in earnest and had access to the house and property, this pile of rubble was no where to be seen. So I guessed, based on a visual survey of the lot. Where would I build a clubhouse? Mea culpa: I guessed wrong.

The Dahmer property is one of the most dramatic, and unusual, in town. The house is shoehorned onto a very steep hill. The above side view shows it. This is looking down the driveway. I've removed the stand-alone garage here, which sits in front and blocks out half the house. The hillside is dotted with huge boulders, remnants of the Ice Age glaciers. At the bottom of the heavily wooded hill is a large pond, more an algae-ridden mire. I thought the clubhouse must be down that hill somewhere, and that's where I drew it. In fact, it was at the top of hill above the house, as I picture here in the diagram, where the terrain flattens out!

The view from Jeff's clubhouse.
I discovered this just last year, after the book had been released. I had arranged with the guy who lives there to give my filmmaker a tour. The tenant, as you can imagine, was also interested in my account. It's a damn strange place to live! I had asked him before about the clubhouse, but he didn't know where it was. As I was describing what remained of it in 1992, he blurted out "Waitaminute! I know where that is!" Turns out all that remained was the plywood roof, covered in asphalt shingles. All the other rotting rubble had been cleared away by the previous owner. The current resident used that roof to pile brush. He took us right to the spot. We pulled back the brush  and there it was. As always, a very creepy discovery.

The brush pile and flat terrain looking down toward the house

You can just make out the roof under the brush pile.

But a frustrating one. It would have been much more visually dynamic to have drawn the clubhouse in its correct spot. From this ridge, a kid could actually jump onto the Dahmer's roof! It was another example of Jeff's bizarre endeavors taking place, in this case, right on top of the family home. To be fair, when Lionel Dahmer got wind of this incident, he grilled Jeff about his strange hobby, and the scientific value of it, of which Lionel could see none, despite Jeff's insistence that scientific curiosity was his sole motivation. Jeff then disposed of his roadkill collection and abandoned his clubhouse. Lionel thought that was the end of it. Far from it. Jeff established a new, secret spot, deep in the vast, thick woods across the street, where he took his roadkill finds. He didn't store them in jars anymore. He dissected them and fondled the organs and became sexually aroused. And took another big step toward the edge of the abyss.

In my defense, when I asked one of the neighborhood kids who participated in the scene, if I had gotten it right, despite the wrong location, he said "Yeah. You pretty much nailed it." 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

More artwork from the Dahmer Fan Club

As I've written before, I spent much of high school hunched over a drawing board or sketchpad. Here I am (above) elbow deep in another drawing. Nice shirt. Right off the Horrific Polyester Seventies rack at Montgomery Ward. 

I was an honor student, but not exactly driven to excel academically. I put forth enough effort to get B's, or A's if it didn't require too much work. But I avoided advanced classes (outside of art, music or theater). I knew what I wanted to do since I was 8 years old, and that was to make comix. Everything else was a waste of time. 

But in art classes, I wanted to make comix and little else. This didn't sit to well with my art teachers, who were fairly old school types that believed in "foundation" work: watercolors, pottery, life drawing and such. I gritted my teeth and ground out class assignments for the first three years of high school, but by the time I was a senior, I'd had it with this boring crap. I filled that school with images in the 1978 school year, but none of it was "approved." Posters, cartoons, goofball drawings... I would hang things in the hall just to provoke and confuse, purely for my own amusement. Cartoons that I drew for the school paper and yearbook were totally indecipherable. Many, of course, starred my cartoon Dahmer.

Here's (above) the class assignment that broke me. Our painting teacher sent us out into the neighboring woods, the very spot where Jeff would secretly drink between classes, to collect sticks to paint. We spent an entire semester painting sticks. Sticks! When I complained loudly about the value of this, my teacher banished me from the art room! I spent the rest of the year drawing in the library (with Jeff at the same table!) during that period.

Below is a character sheet for a comix story I wrote in 1978. The script, if there was one, is long gone. It was a spoof of a hard-boiled detective story, ala Chandler or Spillane, and all the characters were based on my friends. 

The character here that really pops out, of course, is "Father Dahmer," the neighborhood priest! I discovered this long-forgotten piece in a box of high school drawings stashed under my mother's basement stairs, as I was engaged in the herculean task of cleaning out her basement of 50 years of accumulation. I thought I had uncovered all my Dahmer artifacts years earlier, but here was a trove of drawings and memorabilia. Like all these discoveries, chills ran up and down my spine as I looked through this stuff.

When I saw this drawing, I burst out laughing in disbelief. Father Dahmer???? Good gawd. It was just a goofball riff when I drew it, but now it was creepy and surreal. Keep in mind, this is likely drawn from life, too. I'm sure I was staring at him as I drew his face.

The other characters are mostly based on members of the Dahmer Fan Club. The lead character here, Boris Murgerski, Private Dick (can't recall where that name came from), was based on Kent. And these three, below, are myself, Neil and Mike (l-r). I prettied myself up a bit here. I was far more hideous and emaciated, trust me. 

The art teachers, for their part, hammered me for my "bad attitude." I received a D my senior year. When small scholarships were handed out at the end of the year, I was passed over. It was the price I paid for being an obstinate butthead. I could have, after all, given them what they wanted and reaped the benefits of playing nice. I could have painted stick after stick during school hours, then done my own work at home. But if I had, I wouldn't have strange and wonderful pieces like this. In the end, it didn't matter. I've gone on to a long career doing exactly what my art teachers didn't think was "legitimate" art. I'd be lying, however, if I said it still doesn't bug me. And that makes me laugh. Funny how this high school shit sticks with you.

I never forgave those teachers. On one of the last days of school, I went into the art room to clean out my file drawer. The room was empty, save for a few underclassman and one of the teachers. As I was gathering up my drawings of sticks etc, she shook her head and said "You were our biggest disappointment." I glared at her and said nothing. As I left, I dramatically dumped the armload of artwork into the big dumpster by the door. I never saw her or spoke to her again.

She passed away years ago. Wonder what she would have made of My Friend Dahmer? Would it have changed her mind about me and my work? Ha. probably not!

Curiously, that painting of the stick was in the same box with the Dahmer drawing, squirreled away under the basement stairs.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mon Ami Dahmer

This just in. Mon Ami Dahmer, the French translation of my book, which has been both a critical and commercial hit in France and Belgium, has been nominated for the graphic novel prize at the prestigious Quai des Bulles festival in Southern France.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

My Friend Dahmer and... Celine Dion?

The boys at the hilarious 90 Percent Hits podcast give a shout out to MFD.

90 Percent Hits is devoted to the worst earworms from the most vile popstars of our age: Bryan Adams, Sting, Celine, etc. It's a funny read.

Play the above video at your peril! Below is a transcript of the podcast. 

Celine Dion - The Power Of Love (#1s)

In 1971, Charmaine West was killed by her stepmother Rosemary in Gloucester, while her father Fred was in prison. Charmaine was likely killed after Rosemary, already an erratic and aggressive woman prone to rages, flew into a fit of violence as her frustration boiled over whilst playing the parent to Fred’s two girls from a previous marriage. Fred had already begun his life of depravity after killing his ex-wife and girlfriend in a similar rage a few years earlier. No-one knew about that at this point though, as he was in prison for a separate theft offence.

So it is with the first kill - turbulent, clumsy, impulsive and reactive. John Backderf observes this brilliantly in his graphic novel My Friend Dahmer as well - Jeffrey Dahmer awkwardly circles a few potential victims, backing out or cocking it up each time. It’s just an urge and an impulse he understands dimly at this stage.

The Wests and Dahmer of course went on to kill many in such a sadistic, horrifying manner that words rightly would fail one trying to convey just how ghastly it all was. Their killing became highly orchestrated, the blind furies and impulsiveness replaced by organisation, calculation and a bent for psychological torture so horrendous it’s a wonder any of us can sleep at night in the knowledge that any of this could have happened.

Which brings us to David Foster and Celine Dion - the Fred and Rosemary West of popular music. ‘The Power of Love’ is criminal. It’s a braying, overwrought cacophony of such extravagant ‘tenderness’ it makes your bowels quiver in horror at the sound its first bars. Dion’s phrasing of ‘I hold onto your body’ can only move one to upchuck, and has the same shuddering creepiness of Richard Nixon’s head’s description of his ‘good solid Republican body’ on Futurama. The karaoke backing track, the conflation of the physical exertion of singing with the power of the emotion being sung, the sheer vapidness of the lyrics. It’s perfectly hideous.

But, the thing is, we know what’s to come. We know of the out-and-out psychological torture and dismembering of all that’s good and true about music that this pair would engage in. At this stage, they just wanted to write a horrible, over-the-top song weighed down by so many fee-fees Oprah herself would object and bitchslap them back into 1982 like Moe from the Three Stooges. This song is awful, but it’s a classic first kill: there’s nothing systematic in its awfulness, there’s no real method, no expression of a vast and overinflated ego looking to impose itself on the world without regard for others. Foster and Dion just wanted to write a love song that was merely shit. The desire to raze the entirety of Western culture to the ground in one sequence of thundering vibrato notes would come later, and they would do it with so much more gusto and conviction than this.

So, as awful as this song is, one can only listen to it as a harbinger now; a warning of what was to come if any of us were smart enough to see. But, as bad as it is, nothing in this song suggests that it could possibly get any worse. But get worse it could, and lord knows none of us could see how many fathoms Foster and Dion would scrape in their depth-plumbing in the years to come.


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rave review of Mein Freund Dahmer...

... in the Comicreview Deutschland podcast!

Hey, I speak German , so it's a thrill.