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"My Friend Dahmer" Premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival: A Conversation With Author Derf


The film version of the graphic novel "My Friend Dahmer" opens tonight at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Author John Backderf went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer, and his book is a recollection of their teen years before Dahmer became a serial killer.

He paints a nuanced portrait of Dahmer’s slow slide into depravity in 1970’s Ohio.

Derf, as he prefers to be called, says visiting the film set added yet another layer of surrealism surrounding his youthful connections to Jeffrey Dahmer who in 1991 was discovered to have killed 17 people.

Derf published his graphic novel "My Friend Dahmer" in 2012, which tells the story of a group of friends at Revere High School who spent time with the young Dahmer, before he became a monster.

The images in Derf’s book portray the goofiness of adolescence set against the brooding menace of the increasingly troubled Dahmer.

John 'Derf' Backderf is a cartoonist and author. He's known for his "The City" strip and graphic novels, "Trashed" and "My Friend Dahmer."

In his blog, Derf recalls visiting the filming of "My Friend Dahmer" last fall at Dahmer’s boyhood home in Bath.

Derf says he liked the sets the film-makers created, “because that was the real life representation of what I drew, pulled off the page.”

Derf says the young actors who portray him and his friends delivered strong performances in the film directed by indie-director Marc Meyers.

“Jeffrey Dahmer is a great role,” says Derf, “and Ross Lynch did a really good job. It’s a very complicated role and he pulls it off pretty well.”

Lynch is known for various appearances on the Disney channel and for co-founding the pop band R5.

“He looks a lot like him,” says Derf.  “He [Lynch] is not as big as Jeff was, but when he snaps into character it’s like, ‘Wow!’  All my friends felt that way too, ‘holy crap, he’s just like Jeff.’”

“It’s a complicated role because you have to show that progression, that steady spiral down as he gets darker and darker, and it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do in a performance.”

“You want to show his humanity, which at some point falls away, but you don’t want to make him sympathetic, because he’s not,” says Derf.

It wasn’t a straight path down to the depths of depravity for Dahmer, according to Derf.  He says the future serial-killer was able to rally at points and act normal, or pretend to act normal. 

Dahmer comic raises serious issues
Derf says he allowed his graphic novel to be made into a film so that it could reach people who would otherwise never crack open a comic book, "and there’s still lots of people like that out there.”

He says it also raises some important issues.

“It’s a story about failure,” says Derf, “particularly in the adult world – his parents, his teachers, the administrators, the cops…pretty much any adult who encountered him dropped the ball.”

Credit DERF
Ross Lynch, left, plays Jeffrey Dahmer, and Alex Wolff plays Derf in the film version of My Friend Dahmer. It premieres this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Dahmer stands out for the gruesome depravity of his crimes, but Derf says the unfortunate truth is that he’s far from alone in the list of American serial killers who exhibited warning signs early on.

“It always has the same traits. There was some problems young in life that were ignored or misdiagnosed or the treatment was half-assed,” says Derf, “this combination of indifference and incompetence results in a pile of bodies.”

“There are lessons there,” he says, “I don’t know if as a society we’re willing to learn them, but it’s worth taking about.”

The main theme of "My Friend Dahmer", says Derf, is the failure in how we treat dysfunctional kids and the mentally ill, and the consequences of those failures.

Lessons learned?
Was Dahmer’s slide into the abyss preventable? 

Probably, says Derf.

“If someone had just stepped up, hopefully one of the adults, I think he could have been stopped before he killed, certainly before he killed so many people.”

“I don’t think he would ever have been normal,” says Derf, “I don’t think he would have been anything other than institutionalized, but that’s something I think Jeff himself would have preferred over the living hell where he wound up.”

“My Friend Dahmer” premieres tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.