Dammit! Derf! Derf! John Backderf—the best cartoonist in America.
Turns out John Backderf is, arguably, the most fascinating Quaz in a series of fascinating Quazes. Not only has his dazzling syndicated comic strip, “The City,” appeared in more than 140 publications, but (in 2006) he won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for cartooning.
Which isn’t even half the story. Back in the day, while attending Eastview Junior High and Revere High School, Derf’s classmate/friend was the one and only Jeffrey Dahmer. Some people turn this sort of experience into a song, or a diary entry, or bury it deep, deep inside. Derf, however, turned it into a comic, “My Friend Dahmer” and then a 224-page book that Time Magazine named one of its five best of 2012.
Here, Derf talks creative genius and Dahmer craziness and why his hometown of Richfield, Ohio is the bomb (or, perhaps, should be bombed. Hard to tell these things). One can visit Derf’s site here.
John Backderf, welcome to Quazville …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, this first question is going to start as a statement then, hopefully, evolve.
So when I was a senior at the University of Delaware in 1994, I was editor of the student newspaper, The Review. We did an April Fool’s issue, with front-page stories like SNOOP DOGG EXCITED TO ADDRESS BITCHES AT COMMENCEMENT and MIDGETS FIGHT TO TAKE OVER NEWARK. (We had an old photo sitting around of an, ahem, short-stature former UD student, so we placed a football player’s head over his body and ran the photo. Well, the guy’s mom still lived in town, and she called and threatened to have the Little People of America picket outside our offices. I was psyched and thrilled and elated). A teacher told me I should be ashamed, and that 10 years down the road I’d be ashamed. Well, 18 years have passed, and I look at that as one of the great creative experiences of my life. I don’t regret it—I fucking cherish it.
Derf, you seem like a guy who’s been told a million times how you can’t do this, can’t write that, etc. How have you managed to resist the pressure and restrictions? And do you believe that willingness to say, “This is what I’m doing—period” has given you a career others perhaps want, but don’t know how to attain?
JOHN BACKDERF: I was born obstinate. Right from the start, this has been an artistic trait. In high school, I got a D in art my senior year, because I drew too many comix and not enough “real” art. I could have given the teachers what they wanted, punched out still lifes and portraits and drawings of sticks (Really. That was the big assignment in painting class. A portfolio of fucking sticks!). I could have drawn comix at home or on the side. I was doing that anyways. But no. Instead I dug in my heels and fought them. So I got a D and got stiffed on scholarships. I learned nothing from this experience.
When it comes to my comix, I’ve always wanted to draw what I want, how I want, and have never compromised on that. Sounds heroic, but, y’know, you pay a price for that. I’ve been marginalized for most of my career, consigned to this indy-alt-underground ghetto. Particularly as a comic strip creator. I never rose above cult status, and that made me easily dismissed and somewhat disposable. Especially in the eyes of the Lords of Media in New York City. I was just some indy rube from Cleveland and a lot of doors were slammed in my face, or never even cracked open in the first place.
That’s changed with the success of my graphic novels. My books have gotten the widespread attention that my strip never achieved. What that tells me, is that I should have gone into graphic novels in the first place! I thought about it. Back in 1990, it was the peak of both indy comic books and the free weekly newspapers. I chose the papers. I chose poorly.
I have a comparable tale to yours, also from college. My last year as the cartoonist for The Lantern, the student paper at Ohio State University, I drew an infamous cartoon about Art Schlichter, who had been the star quarterback and was thrown out of the NFL halfway through his rookie year for gambling. Schlichter sang on his bookie to escape felony prosecution and I drew a strip that had him getting capped, Soprano style. Shit, you would have thought I drew a cartoon about the Pope getting a blowjob from an altar boy! THOUSANDS of phone calls, hundreds of angry letters. When I walked into the newsroom that morning, the besieged staffers pelted me balls of paper. I got phone threats at home all night long and chewed out by sorority girls in class. Local sycophant sportscasters demanded I be thrown out of the university. The athletic director called for me to be banned from the paper. Woody Hayes, fired as coach but still teaching on campus, ranted about me in class. People even yelled at me as I crossed the campus green (still don’t know how they knew who I was). It got so hot, I actually fled town for a couple days until tempers cooled. I stayed, and cartooned, for another couple quarters, but I was never forgiven.
I look back on it now as a triumph. Not that I bashed Schlichter, who has spent much of the past several decades in and out of prison on various gambling convictions and is now a pitiful wretch who has lost absolutely everything, but that I publicly flipped off the multi-million-dollar jock-o-stocracy of Ohio State. You can question the brains of someone who’d draw a cartoon bashing a football star at a football factory like that, but not the cajones. And after experiencing that at a young age, criticism just bounces off my scaly hide.
J.P.: You grew up in Ohio and attended junior high and high school with Jeffrey Dahmer—hence, your two books on the subject. I like that you paint a notorious serial killer in a something empathetic light, and you’ve referred to him as a “tragic” figure. But I’m wondering—how does one have empathy for a dude who killed 17 people and, eh, ate many of them? And, since we’re here, what made you first think, “You know what’d be a great comic! Dahmer!”
J.B.: I didn’t know Jeffrey Dahmer the serial killer. I only knew Jeff, the weird, troubled kid who I went to school with. I wouldn’t say the book is infused with any kind of empathy toward him. I state it very clearly that once he starts to kill, which occurred mere weeks after our friendship ended, that he richly deserved his brutal end. Dahmer made the choice, and it was a choice, whether it was inevitable or not, to kill and keep on killing. He stated later he was haunted by that first murder, but he could have ended it at any time. He could have turned himself in. He could have stuck a gun in his mouth. He didn’t. He was a coward. He was so blind with fear that his crime would be discovered, he basically turned this poor kid to powder. Dahmer erased every trace of him, and the poor Hicks family had no clue what happened to their son for 13 years. What did Dahmer have to live for after that? His life was misery from that day on. But he didn’t have the guts to end it. He couldn’t even get that right.
What I do attempt in the book, and this is controversial enough in some circles, is to humanize the Jeff I knew. I don’t think we do ourselves any favors when we write people off as monsters, because with that comes an out. He was a monster. It was inevitable that he did what he did. Well, I don’t think it was inevitable and I’m not willing to let those who dropped the ball, essentially all the adults in Jeff’s life, off the hook.
As for why I wrote this book, the answer is simply: I’m a storyteller. It’s what I do. And this story just fell from the sky and dropped in my lap. How could I not tell it? I made it as a comic because that’s how I tell stories. If I had been an opera composer, there’d be a My Friend Dahmer opera!
J.P.: How do you, as an artist and cartoonist, measure your success? Is it financial? Influence? Both? None of the above?
J.B.: It better not be financial. I don’t worry much about influence. Can’t say I ever thought in those terms. I think in terms of audience, how many papers my strip appeared in at any given time, how many books I sold, because that means people are reading my work. That’s what it’s all about. We all write to be read.
J.P.: Soup to nuts, what is the writing process like for you? I mean, literally, an idea enters your mind—where do you go from there? How do you take a thought and turn it into a reality?
J.B.: It depends on the project. My Friend Dahmer was meticulously (some would say ridiculously) researched non-fiction. It started with that research and a timeline of the six years the story covers. My degree is in journalism, believe it or not, and this the first project where I fully used those learned skills. Once I was comfortable that timeline was complete, then I sat down and blocked in the story, very quickly, as in a matter of weeks.
The previous book, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks was fiction, and I started that project with my main character, Otto. I’m not entirely sure where I conjured him up from, but he arrived fairly complete. At that point, the story just kind of wrote itself, because whatever scene I plugged Otto into, that scene evolved based on how he reacted to the situation. That was great and a lot of fun.
Now my first book, Trashed, that is straight memoir, the tale of my career as a garbageman. I’d been carrying around these stories, and re-telling them many times over the years, usually at dinner parties to obnoxiously gross out my friends. So that was the easiest book of all of them to write, basically just illustrating the stories I’d told many, many times.
The comic strip, that’s an entirely different animal. That’s much harder to write. The hardest thing is deciding what to write about every week. Sometimes it’s a little short story, I label them True Stories, things that I observe in my travels about the city, and those are a breeze. Most weeks it’s something topical. usually what happens is a punchline will pop into my head, either as I’m reading or thinking about something. And once I have that, I write the strip backwards from the punchline, pacing the panels to lead to the walk off.
J.P.: Is it true that your first cartoon was of your naked sixth grade teacher for a friend with a boner? And, beyond that, how did you get into the business? Like, what in your life lead you down the path? When was the moment when you realized, “I’m really good at this”?
J.B.: My first paid cartoon. I got $2, as memory serves. I can’t remember my first cartoon. I have copies of some I did in second grade, so that would be six or seven years old. My mother remembers the first time she noticed I had talent was around 4 or so. So I honestly don’t remember not drawing. And it was always comics or cartoons.
My professional life started in college, on the school newspaper at Ohio State. I began submitting cartoons just because I thought it would be fun. They were just fucking awful, but pretty soon I was doing four or five a week, getting paid for them, getting attention, both good and bad, for them, and it just kind of steamrolled from there.
J.P.: How does someone with your job not go completely insane? What I mean is, it seems like artists—much akin to writers—spend most of their hours deep within their own brains—sans co-workers; sans secretaries or copy boys or the day-to-day banter that fills the cracks. I mean, I can’t imagine how many hours you’ve spent alone, drawing and writing.
J.B.: I dunno, I’ve never been that good at dealing with a real job, in an office setting. I don’t know what it is, but I invariably blundered face first into office politics. I’m much better working alone in my unheated attic studio. I’ve been doing that for 13 years now. I doubt I could work in an office again. I’d have to put on pants and all.
Besides most modern offices I’ve been in lately are as quiet as the grave, just people staring silently at computer screens. Particularly newsrooms. The old days of thundering typewriters and editors screaming at copy-boys are long gone, as is the energy that atmosphere created.
J.P.: What has been the absolute greatest moment of your career? The lowest of the low?
J.B.: The greatest? Hard to pick just one. I suppose I’d have to go with the day The City debuted in the Cleveland Edition in May 1990. Because that changed everything for me. I walked down to a nearby coffee shop and there was a stack of the papers, with my comic stripped across the front page. I just sat there awhile watching people crack open the paper, read my strip and chuckle. I had finally found my voice, after years of work and struggle, and to have it launch and know that it was good, and be an immediate hit and to hear people talking about it around town … I’ve had more widespread success, to be sure, and achieved bigger things than being printed in a struggling Cleveland weekly, but man that was a rush I’ve never forgotten.
The lowest of the low was getting fired from my first professional cartooning gig five years earlier. I landed a job as the political cartoonist at a crappy daily in South Florida. Horrible paper, read by virtually no one, but I was easily the best thing in the rag and I figured it would be a launch pad to a more prestigious paper, an eventual syndicate deal, fame and fortune and multiple Pulitzers.
In came a new editor who loathed my stuff from Day One. He wanted me to conform to his narrow concept of what a good cartoon was, and that is something I’ve never tolerated. Dude didn’t know shit about cartoons. A couple months of hell ensued and then one day he ordered me to his office and fired me for, as he put it, “general tastelessness.” That was the first big slap down of my career. Before that, it was a straight upward trajectory. But even that proved to be boon. Because it convinced me to get the hell out of that biz, to scrap everything, start experimenting and try something different. After all, if I was going to get sacked, I might as well go down doing stuff I liked. I can’t imagine where I’d be now if I had stuck with political cartoons.
J.P.: You’ve won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism award for editorial cartooning. This strikes me, somewhat, like the time Eminem won an Academy Award. Guys like you just don’t hit me as award-winning types. Am I off here? And do awards mean anything to you? Honors and such?
J.B.: Turns out it was quite a controversial selection. I never got the full story, but they way it works with the RFK is that there are 3-person juries for each category. They make their selection, and then a board of big-shots checks off and the award announced. This is usually a rubber stamp, unlike the Pulitzers, where juries are often overruled by the big-shot board who want to funnel Pultizers to their buddies and/or the publications that matter to them. As a result, the RFK has a deserved reputation for rewarding cartoonists outside the mainstream. Well, the chief big shot, a well-known personality from the Lehrer News Hour, put the brakes on my selection. He hated my cartoons and demanded the jury pick another winner. They refused. This went back and forth until apparently the jury threatened to resign if I didn’t receive the RFK! At this point, Ethel Kennedy herself stepped in and overruled Mr. News Hour and the award was mine. I had no clue this had occurred, until I met the jury at the ceremony in DC and heard some of it. In fact, Mr. News Hour refused to acknowledge me in any way during the evening. I remember thinking, “What’s his problem?” The upshot of this is that he’s still there and I’ve never bothered to enter the RFK since.
It’s nice to get awards. I don’t live for it, but we all like acclaim.
J.P.: Like me, you’re involved in a business—newspapers—that’s just crumbling by the hour. How will this impact you? Hell, how HAS it impacted you? Do you have to think about things differently? Your approach? Your goals? Your finances?
J.B.: Aw, my newspaper career is pretty much over. I knew that right after I won the RFK and lost about half my client papers in roughly six months. What this drove home, very clearly, was that it didn’t matter that I was doing good work. It just didn’t fucking matter. Newspapers were tossing overboard everything they could to stay afloat a little longer. Whether you were good or bad didn’t enter into the decision. It was just a budget line. When something reaches that tipping point, its doom is insured. That’s when I began focusing most of my energies on graphic novels. before the RFK, I was a strip cartoonist who dabbled in graphic novels. After the RFK, I was a graphic novelist who dabbled in comic strips.
Looking back, I probably should have shuttered the strip way back in 2000. That’s the year Craigslist went national and instantly sucked the ad revenue out of free weeklies. That was the end, coupled with the mind-boggling incompetence of the people who have ridden the weekly biz into the tar pit. Nothing demonstrates that more then the almost total elimination of comix from these rags. It was the comix that first put them on the map. They either forgot that, or never accepted that, or resented that, or whatever, but at some point they collectively decided that no one wanted to read comix anymore. Except, of course, for the TENS OF MILLIONS who read comix every day! It’s hard to deal with people who think like this.
There are still a few enlightened owners and editors who know comix are important. I still draw the strip for them, and because, when it’s all said and done, I like doing it. Everything I have achieved, I owe to that little strip.
J.B.: Please. I’ve stared down death twice now. First with cancer, then again a few years later when the radiation damage from cancer treatments required emergency open-heart surgery. I don’t have time for poetic, nihilistic ponderings. After each tussle with mortality, I responded with a major work, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks after cancer, My Friend Dahmer after surgery. Turn shit into gold. Work ’til you die.
A brush with death changes you. I don’t worry about long-term plans. It’s all about my schedule this week, and what’s on my drawing board right now. Everything around my heart has been re-plumbed or replaced. I could keel over dead in the middle of typing this paragraph………… OK, that didn’t happen. I don’t worry about it and I’m not going to waste however long I have left fretting about the inevitable. That’s why this year was so much fun, traveling around from book fest to comic con to store signings, meeting and greeting folks in different cities. I loved every minute of it and lived each and every experience as much as I could. As Warren Zevon so eloquently said in his last public appearance before he succumbed to lung cancer, “Enjoy every sandwich.”
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details: Nope.
• Five favorite Ramones songs?: 1. Blitzkrieg Bop 2. I Want You Around 3. The KKK Took My Baby Away 4. Bonzo Goes to Bitburg 5. Teenage Lobotomy.
• Celine Dion calls and offers you $100 million, but you have to A: Provide the seed for her next child; B. Change your name to Celine Dion’s Bitch Boy No. 7; C. watch an endless loop of Tempest Bledsoe’s talk show for three months; D. Only eat yogurt for a year. You in?: I’d do Celine. I bet she’s a freaky slut.
• Three favorite curse words: 1. Fuck 2. Jesus Fucking Christ 3. Bollockicky buggery motherfuckers.
• Five reasons to make Richfield, Ohio your next vacation destination: 1. The town boasts two biker bars; 2. I give one hell of a Dahmer Tour; 3. The adjacent Cuyahoga Valley National Park has a fast-growing population of coyotes; 4. To revel in the post-election misery of the many local Teabaggers; 5. Revere High School is staging “Mamma Mia” this year.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Family Circus, B&G Pickles, Vanilla Coke Zero, Kyrie Irving, bandanas, the Cincinnati Bengals’ helmets, Charlie Brown, candy-canes, happy bunnies, Notorious BIG, John Oates, LaToya Jackson, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”: It is not possible to do so.
• Four details from the worst date you ever had?: Bad Chicago-style pizza. A near-empty dance club in Columbus, Ohio. Home by 10. She started dating one of my friends the next day.
• If roses smelled like shit and shit smelled like roses, would we like the smell of roses or shit?: I was a garbageman. One of our weekly stops was at the local kennel, where dozens of small, strangely heavy bags awaited on the roadside. The smell of shit doesn’t even register with me.
• The best pen you ever owned was …: Rotring Rapidoliners. Nice points, good ink in easy refillable cartridges, never clogged. Fuck, I miss those pens.
• Given the chance, what would you ask Christian Okoye?: Do you know Art Schlichter?