I never would have picked this up if it hadn’t gotten a lot of buzz for being on three YALSA award lists: Alex Award, Quick Picks for Young Adults, and Great Graphic Novels. I’m very glad I did.
My Friend Dahmer is a terrible, dark story, and is even more horrifying because it is so accessible, even familiar, to those who grew up in a small town with one weird kid in your class. What makes this story scary isn’t what happens, so much as where. It’s unsettling that a place as seemingly peaceful as this town, as your town, could produce a serial killer.
What makes this all the more poignant is that Backderf doesn’t try to sugar-coat his own complacency. He’s very frank about his own relationship with Dahmer. They weren’t exactly friends, because it was impossible to connect with Dahmer. This story very simply explains the complicated social hierarchies that exist in high schools. Even decades later, the landscape doesn’t look all that different.
The story very obviously addresses bullying, teenage alcoholism, animal cruelty/abuse, homosexuality, and mental illness, but the reader is left to draw his own conclusions about the extent these factors contributed to his dark deeds. Through his own memories and meticulous research, Backderf presents the facts but doesn’t assign causality. It’s a tragic and insightful if disturbing portrait of a person that captures the reader’s imagination, even if the subject matter is distasteful.
I don’t have much experience with graphic novels. I usually find it disorienting to try and read the text and interpret the photos. I found Backderf’s style easy to read and engaging, for what it’s worth, but I don’t have much of a frame of reference for comparison.