Hauling Garbage and Knowing Jeffrey Dahmer

  • Share
  • Read Later
Since most comix artists lead lives sitting behind a drawing board, the best comix autobiography either explores the commonality of our lives, or tells really good anecdotes. Within the last two months the Cleveland-based artist J. Backderf, who signs his work "Derf," has released two outstanding examples of the latter. "Trashed" (Slave Labor Graphics; 48pp.; $6.95) recounts his days as a college-drop-out garbage man. "My Friend Dahmer" (Derfcity Comics; 24pp.; $2.95) tells of Backderf's remarkable high-school relationship with notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The funniest book of the year so far, followed by the creepiest, and it's all true.

Dearest, delicate TIME.comix readers, I must beg your pardon, but to describe "Trashed" as anything other than the ultimate of all "shitty-job" stories would be patronizing and dishonest. What else could you call it when Derf hauls fly-encrusted, sagging baggies from the dog kennels? Told with perfect comic timing the hilariously filthy humiliations pile up. Continually on the lookout for the kind of petty foreman who always makes these jobs that much more intolerable, Derf and crew scrape up road kill, empty out rotted-meat-filled refrigerators, shake maggots out of their hair before lunch, and then watch in horror as they forget to set the parking brake and their truck barrels downhill without them. All the while, with smart storytelling skill Derf moves "Trashed" beyond the merely repulsive. Unlike so many anecdotal autobio comix it has a narrative arc. After a full year of sanitation service Derf and his pal realize that school wasn't so bad after all. "Trash, I hate to admit, made a man out of me," he says.

Just as "Trashed" tops the "shitty job" genre of anecdotes, "My Friend Dahmer" blows away ordinary I-knew-them-when stories. Taking it for granted that you know about Dahmer's crimes, Derf dispenses with them. Instead, with chilling details he provides a personal portrait of the high-school-age Dahmer at exactly the point when he went over the edge, killing his first victim a few months after graduation. As Derf recounts, Dahmer's behavior became increasingly bizarre: faking epileptic seizures, imitating cerebral palsy, drinking six-packs of beer every day before school, and becoming so numb to school-yard abuse that bullies eventually got bored. Unlike "Trashed," Derf does not play this misery for laughs. His normally goofy drawing style, full of oversized heads and knobby knees, gets toned down. The shading gets heavier. But where "Trashed," tells a real story, "My Friend Dahmer," never feels like much more than creepy, weird, Dahmer-iana. It admirably tries to make a point about the price of neglect, but Dahmer's extreme psychosis prevents any reasonable, broadly applicable lesson.

Derf's skill as cartoonist and storyteller make "Trashed" and "My Friend Dahmer" two of the most entertaining autobiographical comix I have ever read. By far the more enjoyable read, "Trashed" rivals Charles Bukowski's novel, "Factotum" for minimum-wage comedy. "Dahmer," on the other hand, has its own sort of disgusting verisimilitude. It turns out that Jeffrey Dahmer once got paid to "act" spastic in a middle-American shopping mall, and did it for two hours to the utter obliviousness of the authorities. You couldn't make this stuff up.

"Trashed," and "My Friend Dahmer," can be found at better comicbook stores or through Derf's website.