My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
First off, yes, it is that Dahmer. Secondly, yes, this book is written and drawn by a man named Derf Backderf.
My Friend Dahmer is much more than just a grisly expose on the teenage life of a future serial killer; it is also a rumination on the culture of 1970's suburbia, where teens were left to their own devices in the wake of divorce or career-minded parents.
Backderf doesn't necessarily explain how an ostracized nerd like Jeffrey Dahmer became the monster he was, but it does try to make sense of the transformation by looking at Dahmer's family situation and his dark sense of humor. The two boys meet in seventh grade. Jeff makes a name for himself as a class clown, but he always pushes the envelope a bit too far into morbid territory.
The book captures the strangeness of social groups in high school. Jeff doesn't really hang out with Derf's clique all that much, but he's good for a laugh. As time progresses though, Derf and his friends find themselves less and less infatuated with Dahmer's antics. The story pulsates with a dark energy as it careens to its inevitable, frightening conclusion.
Backderf's art is heavily influenced by punk rock. Just as that musical movement was a retort to the late Sixties' songs of peace, love and psychedelia, this cartoon's style is aggressive, like Robert Crumb's Mr. Natural after a decade of hard living.
To me, Derf, Jeff, and all of the other kids look like what the Ramones sounded like: goofy, but just a tad sinister. It's a perfect visual fit to such an unsettling glimpse at high school life. It's as beautifully drawn as a story like this could be, and thankfully it always goes to black before we witness anything truly horrific.
Another great comic that documents 1970's suburban high school culture is Black Hole, by Charles Burns. A masterwork in the graphic novel medium, Burns' story is like if Dazed and Confused mutated into a 1950's science fiction flick.
More than anything, My Friend Dahmer mourns the loss of a boy to an apathetic world. Equally gripping and haunting, Mr. Backderf's story is a wholly unique perspective, one that I am glad to be able to view at a comfortable distance.