If you read alt-weeklies in the ‘90s and ‘oughts, John “Derf” Backderf’s comic The City may well have been on your radar. Over its 24-year lifespan, it ran in 140 papers in all, peaking at 75 at once in the late ‘90s, including the late, lamented Cleveland Free Times, at which he and I were co-workers. Of course that publishing sector is gasping for air now, and Derf has moved on from it to an edifying afterlife: he’s retired the weekly strip, and like many cartoonists, he’s moved into web-comics, and he’s had great success creating graphic novels.
In 2008, Derf released the acclaimed Punk Rock and Trailer Parks, an account of being a young punk in Akron during the halcyon days of weirdomusic in Northeast Ohio. But his magnum opus so far is 2012’s My Friend Dahmer. You see, future cartoonist Derf was high school pals with future cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and his portrait of his onetime friend’s teen years is affecting, disturbing, compelling, deeply human, and just bottomlessly sad. Derf depicts behaviors in the teenaged Dahmer that we’d all recognize today as HUGE RED FLAGS that he was going to turn out seriously broken, but in the early ‘70s could be and were hand-waved as mere weirdness. It was nominated for basically all of the awards, and was named one of Time‘s top five non-fiction books of the year.
Both Punk Rock and Trailer Parks and My Friend Dahmer have been translated into French, which has given Derf a chance to travel to France for promo appearances and exhibits. For one of those exhibits, he drew some wonderful tributes to Joey and Johnny Ramone, and they’ve been made into t-shirts which are available through Birdcage Bottom Books. Also available to the discerning Derf aficionado is this shirt, which may or may not bear a (totally unintentional) resemblance to Lester Bangs (or not), available from publisher SLG Comics.