Book Review: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

I had an unexpected night off last night so I decided that an "early" night (meaning around midnight) was in order. I finished this new book off that I was reading and fell asleep... The first few hours of that supposedly "good" sleep were plagued with the weirdest borderline nightmare dreams that kept waking me up. Needless to say the last 5 hours of the sleep (5am - 10am) were just lovely. At first this got me thinking that I just can't have a proper sleep unless I fall asleep after 3am, but then I thought back to another time, years ago when I was a watching a documentary about the same subject as the book I finished last night and had the worst nightmares I had ever had... I suppose I should consider this a lesson: don't read or watch anything about Jeffrey Dahmer before going to sleep. (I guess that would be an obvious conclusion to make).

I've never been a big reader of graphic novels, probably because I never made an effort to read any, and wasn't introduced to any by any of my friends when I was younger (apart from Sambre, the collection that I have written about on here before). A few weeks ago I came across a graphic novel display at the bookstore and was drawn to one that was sitting right in the middle: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. Of course I had to pick it up. And buy it. I have no qualms about talking about my long-standing interest in the psyche of serial killers. In my teens I wanted to become a criminal profiler and work for the FBI, or the British or French equivalent (I was already aware of the fact that the US government probably wasn't going to hand me a green card just because I wanted to join the FBI). Of course I never became a criminal profiler (probably for the best - I doubt my mind could have dealt with seeing murders and atrocities on an ongoing basis), but my interest in the minds of killers never really went away. I can't really say I am alone in this either - Criminal Minds is one of the most popular shows on TV!

Anyway, back to the subject at hand. Backderf was at high school with Jeffrey Dahmer and depicts his relationship with him, as well as Jeffrey's home life and school life in an awesome graphic novel, recreating the darkness and boredom felt living in a small town, a school where kids grew together in cliques and where there were always different levels on the social ladder. Backderf tries his best to display Dahmer as a person, an introverted and shy teenager with the tendancy to make others laugh with his freakish behaviour. A loner who had no real friends and who had fantasies and urges he couldn't bear to deal with. We see a Dahmer who spends his days drinking behind the school walls, and no one even noticed it, especially not the teachers or most of the kids. Even those who would speak to him never really saw it as something that they should be worried about - they just moved away from him and left him alone. Nothing really shocking about that though - he had no real close friends and his life at home was dire.

There have been so many books and documentaries that discuss Dahmer's horrific crimes and atrocities, but I think this is the first story I have read that tries to show what he was like before he became the serial killer he was. Backderf does not attempt to make anyone feel bad for the young Dahmer, many people have had shitty childhoods and don't automatically turn into serial killers, but he does succeed in giving a monster a human side. Backderf's drawings are perfect for the dark and gloomy Middle America depressed teen story; sometimes reminding me of a dark, graphic version of Dazed and Confused. A coming of age story with a severe nuclear fall-out. The idea of making a graphic novel out of this story is actually perfect - the images are able to display the exact setting and atmosphere of the time and the place that I doubt any words could, and in the end I feel like it makes the story more profound. It didn't make me feel any more sympathy towards Dahmer, but it did show a side that I doubt many people never knew of him, or didn't remember about him. Interesting read, but not something you probably want to read before you go to sleep. I need to explore the world of graphic novels now - I'm sure there are a whole bunch that I will enjoy.

Books/Graphic Novels: Sambre by Yslaire

Keeping in line with the ongoing French theme of the moment, I suddenly thought about an amazing series of graphic novels that my old friend and one-time roommate Maud had introduced me to years ago. For some reason I have never been all that drawn to graphic novels, or BD as they are called in France (the acronym for "bande déssinée", literally a "drawn strip"). Apart from Tintin (who I absolutely adore) and Asterix, I never really read many graphic novels growing up, or still even today. When Maud started going on and on about a graphic series called Sambre that I had to read I wasn't really interested. Until she gave me the first one, and then I was hooked. I don't know why I suddenly thought of it today of all days (going through my thought process it sounds a little like this: rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 8 - seeing Beth's Buffy graphic novel - oh my god remember that wonderful French graphic novel series I read back in France?). I couldn't remember the name, so after a little research via and then the FNAC website I found it. Sambre. Should be synonym of both beauty and despair.

 The main storyline is based on the torturous and condemned love affair between Bernard Sambre, a young man from a bourgeois family in France, and Julie, a beautiful vagabond and daughter of a prostitute, who has red eyes, something that incites fear in many a heart. The series follows the couple's descent into despair in the midst of the 1848 revolution in France. Bernard and Julie cannot be together, but cannot be apart, end up finding each other and then leaving each other, willingly or not, time and time again. The drawings are reminiscent of all the19th century had to offer: dark, powerful, romantic, decadent and full of doom, with a touch of hope here and there. Bernard and Julie, as well as the many characters that surround them, are beautifully drawn, and it's very easy to fall into their world of fire, pain, love and glory. It's unfortunate that the series has never been translated into English, although it would require an excellent translator who understands and feels the story to do it properly (in my opinion). The drawings are amazing, but the words are just as important in setting the scene and the characters.

After that short description (which really doesn't do the series any justice to be honest), you probably understand why I fell in love with it. Gothic doom, unrequited love, 19th century? Say no more. Best read with a background of Berlioz. I have only actually read the first four, as there was a long wait for the fifth one to come out, and I left France before it did. Now I need to add them all to my list, and more, as, according to Wikipedia, there are other series out there, and others in the works, all based on the Sambre family, post Bernard and Julie.

Sambre is a compound word, created from the words "sang" (blood) and "sombre" (somber). The title of the first book in the series is "Plus ne m'est rien...", a phrase that conjures up exactly the way I feel some days. Actually, some old friends of mine released a song of the same name back in the late 90's, which happens to be absolutely beautiful and I think now is the time to listen to it. This band is actually very, very dear to me, for many different reasons (and not just because I grew up with some of the members). More about that another time...

Bernard Hislaire on Wikipedia (it definitely sounds translated from French though)
Sambre at the FNAC