Nonfiction Graphic Novels: Serial Killers

Uh, these are not really in my normal reading sphere. I don’t like true crime stories—they scare me like no supernatural stories do. However, I’d run across raving reviews of both of these, and I guess my curiosity just got the best of me. I agree that the idea of graphic novels about real serial killers sounds just awful since graphic novels  often seem to celebrate over-the-top violence, but these both had personal approaches that caught my attention.

My Friend Dahmer

By Derf Backderf

Book CoverAuthor Derf Backderf actually grew up and went to school with Jeffrey Dahmer, and while Dahmer wasn’t his closest friend, he was one of Dahmer’s very few friends. I can’t even imagine what a strange feeling that must be, looking back in hindsight, though Backderf does a very good job of putting it into words and pictures. It is thoughtful, and sad, and calm; pretty much exactly the opposite of what I would have expected from a graphic novel about Jeffrey Dahmer.

As the story got closer to the end, though, I started getting increasingly nervous. The first half is set in junior high, far before any of the gruesome murders, but I’m not actually all that familiar with the case, so I wasn’t completely sure when the murders started, and Dahmer’s unraveling throughout high school amid all the oblivious authority figures is agonizing to even just read. It is one thing to enjoy a violent thriller, but it is very much another thing when it is nonfiction. The author turns out to be extremely sensitive to this, one might even say surprisingly sensitive, given that he grew up in the same environment that produced Dahmer. He alludes to Dahmer’s increasing perversions but does not illustrate or describe them outright.

In fact, that’s not what this book is about. As Backderf writes in the intro:

This is a tragic tale, one that has lost none of its emotional power after two decades. It’s my belief that Dahmer didn’t have to wind up a monster, that all those people didn’t have to die horribly, if only the adults in his life hadn’t been so inexplicably, unforgivably, incomprehensibly clueless and/or indifferent. Once Dahmer kills, however—and I can’t stress this enough—my sympathy for him ends. He could have turned himself in after that first murder. He could have put a gun to his head. Instead he, and he alone, chose to become a serial killer and spread misery to countless people. There are a surprising number out there who view Jeffrey Dahmer as some kind of anti-hero, a bullied kid who lashed back at the society that rejected him. This is nonsense. Dahmer was a twisted wretch whose depravity was almost beyond comprehension. Pity him, but don’t empathize with him.

It is an extremely insightful look at the society that created Dahmer, from an insider’s point of view. It took Backderf years and several different tries to write this book, and he did an enormous amount of research to fact-check his own recollections. He writes that he has accepted that he has no responsibility in Dahmer’s fate, and I would bet that this book probably helped him find that acceptance.

A quick word of caution: when reading the book itself, I was quite impressed with the author’s restraint and sensitivity with the subject matter, so I was perhaps a little too blasé as a reader. I had trouble afterwards getting it out of my head, and it wasn’t nightmare-causing, exactly, but it wasn’t comfortable, either.

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story

By Jeff Jensen

Book CoverI was a little nervous about this one, since the prologue illustrates the killer’s first murder right off the bat, and that of a child to boot, but I have to say that after My Friend Dahmer, and after the shocking intro, Green River Killer was a bit of a cake walk.

I first heard about this graphic novel on NPR’s RadioLab in an interview with the author, the son of the main detective in charge of this case. As a quick aside, can I say how much I enjoy RadioLab? It feels a bit like This American Life, but doesn’t leave me crying in my driveway nearly as much. The interview is particularly interesting because they actually play snippets of the police interviews with Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, responsible for the death of over 40 and possibly over 75 women throughout the 1980s in Seattle. (It’s also very possible that having already heard some of the details in the killer’s own voice made the graphic novel less disturbing in the end.)

Jensen’s father had dedicated the majority of his career to this one case, but tried to shelter his family from it as much as possible. When the recordings of the interviews were made public, his son, a writer for Entertainment Weekly, used them to help recreate his father’s career. It is a very loving look at his father’s dedication to a truly grim job. And, I think that’s what made it relatively easier to read: the focus is on the father and the police work rather than the psyche of the killer. Which makes sense, because in both the interviews and the graphic novel, there’s really not much of a reveal into Ridgway’s psyche, nothing like Backderf is able to do for Dahmer. While they were able to get enough facts for a solid conviction, they were never able to satisfactorily get a motive or really any sort of explanation.

This is actually the biggest frustration for Detective Jensen, but he is also so professional that even his moment of emotional crisis is quite contained, which is both understandable and admirable, but is difficult to communicate on paper. Jensen successfully focuses instead on the contrast of the loving relationship between his mother and father and both of them toward their children with the cypher of Gary Ridgway. The subtitle, “A True Detective Story,” is quite accurate: this is very much more about the lead detective and the toll police work can take on a person than the perpetrator.

—Anna

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