Publish or Die: Creator Derf Backderf

Interview by Max Delgado

Derf Backderf knew there was a possibility he might die. And if that happened, at least he didn’t want to miss his deadline.

This was back in 2010, after the publication of Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, Derf’s first significant breakaway from the world of daily comic strips and towards graphic novels -- a segue he all but made complete earlier this month when he announced that he would be officially retiring The City, his weekly strip which ran in alternative newspapers across the country for a startling 25 years. Derf’s decision (which is still just a little over a week old) effectively allows the creator to recast himself as a graphic novelist after a long and prestigious careers as four-panel strip artist. This pivot was informed by many things, undoubtedly, and most of which Derf he outlined in a series of wonderfully exhaustive posts he published in the last few days. But the biggest reason for the switch, lies with popularity and impact of his latest graphic novel My Friend Dahmer.

In MFD Derf accomplished two things. First, he masterfully charted the early days of his one-time classmate and outer-ring high school buddy Jeffrey Dahmer; second, he sent this crystal clear message to anyone who questioned if a journalist-turned-cartoonist could ever successfully make a leap to full-time graphic novelist so late in his career: Hell. Yes.

Yeah, MFD is really that good -- not only does it elevate the genre of true crime, but it humanizes an inhuman cultural icon in a way that refuses to glorify, excuse, or sensationalize his deeds. Most extraordinary, MFD has helped Derf accomplish the seemingly impossible -- after completing one full career, it allowed him to launch a second.

Derf Backderf

But let’s go back to 2010. And the night Derf Backderf thought he might die.

“In 2010...I had my second go round with cancer,” Derf shared with LBP. “Well, not cancer specifically, but rather radiation damage from cancer treatment in 2003. They zapped me in the chest to kill a large tumor and the major arteries were so scarred up from the procedure that, eight years later, I was in big trouble.” The cartoonist would require open heart surgery to “re-plumb or replace everything,” an intensive procedure that made him focus on his mortality in a new way. “I drew this farewell strip and gave it to a buddy with instructions to post it if I didn’t make it,” Derf shared. “The idea came to me right away. No one under 40 probably gets the Carol Burnett connection, but who cares?”

Derf, of course, survived. And he generated a different strip to hit that week’s deadline. But that original strip -- the ‘publish-if-I-die’ version -- stayed with him for a long time, tucked away. Years later, and just days ago, it became the final strip of his beloved creation The City.

So yes, The City is dead. But Derf is still alive.

Just recently, Derf Backderf chatted with LBP about his career, and memories associated with his comic book collection.

LBP: Tell me about what comics you read when you were growing up, specifically any titles that you felt passionate about.

Art by Don Martin

Well, l started with newspaper comic strips. Peanuts was my favorite, and this was mid-Sixties, so it was Schultz’s peak. Around 8 or so, I discovered Mad magazine, like every other cartoonist of the past 60 years. Mad was 75 percent lame, of course, even I could recognize that, but it was worth it for Don Martin and Al Jaffee. What I really liked was when they reprinted the old stuff from the Harvey Kurtzman era, draw by Will Elder and Wally Wood. That stuff blew me away. I’ve always had a certain Mad-ish quality to my work, especially my comic strip.

At age 10 I became a total comix dork. Marvel, DC, etc. This was 1970, which was a fabulous time to get into comix. It was the early Bronze Age and all the publishers were putting out amazing titles. And the classic Silver Age stuff was still plentiful and cheap. I read everything, except the girlie stuff and Archies. Cleared the spinner rack every week. This was my passion for the next decade. And also a secret shame, because to be a teenage comix fan back then was social death. I used to slink in and out of the corner drug store with my weekly stash, like a perv leaving a dirty movie. I learned the schedules of the register clerks and always bought my books when an old lady was working the counter, not one of my contemporaries from high school. C’mon you old bat, ring those books up before someone I know walks in!

“An Average Day on Mission Street” by Spain Rodriguez

My favorites were all the greats. Kirby, Neal Adams, Joe Kubert, Barry Smith, Jim Starlin, Steranko. They didn’t have much influence on my later work, simply because there is no way I can ever hope to draw like those guys. They were inspirational, not influential. I got ahold of Robert Crumb books a lot earlier than I should have. Spain Rodriguez, too. People tend to attach me to the Crumb School, but Spain was a bigger influence. Nice guy, too. Greatly missed. When Warren started reprinting The Spirit in the mid-70s, I got way into Eisner. His storytelling was a big influence. Not the way he drew— again, there was no hope of emulating that— but how he told a story. There are parts of My Friend Dahmer that are very Eisneresque, I think.

But by the time I finished high school, mainstream comix were all schlock. I stopped reading at that point. After that, I got into political cartoons for awhile, then alt-comix. I wasn’t reading other people’s work at all from like 1980 on, so whatever emerged is all me.

LBP: Tell me about your daily creative process -- how many hours you put in, and how long it takes you to write a script or draw a page. For drawing, what tools do you use?

I pencil with a mechanical pencil. Saves me having to sharpen a point every 5 seconds. I ink with Micron pens, Piit brish markers and Sharpies. Color or grey tones are added in Photoshop. My comix are actually pretty simply, some would say primitively constructed. I’ve always believed what you write and draw is more important than how you write and draw. Pick up 90 percent of mainstream comix for evidence of that. Oh good, you’ve really mastered that Cintiq. Too bad your comics still suck.

I tend to start working around noon and will usually draw until 10 or 11pm. Longer if a deadline looms or I’m going good. On a good day, I’ll produce four or five pencil pages. Inking is a little slower, depending on the scene. Three or four pages a day.

LBP: I'd love to hear more about the end of The City. Most importantly, I’d love to know why it felt like your final strip was  the “right” way to end.

It wasn’t my plan to use it as my farewell strip this time, but when I sat down to write, I couldn’t think of anything but this one.  It was stuck in my head. I was really running on fumes for the last six months or so. I could barely squeeze out a strip anymore. It was also surprisingly emotional closing the strip down, and to top it off I was jet-lagged, since I just returned from another book tour in France. I knew I wasn’t going to come up with a better strip, so why fight it? Besides, it’s good karma to print it on a happy occasion, not the tragic one it was originally made for.

Final strip for The City by Derf Backderf

LBP: Speaking of The City, you live, quite famously, in Cleveland, Ohio, and have become your city’s de facto historian for of those of us who follow your strip (and blog) from afar. When I think of Cleveland’s major contributions to the comic genre I mostly think of Superman, Harvey Pekar and, of course, you. What am I missing?

Brian Michael Bendis and Brian Azzarello grew up here, too. Crumb lived here at the start of his career, and hated it. Peter Kuper is a also Cleveland boy. We’re the same age and haunted the same shops and cons. In fact, we both figure we were elbowing each other at the Jimmy Olsen box at a Cleveland con in 1978. There’s a few other mainstream guys kicking around. I dunno what it is. It’s a big city, so there’s bound to be some talent emerging. Pales in comparison to Chicago or New York or San Francisco though.

In truth, there’s not much of a scene here. I wish there was, and some of us are working to make that happen. There’s a small group of young guys who’ve started an indy con here, The Genghis Con, and that has a lot of promise. But as a comix town, we’ve been passed by Columbus, where the scene is really thriving.  There’s no jealousy there on my part, because I’m a product of the Columbus scene myself, and am still connected to it! I got my start drawing cartoons for the Ohio State Lantern.

LBP: I think it’s safe to say that you’ve been noticed in a new and major way since the publication of My Friend Dahmer. What’s it like to have your work “blow up” so deep into your career. And what are your feelings about having your first widely read work be tethered to such a troubled character?

It’s a dream come true. I was talking about this with Frank Santaro at the Angouléme Comix Fest ealier this year. We both have the same French publisher, Éditions çà et là, so we were manning the same booth at the fest. He told me, man, you’re an inspiration to the rest of us. Stick to it and produce work and someday you’ll be rewarded. It’s a nice thought. Not sure if it’s true. Can’t say I ever spent much time fretting about it. I always made a living, at times a pretty good living, from comix. That alone is an accomplishment. I drew what I wanted, how I wanted. Another thing that is no easy feat. It was frustrating at times, that I couldn’t break out and be more than a cult favorite, but that also proved to be a boon, because it kept me restless and prodded me to try other genres. Turns out I was in the wrong place. I should have been doing long-form comix right from the start! I’m a LOT better at it than I ever was at comic strips.

As for MFD, I always knew (if I ever got it published) that it would be my best-known work. Never doubted that for a second. On one hand, that’s a bit of a drag, because it’s nothing like the rest of my output. But I figured it’s better to HAVE a best-known work than to not have one at all. That’s the reason I published Punk Rock & Trailer Parks first, and the early Trashed stories. I wanted a bibliography, so MFD wasn’t my debut graphic novel. The great thing about having a big hit book, is that no matter what you do next, a much larger audience will follow you. I’ll never top MFD, and I’m not really worried about it.

LBP: You’ve famously shared that My Friend Dahmer took over 20 years to create -- it entailed a lot of research, percolation, and mini-drafts. What advice would you have for creators out there who feel they have a mega-project deep inside them that’s wanting to get out?

It sounds more grueling than it really was. MFD was on a back burner for most of that time. And I set it aside completely at various periods. The important lesson there, is if you have a story you believe in, keep at it until you find a way to get it out. Don’t take no for an answer.

LBP: In the preface to My Friend Dahmer you write that you didn’t fully begin work on the graphic novel until after the murder of Jeffrey Dahmer in November of 1994, and that the process became a “cathartic exercise” for you. Twenty years after you drew that first line, I’d love to hear where you’re at with that catharsis now -- what do feel you were able to fully process about this friendship and what do you suspect will always feel undone?

It’s hard to describe the experience to someone who hasn’t gone through it. 1991, when he was first caught, was far worse than 1994. At that point, high school was 13 years behind me. I’d made peace with that period of my life by then. I didn’t view high school fondly, by any measure, but I had grudgingly concluded I had a better time than I initially gave myself credit for. I had good friends, there were fun times. Yeah, there were some Freaks & Geeks moments of extreme humiliation and terror, but overall it wasn’t horrible. And then, just like that, my entire personal history changed. In an instant, it was all re-defined in a very chilling way. And, of course, in those first months, each Dahmer revelation was more shocking than the last, especially when it became clear just how close we were to that first murder. Mere yards away. Yeah, that does indeed mess with your head.

My solution was to create mirror memories. I have TWO personal histories in my memory banks. One is the original history, with all the goofball antics and friendships intact, just as they always were. And the second, is that re-defined history, with the truth about Dahmer and what he was doing and thinking. I keep them separate. Curiously, all my other friends use this same technique.

By the time I finally sat down to grind out the final version of MFD, I didn’t really need catharsis anymore. My only motivation was to create the book I had in my head and get it published.

LBP: While Dahmer is certainly at the center of this this book, I had to keep reminding myself that you were also depicting an important swath of your adolescence, too. Like a true journalist, however, you stay focused on your subject -- your personal story is more of an access point to the central narrative.

Sure, there’s a secondary plot-line in MFD, involving me and my friends. There were several reasons I included that subplot. First, to give the reader something human to hang on to, especially as Jeff becomes less and less human as the story unfolds. I like the contrast, as a storyteller, between Jeff’s life and our lives, especially my life, because they were so similar in almost every way. We came from the same economic class, went to same school, our Dads were both chemists, even the houses we lived in were similar. That fascinates me. And secondly, and just as importantly, that secondary story was a way for me to have fun producing the book. It’s not a lot of fun spending time in Dahmer’s head, as you can imagine. But re-creating my life, and that of my friends, that was fun for me. So I zeroed in on that, lovingly rendering the school and the local mall, and filling the background with oddball characters that we used to interact with, like the weird janitor, and some the random geeks at school. Only a handful of people recognize this, although I think the average reader is taken with the amount of detail in the book, whether they understand its meaning or not. When I showed the first draft to my friends Mike and Neal, members of the Dahmer Fan Club and characters in the book, they both responded the same way. They said, “This is the funniest book I’ve ever read!” Because that secondary story jumped out at them and they, too, recognized all the inside jokes.

LBP: I’d like to hear more about the kind of kid you were, and what experiences led you to fall in love with art and cartooning in the first place. Was your family supportive of this path? Did you find support from teachers? And why was art school such a bad fit for you?

What kind of kid was I? Your stereotype comix dork. I was always writing and drawing. I had a couple great teachers along the way. My elementary school art teacher and a high school English teacher played big roles in my development. Most of my teachers did not, so school was mostly a drag. I got more out of extracurricular activities than the classes. My high school art teachers, in fact, gave me a D my senior year because I drew too many comix and not enough “real art.”

Art school was a bore. It was a commercial art school that was more interested in job training than intellectual growth. Half the classes were bullshit ones on how to be a fashion illustrator or a greeting card artist. I went for a couple quarters and absorbed all the basics of pre-press and reproduction. That’s all I needed from them, so I split. Luckily I was also a good writer and landed a Journalism scholarship to Ohio State. That was a much better fit. Didn’t set foot in an art class there. It was the opposite of the commercial art school, all pretentious goobletygook and installations that involved piles of tv’s in some way. Total fine-art bullshit. I had no stomach for that either. So I basically crafted my own major: writing and cartoons.

The key for me was the school paper, The Lantern. It published five days a week and had a circulation of 35,000! Everyone on campus read it. And it was an educated audience. I learned on the job, on deadline and under fire. When I blew it, it was a very public crash and burn. It was a great experience. Sadly, with the demise of newspapers, a young cartoonist can’t have that experience anymore.

The History of Underground Comics (1974)

I grew up in a small town in Ohio. It was Mayberry. We had the classic corner drugstore in the center of town where I could puchase all the mainstream titles, but I slowly became aware there was a whole lot more out there somewhere, comix that I had never seen. Underground Comics. Man, that even sounded cool! I had a subscription to Creem magazine, and there were small ads for Undergrounds in tha back, but what to order? I knew who Crumb was, thanks to the Keep on Truckin’ stuff you saw everywhere, but I knew nothing about his comics.  Then one day I was at the mall and wandered into Walden’s Books, as I usually did, to pick over the sci-fi selections. Yawn. Nothing new. But hey, what’s this? The History of Underground Comics? Sold! It amazes me that they carried this thing at Walden’s. I mean, the logo is actually a big veiny penis! But they sold it to me without hesitation. It’s a who’s who of undergrounds, with samples of all the greats and the their bibliographies. It was my first exposure to Gilbert Shelton and Spain and Spiegelman and Bill Griffith. I could then send away for those undergrounds. Sign here to prove I’m 18? Why sure, Mr. Comix Dealer! 

Big Ideas, Lynda Barry (1983)

This is Lynda’s second collection of cartoons from early in her career when her comics were incredibly wild and punk. I think some of them may be from her college days. I was working as an art director at the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the late 80s, and was bored stiff and miserable. I wanted to get back into comix, but was unsure what I wanted to do, or how to do it. I ran across this book at one of the Cleveland bookstores I haunted. I read it once, thought “I could do something like this” and promptly tossed the book away. Think I left it on a train seat. I didn’t want to copy anyone. I was also aware of the other alt-cartoonists like Groening and Tom Tomorrow, since they ran in my local weekly, The Cleveland Edition, but it was Lynda who planted the seed in my brain. I quit my job, holed up in my studio and came up with The City. A year later it debuted in the same Cleveland Edition and I was on my way.

Fantastic Four #102 (Note: this is a scan of Derf's actual copy of FF 102.)

In July 1970, I was 10 years old and on vacation with my family at a lakeside lodge in Ontario. We’d been vacationing here all my life and it was a magic place, as these boyhood spots often are. The lodge had a gift shop in one of the main buildings, called the “Tuck Shop”, for some reason. It was full of souvenir pennants, t-shirts and fake Indian totem poles, that sort of thing. Mainly I went there to purchase the day’s allotment of strange Canadian candy. But on the back wall, behind the counter, safe from sticky, sandy hands, was a wall rack of comix. I’d never had much interest in comic books before, but this day, on a whim, I pointed to FF #102 and parted with 15 precious cents. This was Kirby’s last issue, the first part of yet another war with the perpetually pissed-off Prince Namor. Some of those last Kirby Marvels are a little weak, since he was already secretly working on The Fourth World, but this issue is a beaut, just masterfully drawn and paced. As I walked barefoot back to our cabin, I read it, while wolfing down a candy bar. I read it again on the front porch. Then again. I went back to the Tuck Shop and bought more. By week’s end, I had cleared the rack. And that was it. I was lost. Would it have been the same had I selected a lame book instead of a Kirby one? Probably not!