John “Derf” Backderf is a Cleveland-based comix writer and artist whose gritty scenes of life in Ohio have given him a cult-like status in the Buckeye State and well beyond.
Derf has never shied away from engaging with local and loyal fans at conventions, and even Facebook — a place he’s bound to stir up a little controversy with his social and political commentary, but it’s his alternative comics and edgy storytelling that has attracted a dedicated following across the globe. His tales of trash collecting in Richfield, attending high school alongside Jeffrey Dahmer and illustrating the rough-yet-revered Akron punk scene in the ʼ80s shed light on places and faces previously obscured by time and, perhaps, misconception.
Derf earned his first income as a cartoonist selling a nude portrait of his sixth-grade teacher to a classmate for a meager $2. He has since moved on to bigger and better things, penning award-winning graphic novels like “My Friend Dahmer” and “Punk Rock & Trailer Parks,” and having his work displayed in museums and galleries worldwide.
Pages from Derf’s new edition of “Trashed” will be displayed in “How to Remain Human” at the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art beginning June 12. — Brittany Nader
Brittany: You have a lot of experience with alt-weeklies, working with them in the heyday of the format through corporate takeovers, which led to several going bankrupt. Why do you think they’ve, by and large, failed? It’s got be more than just the Internet’s fault, right?
Derf: Hey, everything has its time. Nothing lasts forever. Alt-weeklies flourished from, roughly, 1985 to 2005 before swan-diving into the tar pit, and I was lucky enough to be a big part of their heyday. At one time, I foolishly believed they would be the saviors of newspapers. On the other hand, I also realized by 2000 or so that the jig was up and began moving to books. For a period there, alt-weeklies had the best comix in the world. Then they all inexplicably started dumping comix so they could shoehorn in a couple more phone sex ads — that’s when the readers started to bail. The two things are not unrelated, even if the geniuses who ran alt-weeklies never figured that out. I was glad to see [The Devil Strip] start up though. Good luck with it.
B: You’ve made some transitions in your career — from comic strips for alt-weeklies to your own spin on graphic novels — and when you went to Ohio State for journalism, the goal was to be an editorial cartoonist. What’s enabled you to keep pivoting this way? Was it just chance, or was it intentional?
D: Yeah … Three career reboots, I admit that’s a little unusual. I feel very lucky, since each one has been more successful than the previous endeavor. I’ve always been a restless creator. That’s kept me on the move — and able to stay in front of changes in various industries — but it does result in a pretty disjointed body of work. If you compare my early political cartoons, my first “City” strips and my books, it looks like three different artists made them. There are lots of cartoonists who haven’t changed a line in 40 years. If you’re one of the greats, say, Matt Groening, that’s okay. If you’re a typical hack, then it’s sad. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I stuck with political cartoons and got a staff job with some crap-hole daily paper. I’d be laid off and washed up now, like most of those guys.
B: Your first graphic novel/memoir, “Trashed,” seemed to be a real game changer for you. Now, you’re working on a new version of the story, this time fictional but based on real-life events. How will these stories differ from the gross and fascinating tales you’ve already shared with readers?
D: You’re leaving out a web comic, which was where I first took it from memoir to fiction. It’s like Louis CK — based on experience but otherwise all made up. I find that a really easy way to write. I did the web comic for a couple years, and that was the start of the current book. Actually, I was set to fire it up again as a web comic, which I put on hiatus when I started the “My Friend Dahmer” world tour. It was my publisher that said, ‘Whoa, let’s do this as a book instead.’ I’m attracted to these characters and this story. I like coming back to it from time to time because I feel I have more stories to tell. The first “Trashed” was only 50 pages, after all.
“Trashed” is an ode to the working man, of being trapped in a dull, small town in the crappiest job imaginable, and all the auxiliary stuff that goes with that: tyrant bosses, creepy co-workers … crazy townies. I think most people can relate to that. It’s fun to write and fun to draw and, hopefully, fun to read. After “My Friend Dahmer,” I needed something fun. The new “Trashed” will be out this fall.
B: Your work has a definite edge to it and feels a little punk rock too. How much of growing up around Akron has influenced your voice as an artist?
D: We’re all a product of our time and place. Hanging out at The Bank punk club was my first foray into the counterculture and, obviously, I was mesmerized. Before that, I was just another rube from Richfield. I’m definitely the Rust Belt comix creator — not that there’s a lot of competition — and all the things I’m known for — the weird-looking people of undetermined Middle-European peasant stock, the crumbling buildings and cracked sidewalks and bombed-out industrial wasteland that all came from the Akron I grew up in.
B: In “My Friend Dahmer,” you deftly balanced treating the Jeffrey Dahmer you knew as a human who had been failed by adults with condemning the murders he committed after graduation. Was that a tricky compassion you developed as you worked on the book, or was that how you saw him all along?
D: That’s my memory of him. But, remember, I didn’t know Dahmer “the monster.” I only knew Dahmer the sad, damaged boy. Until he starts to kill — and his spree began a mere two weeks after we graduated from Revere High School — I think he’s a tragic figure. “My Friend Dahmer” is, at its root, a story about failure. Everybody fails: the teachers, his parents, the adults in his life, his friends, Jeff himself, of course, and the result of that across-the-board failure is 17 people who were horribly murdered.
B: You’ve toured with “My Friend Dahmer” a lot overseas. What’s the reaction there? Has this opened them up to your other work, especially “Punk Rock & Trailer Parks”?
D: “My Friend Dahmer” has been a bestseller in every country it’s been published — so far, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Korea — and has won some big book prizes, three to date. I’ve gotten five book tours in Europe out of it too. It’s been amazing.
Europeans hold comix in much higher esteem than Americans, who still view it as junk pop culture. The French and Belgians, in particular, are rabid comix readers and have a long tradition of great comix of their own. I was a big fan of French comix when I was a teenager, and they were first translated into English in the old Heavy Metal magazine. Used to buy my copies every month at the Booklein newsstand in the Summit Mall. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my own comix being such a hit over there.
And, yeah, “Punk Rock & Trailer Parks,” which was published in French last year, also became a bestseller and also won a book prize. It’s the coolest thing that’s happened to me, since I’m very proud of that book, and it only sold modestly in the U.S. That’s the benefit of following a big bestseller — instead of preceding it, as “Punk Rock & Trailer Parks” did here. It cracks me up that the French have embraced this goofy tale of Akron. In fact, they’re fascinated about our apocalyptic Rustbelt. ‘How could a thing such as Akron be allowed to happen?’ they frequently ask me. I have no answer to that.
B: When you visit, do you get nostalgic for the dirty, grimy downtown Akron you depict in the book?
D: Yeah, there’s a lot I miss. Not the dirt and grime, but the places and people I knew. Most of both are long gone. There are four generations of die-hard Akronites preceding me, all of whom were born, lived and died in the Rubber City and would never have lived anywhere else. My mom is still there. Me, I couldn’t get out of Richfield and Akron fast enough, to be honest. I left for college right after high school graduation. I was so amped to leave. I’ve lived in big cities ever since and eventually wound up here in Cleveland, much to my surprise. That wasn’t the plan, but it’s been good for me.
B: If your character Otto were roaming the streets of Northeast Ohio right now, what do you think he’d be up to?
D: I can tell you what happened to him right after the events of “Punk Rock & Trailer Parks,” because that’s my new web comic, “The Baron of Prospect Avenue.” Otto was planning to set off on adventure, but he stopped in downtown Cleveland on his way out of Ohio to stock up on books at the legendary Kay’s Books on funky Prospect Avenue, and his car was stolen while he was browsing in the sci-fi section. So, he was stranded. Mrs. Kay hired him to run the basement stockroom, and Otto found lodging in an abandoned dentist office on the top floor of the Old Arcade, where he also serves as night watchman.
So, the story will go from there, involving the usual bizarre adventures and colorful characters. There’ll be punk rock stars — and even a serial killer. I used to make pilgrimages when I was a bored teenager to Kay’s, which had over a million books, and the record stores on Prospect, which could have doubled for a Blaxploitation film set. I’m having fun with it, and Otto is such a great character to write.
Writer Brittany Nader is a digital marketer who can often be found petting cats or eating pizza.