Article by Dawson Steeber
I have been a fan of comics for a long time, especially the comics of R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar with their cynical darker side of life both in their illustration and narrative content. So it was with great anticipation that I attended the Thursday Art Talk on September 25th at the Akron Art Museum to see Derf Backderf, the longtime illustrator of all things Northeast Ohio.
As I found my usual seat near the rear of the auditorium I couldn’t take my eyes off the enormous self-portrait of the man himself, a younger man, obviously given the amount of hair atop his head, but wearing his almost signature soul patch. As the house lights dimmed and Derf was introduced, I was almost instantly put off by the self-congratulatory nature of the autobiographical retrospective of the self-proclaimed “patriarch of Cleveland comics” turned “hipster”. Derf was clad all in black with a black cap hiding what I can only assume was his receding hairline. He dove straight in to the birth of his professional history beginning with his time and work at the Ohio State Lantern with his heavily political and potty humor, then moving quickly through his wearisome endeavors making “lame cartoons for squares” to his debut work for The City and then the Cleveland Edition.
The slides provided a barrage of Derf covers, “real conversations” of the faces of Chief Wahoo, starting in the early 90’s, and the expository line of his own ironic responsibility for the survival of Wahoo. It seems, according to Derf, that his covers contributed to the petulance of the Tribe head office, culminating with his Free Times cover of Wahoo as Gimp, on all fours complete with leather bdsm gear and ball gag, then moving quickly to the Sunday Beacon Magazine, then The Scene and his famously provocative and hilarious Steelers-Browns makeout cover, which apparently created quite a stir from several sports columnists asking who were the players he “was outing”. All the while, slide after slide, a new catch phrase emerged, “I just love these.’’
Then Derf moved to his Big Boy Comics and his sketches and studies for a variety of covers, including one accepted for The Scene’s “Best Of” issues which attempted, cynically if not realistically, captured the essence of The Flats at the time. This apparently led to the closing of many establishments and bulldozing of The Flats, as well as the pulling out of many of The Scene’s sponsors. Such is the power of Derf’s illustrations, bucolic and grotesque and a dirty mirror in which Cleveland can see itself. Not only are some of the images sophomoric and hyperbolic, but so are the contrived and immature narrative lines, which is surprising coming from an artist, and I’ll say he is certainly an artist who’s grown into his own style (if still carrying obvious influences from his heroes) who began his life’s work with the intention of becoming a journalist.
If all of this seems a bit negative, let me clarify something: Derf’s cynical inclinations are less cynical than they are genuinely representing the Cleveland (and Akron area) that he sees. And his journalistic nature has given him the best shift in his work, as far as this critic is concerned, more so than his ever-growing abilities as a fine-tuned illustrator. The man’s knack for storytelling, beautifully timed with the rise of graphic novels, is something to admire.
Perhaps the most intriguing, and this was also the most captivating part of his presentation, is his seemingly humanizing depiction of Jeffrey Dahmer in his award-winning (and let me say that this graphic novel deserves every single accolade it received) My Friend Dahmer. In this book, Derf gives his readers a different sort of picture of Dahmer (the Dahmer Derf grew up with) than the world was given after he was convicted of his crimes. Here, Derf gives us a different perspective, almost a sort of look at the heroism in Dahmer’s handling of his personal demons as he, slowly at first, and then rapidly, spirals into madness and the first choice to kill. I have to say, it’s a damn good book in spite of its ethical blind spots.
And perhaps thanks to the success of MFD, Derf’s follow up is a 288 pager coming out Fall 2015. It’s based on his webcomic of the same title, Trashed. In it, readers follow a gang of garbage collectors, in the era before automation and the over-sized city cans. As Derf sees it, “Trashed is right in [his] wheelhouse: another raucous, Rustbelt Epic chock full of small town weirdoes and stomach-churning comedy.” If that’s the case, and I can’t imagine he’d kid, I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.
To purchase books and all other things Derf, visit his online store.
Dawson Steeber holds an MFA in Creative Writing and teaches Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Akron. His writings appear or are forthcoming in MUSE, TONGUE, quickly, Rubbertop Review, and elsewhere. You can reach Dawson at dbs7@