guttergeek formerly discontinuous review of graphic narrative; now just discontinuous

Interview with Derf

By Chris Reilly

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To quote Ben Towle, “I don’t worry about Derf—Derf’s a rock.” That was in reference to me asking Derf for a favor and giving him the crappiest deadline ever for a “you might get some money if everything on earth does not go wrong with the book’s distribution and the shipment is not hijacked by pirates” offer to contribute a story. I was shocked that the truck delivering the books from Canada to the US was not attacked by Somali pirates. I think Force 10 from Navarone was hired to sabotage the thing, and Force 10 is very good at what they do. Well, no one was paid by me because the book sold like honey, cinnamon, broken glass, and small pox flavored horse apples. I would hyperlink to SLG (the book’s publisher), but I fear that, given the luck this book emanates, it would rain frogs on them and they’d be attacked by Krakens. None of the creators complained—especially Derf, who probably shaved 72 hours off of his life doing me a favor.
Derf had been in the first two Strange Eggs anthologies (the third one is the book that Force Ten From Navarone went after when all the bridges were blown), and I forgot to invite him for the third volume (Strange Eggs Jumps The Shark) until two days before it had to be at the printers. The book would not have been the same without him, so I mustered up the gall to ask him for a story with a three-day deadline. When I mentioned to Ben (Strange Eggs co-editor) that I was worried because Derf had a two-day deadline at this point, Ben (calm as a clam) says: “I don’t worry about Derf—Derf’s a rock.” Being the frantic, manic person I am, I was just reeling with anxiety. What the hell did Ben mean by that? A rock? I know he’s a cool guy, great artist, stylistically without peer, a master social commentator, and an amazing storyteller, but which aspect was he referring to as a rock? Would the story be in on deadline, or were we going to have three blank pages? The next day Derf sent me the pages—approximately 12 hours before they were due—and it looked and read as well as anything else he’d produced. Most importantly, they were “send the monkeys home, I found something better” hysterical.

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So, in summation, even though your mom tells you you’re special (your friends are cool and stuff the ballot box for you at the award shows), you have that totally blurb-worthy pre-fab blurb  from the blurb factory (a.k.a. Comicblurb.com—you know who I’m really talking about, and if you are who I am talking about you’re pissed), and you were nominated for a Harvey, you have to think about this: You may be great, but Derf is probably better. And he’s a rock.
I grabbed Derf’s  Bio from his DERF CITY site:

“Derf sold his first cartoon, a nude portrait of his sixth grade teacher, for $2 dollars to a classmate who used it for unspeakable purposes. Today his comic strip, The City, is one of the most widely-read alternative cartoons, appearing regularly in weekly papers coast to coast.“The cartoonist, who works out of an unheated, attic studio in his Cleveland home, grew up in a rural, small town in Ohio and went to high school with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. A comic book story about his friendship with Dahmer is available in the store on this website.“An art school dropout, Derf worked on a garbage truck before deciding to give cartooning a try. He attended Ohio State University, where he drew political cartoons for the school paper for three years and caused such controversy school officials put a 1-year limit on all future cartoonists. After graduation, he landed a similar position on a paper in Florida but was fired after two years for, as the editor put it, ‘general tastelessness.’ He moved to Cleveland and The City debuted in the now-defunct Cleveland Edition in 1990. A year later, he began selling it to other alternative papers.“Derf's images have also graced t-shirts and cd covers. His manic illustrations have appeared in all manner of publications ranging from Guitar Player magazine to the Wall St. Journal.“His work has been displayed in museums and galleries worldwide. he has been nominated for two Eisner Awards (the Oscars of comix), has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists, was named the Alternative Press’ best cartoonist in 2005 and was the recipient of a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 2006.”


And in 2010 he was stuck talking to me and it went like this:
Chris P Reilly:  Tell us why we should read Books by Derf.
Derf: Because I’m begging you to.
CPR:  Who could or should I recommend your work to?
Derf: Rich Hollywood producers looking to make an obscure comix creator a wealthy man would be my suggestion.
CPR:  As an artist, who were your earliest influences?
Derf: That’s a long list. Everything from Don Martin to Robert Crumb to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth to German Expressionism. I don't really have one great influence, if you’re talking about what “school” I belong to, that sort of thing. The one thing I’m really proud of when it comes to my body of work over the past 20 years is, whether you like the stuff or don’t, I don’t draw like anyone else and I don’t write like anyone else.
By the way, I just hit the 20-year anniversary of my comic strip, THE CITY. It’s something I’m very proud of, although I didn’t publicize it much, mainly because any milestone in newspapers these days reads like a fucking eulogy.
CPR:  Whose work do you currently enjoy?
Derf: Tom Tomorrow, Max Cannon, Ted Rall, and Ruben Bolling amaze me week in and week out with damn-I-wish-I’d-thought-of-that brilliance and, even more, the dedication these guys have to their craft. We all came up together in the weekly press and are pals. It’s an honor have my ass kicked by them on a regular basis. I think Matt Bors is really coming into his own as a political cartoonist, curse him. And lately I’ve really been (again) admiring Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, both for his unique voice and the effort he puts into his strip. I mean, compare Zippy to the stick-figure scribbles of mail-it-in shit like Wizard of Id or Beetle Bailey.
I haven’t read any new comic books or graphic novels in a while. It’s so much work to shovel through the mountain of Marvel-DC-Image superhero schlock to find something good and I don’t have a decent comic book shop nearby—not one that carries Slave Labor or Top Shelf or anything except said schlock. Mostly, it’s the time factor. I guess rather than spending the time and effort hunting down good comix and reading good comix, I’d rather MAKE good comix.
CPR: What do you think of the fact that worldwide there are more trampolines stolen yearly than there are cars in the U.S.?
Derf: Screw the trampolines. Do you know that Americans inadvertently swallow an average of 12 spiders every year? Average! Which means plenty swallow more! I have high cholesterol. Could fatty spiders be the explanation? Should I steal a trampoline so I can work off all this arachnid cholesterol?
CPR:  What’s coming up and where can we get us some Derf?
Derf: Immediate gratification can be found on derfcity.com or gocomics.com or the few surviving, comix-enlightened alt-weekly newspapers. That’s where new installments of THE CITY can be read.

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Derfcity.com is also the home of an interesting side project. For the past year I’ve been producing a webcomic sequel to my first graphic novel, Trashed. The original was a memoir of my career as a 19-year-old garbage man. This book got me my first Eisner nomination and remains, in many ways, my favorite piece. The webcomic is an updated version, set in 2010, memoir-esque but not nonfiction anymore. Kind of a Curb Your Enthusiasm extrapolation. But the themes are the same: the painful humor of a shit job, the bizarre co-workers and overseers found in same, the day-to-day weirdness of a small town, and the gut-churning, ground-level details of our disposable society. The world of garbage, for example, is where someone would think nothing of setting out the deceased family cat in its litter box (uncleaned) atop the trash can at the curb! It's a world completely unknown to the public at large. I’ve just topped 50 web-isodes and am well into the second story arc. I'm not sure what I’ll do with this thing. I’ve no delusions about making any money off it. But it’s a good yarn and I’m having fun with it. I think of it as artistic batting practice, a way to keep loose and work on technique with a forced regular deadline. I update it every Friday.
The next big major work, which I’m just putting the finishing touches on, will be a full-length graphic novel of My Friend Dahmer, the memoir of my teenage friendship with the future serial killer. I self-published a 24-page collection of three short stories, written over a seven-year period following his death in prison, as a one-shot comic book in 2002. It’s something of a cult classic, but I was never happy with the stories. It was a huge missed opportunity. The drawing sucks, the narrative is a mess, and it’s waaaaay too short. It also got very limited distribution. In fact, most copies have been sold off my webstore. But it’s an incredible tale, a very powerful, compelling story, and it was always in the back of my head to one day tackle it and do it right, once and for all. Now I have.

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The new graphic novel is 168 pages. Everything from the original stories is there, but 75 percent of the book is new material, with some never-before-uncovered revelations. I took it beyond the first-person memoir of the original by interviewing dozens of old classmates and teachers and picking over FBI files, newspaper archives, and transcripts of every interview Dahmer himself gave. It’s a real-life horror story and also, surprisingly, a modern tragedy, a troubling tale of an odd, lonely kid who spiraled into madness as the adults in his life, either through indifference or incompetence, stood by and watched. It’s a definitive portrait of an iconic fiend, told from the perspective of someone who was standing just a few feet away.
It’s also completely unlike all my other work, so, of course, if it’s a big seller, people will pick up my other books, which are all raucous comedies or nasty political cartoons, and be bitterly disappointed. Another brilliant career strategy on my part!
And later this year, my last graphic novel, Punk Rock and Trailer Parks, will have a lengthy excerpt in this year’s edition of Houghton-Mifflin’s Best American Comics. Neil Gaiman was the editor. I’m enough of a dork that I’m tickled he even read the book, let alone liked it.
CPR: The My Friend Dahmer GN is great news. Fucking fantastic that there’s going to be a prequel to Pulp Fiction. Great news. Remember that press junket 5 years ago? The Vega Brothers? The first time I read the comic, which was last year, I put it down and could not stop thinking “Man, I want to make this into a movie so bad it hurts.” No gore or stuff you didn’t see—just that story in its pure form. I couldn’t figure out why no one had already done it.
Derf: Actually, the GN, in fact, started out as a film treatment! There’s a dude at Universal Press that feels the same way you do and shopped around the original comic to studios. Got a couple nibbles and one film company wanted a treatment—a loose screenplay—which I spent a fucking month writing. They eventually passed and I didn’t receive a cent for my effort. But as I was about to stuff it into a file cabinet, I thought “shit, this is how I should have done the book.” And why the hell not? Aren’t that many copies of the original. Instead of just doing another printing, why not do it right? I’ll just use this script and it’ll be easy. And then, of course, it took twice as long to put it together as planned. But maybe as a proper GN, it will have some legs. Here's a preview I'm about to post:
MY FRIEND DAHMER GN PREVIEW
CPR: If people want to know your every waking thought, how can they directly link to you on Twitter and stalk you on Facebook?
Derf: I don’t do Twitter. It’s just too obnoxious. Readers can find me on Facebook. I’m a total slut. I’ll friend anyone. But be warned, everything I post there is a lie.
(Note from Chris: I am so glad that someone other than me thinks Twitter is obnoxious. As far as technology goes, it may be the most obnoxious innovation ever. Fucking instant Myspace, for people who don’t think Big Brother is doing a good enough job, so they just report in on themselves every few minutes. I bet Jack Bauer doesn’t Twitter. Crap, I have to go tweet that this Derf interview is going up. Hey, that’s newsworthy and I didn’t tweet twelve times while I was writing this about how I was writing it.)
CPR:  Based on your work, you and I seem to share the same political views. I get a lot of angry e-mail, and I would presume you get a bit yourself. Is that an accurate assumption?
Derf: I love nasty letters! I don’t get as many as I used to, I think, because our society has fractured so much into camps that readers of various political stripes only read stuff that reflects their views. So the people I would, in the past, piss off never see my stuff. They don’t pick up weekly, lefty newspapers and they certainly don’t track me down online. Hell, I haven’t gotten a death threat in a couple years! It’s made political commentary a lot less fun than it was, say, during George W’s first term.
Correction from Chris post interview. I actually don’t get angry e-mail anymore now that I've volunteered to be stalked on Facebook and Goodreads. I just get messages on those sites that I have a right to my opinion but, on this matter of philosophy, they have channeled the ghost of an insane physicist that says they can mathematically prove that I am wrong and I “don’t” find Gore Vidal's work too ambiguous and fashionably dark. I actually pulled Vidal’s name out of a hat of writers I really like to avoid any number of shit storms that would follow anyone I actually did not like, because I would be wrong. But I will stand by Ben Towle’s “Derf’s a rock” statement.
CHECK OUT DERF TALKING ABOUT PUNK ROCK AND TRAILER PARKS ON NPR