Bryan Miller Presents:
Derf’s art is instantly recognizable — all the denizens of The City are caricatures, rendered in thick, inky lines, and they walk down trash-littered streets lined with billboards. He says his style was initially a byproduct of poor newspaper reproduction, forcing him to pour on the ink just to make the strips legible, but it’s a look he soon came to love. He’s a political cartoonist for sure, and many a weekly installment has been devoted to the exploits of Clinton and then Bush. But by and large Derf is less interested in the figures themselves than the people they represent — the oddballs, kooks, Jesus freaks and lone nuts who make up the American public. He often lampoons the broader political culture via characters like the hapless hero White Middle Class Suburban Man, but he also takes time out to regale readers with incredible true stories of daily life in Ohio or to chart the rise and sag of the ever-expanding “he-boobies.” The City is, above all things, a chronicle of American vulgarity.
Derf’s latest project, Punk Rock and Trailer Parks, is by far his most ambitious project to date. In addition to collected editions of The City, he’s made two prior forays into the comic book world, Trashed and My Friend Dahmer. Both are autobiographical pieces, the first of which is a working-class lament in which he recollects his miserable year working on a garbage truck, and the latter tells the shocking true tale of his high school classmate-turned-cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer.
Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is his first full length graphic novel. Though it draws on his personal interests, Derf says, “Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is pure fiction. Why doesn't anyone believe that? I guess it's a compliment that readers think the story is true.”
The graphic novel follows the exploits of Otto Pizcok, a.k.a. The Baron, a high school nerd utterly lacking in shame and self-consciousness. He’s ridiculed at school, but by night he’s a rising star in the bourgeoning punk rock scene of Akron, Ohio, which exploded at the tail end of the 1970s thanks to the breakout of bands like Devo. For a brief, glorious time, Akron was a cultural epicenter. Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is not just Otto’s tale, it’s a rock music time capsule featuring appearances by The Ramones, The Clash, Wendy O. Williams and Lester Bangs.
I recently caught up with Derf to talk about his latest book, the shrinking market for alternative comix and going to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer.
BM: How did punk music change your life?
D: Ha! Did I even have a life before punk?
Everyone has that signature moment, when they find the place where they belong. For some, it's doing a beer bong in a frathouse basement. For others it's banging a tambourine for the Hare Krishnas. For it, it was hearing the Ramones for the first time in a cramped club in Columbus, Ohio, as they ripped into the opening buzzsaw riff of Blitzkrieg Bop. A second later, someone kicked me in the head.
I dunno. Punk gave me an identity, when I didn't have one. It spurred a lifelong love of music that eventually expanded way beyond one genre. Most of all, it was just a blast being a punk rocker. Music speaks to you at age 20 more than any other point in your life. I don't know why that is, but it's just a fact of life.
BM: Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is by far your longest and most ambitious project. How long have you been working on it, and how long has the idea been germinating in your brain?
D: I first came up with the protagonist, Otto, about three years ago. I spent a week in a marathon writing session at a lakeside lodge in Ontario, an Adirondack chair pulled up to the shore, my feet in the water, a six-pack beside me and a sketchbook in my lap. Just wrote every waking hour for seven straight days. I was working on three different projects at once. Originally, I had Otto... and the trailer park... and little else. There wasn't much of a story, just a few weird episodes with Ronny, the whacked-out neighbor, and Uncle Elmo, the Marxist curmudgeon. No plot, no motivation, no conflict. It was just a fragment. So I set it aside. But I kept coming back to it every few months, because I was fascinated with Otto.
Finally, I had the brainstorm to set him in a punk club. Once I did that, the story just poured out in about a week's time. Then it was the long, hard slog to get it down on paper. It was about two year's work from that point. That's not slaving on it 8 hours a day, of course, but I picked at it pretty steadily. It was a big job.
BM: Clearly a lot of your personal experiences went into the book, but it's not a straight auto-biographical story like My Friend Dahmer. Do you find it easier to stick to autobiographical material or to fictionalize?
D: I mined some of my experiences as a punk rocker, yeah, but 95 percent of this book is totally made up. Believe it or not, I wasn't part of the famous punk scene in Akron that I write about here. I blew out of the Rubber City two weeks after high school graduation. My punk years were spent in other locales. I researched the hell out of this book; collecting what little photo record there was, interviewing a dozen former scenesters, digging up posters and ephemera, etc.
It's not really historically accurate either, but I wanted to get the spirit of the time and place right, and I think I did. Since very little survives, outside of the recorded music, I wanted to make a definitive portrait of The Bank and the Akron Scene. It's this great forgotten pop phenom and I like telling stories that no one has heard before.
This is my first fictional piece. You're right, my two previous books were auto-biographical. I'm not really a fan of auto-biographical comix, to be honest. I know memoir is big in the book world right now, but comix had its memoir fad about 20 years ago and SO many people wrote about their belly buttons and their miserable slacker lives, that memoir are a comix cliché today. I did those auto-biographical books only because I had two great stories to tell, the first about my friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, the second about my career as a garbage man. But when I sat down to do this book, I knew from the start it would be fiction. And I expect all my future books to be fiction, too.
BM: A lot of writers, it seems to me, want their protagonists to be ciphers or everymen and keep the more outsized characters in supporting roles. But The Baron is clearly the frontman of Punk Rock and Trailer Parks. How different would the book have been in the main character had been a Derf stand-in?
D: That would have been one dull book! As I said earlier, the book started with Otto and everything else was built around him. Not only is he not me, he is, in many ways, my opposite. Another comix cliche is The Miserable Geek, a pathetic self-loathing wretch. That's not Otto. True, his contemporaries think he's a spaz, but Otto is an egomaniac. He thinks he's a God! And when he happens into the punk counter-culture, damned if he doesn't become just that. He's also fearless. Otto will never let an opportunity or an experience pass him by, even if the end result is somewhat disastrous. I think that's what I admire about him most.
BM: I saw some of your work in a collection of killed cartoons. Do you run into a lot of problems with papers trying to censor your work? Do you catch a lot of flak in general from editors and readers?
D: Not much from editors, no. I've had a couple cowardly ones buckle over the years, but most seem to like provocative cartoons.
The story I re-counted in the Killed Cartoons book was the worst example of a craven editor. The Times of Acadiana in Shreveport, LA, was once a spunky little locally-owned weekly. But then the Gannett-owned daily bought it and assigned some knothead on its features staff to be the editor. She, of course, immediately turned it into a tabloid of fluff and drivel, which is exactly what Gannett wanted. The cartoon in question was one called "Dubya's Inner Circle" which showed George W. and his advisors standing in a circle in the Oval Office with their heads up each other's asses. This was just before the 2004 election when the red-staters were at their gung-hoiest. They got some calls and letters and, as most crappy dailies do, responded by freaking out. Cartoons can't be controversial! Hi & Lois isn't controversial!
My favorite part of this story? Not only did she dump my cartoon, she dumped all the cartoons in the paper, just to play it safe! She emailed me that she was tired of getting complaints about the cartoons. God forbid you'd want your paper to actually get a response from readers!
That's a great example of how and why daily newspapers have become irrelevant.
BM: Is it getting harder for a cartoonist to make a living? The Internet offers broad exposure, obviously, but can artists actually make any money publishing online?
D: I don't know of anyone who has figured out how to do that yet.
BM: Do you still enjoy doing The City as much now as when you first started? How do you think the strip has evolved?
D: Yeah, I still love doing the strip. When I crank out a good one, that's a high that isn't replicated by anything else.
That first year, however, was special. When it debuted in Cleveland in 1990, it was an instant pop culture hit. That was just as Gen X was peaking, and as alt-weekly papers were starting to boom, and I was plugged into that whole thing. It was the first time my work really had an impact on readers. People were talking about my funky little cartoons. It was gratifying and exciting. So those early days will always stand out.
It's a lot more political now. That's just the times we live in. The writing is much improved. The drawing, unfortunately, isn't. Mainly because papers have shrunk strips so small that it's a struggle just to be legible.
BM: What strips and comics do you read regularly?
D: I don't. I like making comix, but I don't read them much.
BM: I read a piece that said you're working to expand My Friend Dahmer into a full-length graphic novel — is that so? What will that process involve? Will it be more of a Dahmer bio from your point of view?
D: Yeah, it's true. I always viewed My Friend Dahmer, which was a self-published collection of three short stories drawn several years apart, to be a huge missed opportunity. It got a lot of attention and some critical acclaim, but it should have been so much more.
It's too short, first of all. Just 24 pages. I had to cut a lot of material. And it hops all over the place: flashbacks, fast forwards. Organizationally, it's kind of a mess. And it didn't get much distribution. The print run was only 5,000.
A couple years ago, I was approached by a film company to write a film treatment of My Friend Dahmer. A film treatment is a loose screenplay. I spent a month writing this thing, doing research, interviewing people. I even got in to Dahmer's boyhood home and made some sketches of the interior. Everyone I showed this treatment to was blown away... but, as these things usually go, the film company eventually passed on it. Instead of just sticking it in a drawer, I realized that I had written a terrific graphic novel. I wasn't about to let this go to waste, so I just took the treatment and sketched it out.
I already have an offer to publish it. It'll be a proper book, about 125 pages as of right now, with major distribution. There's a lot more stuff in it: things I left out, things I've learned since. I'm also much better at graphic narrative. Dahmer was my first work in the field and the drawing and writing, quite frankly, suck. Now, coming off Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, I'm at the peak of my abilities. This will be the My Friend Dahmer I always wanted to produce.
It's not unprecedented, for someone to expand a smaller work into a larger one. Spiegelman did it with Maus, for example. Normally, I would never consider it, but Dahmer is a special tale.
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Bryan Miller is a former newspaper editor who now works as a writer and comedian in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in The Comics Journal, Left Turn, CityLink, and Nightlife and online at Bookslut, Savant and SeqArt. Read more at Carbondalerocks.com.
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