John “Derf” Backderf is a cartoonist and comics creator based in Cleveland. He was born and raised in Richfield, Ohio, a small farm town on the far outskirts of Akron and attended high school with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. He began his career as a provocative cartoonist for his college newspaper. He parlayed that experience into a two-year stint as an editorial cartoonist for a Florida newspaper, and later as a staff artist and cartoonist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
In 1990, he launched his weekly comic strip The City which appears in alternate newspapers across the country. Derf was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Political Cartooning in 2006. His work was included in The Best American Comics 2008
Derf’s first foray into long-form comics was My Friend Dahmer , which was nominated for a “Best Single Issue or One-Shot” Eisner Award. That was followed by Trashed, for which Derf was nominated for an Eisner as “Best Writer/Artist – Humor.”
His latest and most ambitious book is Punk Rock and Trailer Parks published by SLG Publishing. There is a book collection of his comic strip, The City: Collected , and his work has been included in numerous compilation books.
This interview was conducted in December, 2008 by ComicsCareer.Com publisher Kirk Chritton.
Comics Career: What’s the basic premise of Punk Rock and Trailer Parks?
Derf: The story, which unfolds in 1980, follows the triumphs and travails of one colorful young man, Otto, who lives in the family-owned trailer park on the outskirts of recession-ravaged Akron, Ohio, the Rubber City. Otto backs into Akron’s punk counter-culture, an unlikely and lively punk rock scene that spawned distinctive acts such as Devo, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and so many other groups that Melody Maker referred to Akron as “the new Liverpool.” By chance and through talent, wit and sheer force of personality, Otto soon becomes a local star. He chases fame and love and has memorable encounters with punk luminaries such as The Clash’s Joe Strummer, Wendy O. Williams of The Plasmatics and rock scribe Lester Bangs.
I call it a Rust Belt Epic. It’s a raucous comedy that’s as gritty, bawdy and tasteless as punk rock itself.
Comics Career: What makes that era noteworthy to you?
Derf: It was a time of cataclysmic change. That whole Eisenhower-era middle class dream was coming to an end. In the Rust Belt it was just devastation, economic devastation. Some of these towns have never recovered. Akron never recovered.
The best way to demonstrate that is that my dad was a chemist for Goodrich for 35 years. His dad was a foreman at a Goodrich plant for 45 years. My great grandfather was a tire maker at Firestone from the moment he stepped off the boat in 1890 virtually until the day he dropped dead, like 35 years later.
That was not an option for me. When I was coming out of high school, those jobs were gone. And those were good jobs. They were like steel worker jobs, the equivalent of 75 or 80 grand a year. Everyone in town worked at a tire plant. I was the first adult male in my family who didn’t.
That resonated throughout the culture. I think it really was a part of the punk rock thing because there were so many kids like me. We were all of that generation where we knew we had to leave town. There were a couple hundred of us who just clustered together in this ratty little club, an abandoned bank, and made this nihilistic caterwaul. We just partied our cares away. It was a perfect setting, sort of a post-apocalyptic scene for this music. I find it to be a really interesting mix of culture, pop culture, politics, and industry.
Comics Career: In that way, I see both the punk rock and the trailer parks in the book as symbolizing that same sort of decline. There’s a sense of things that are frayed around the edges.
Derf: Oh, certainly, especially in the Rust Belt and all across the Midwest. And like I said, these towns never recovered. Since I finished it, the book suddenly has this relevancy because of what’s going on in the economy now. How much more can we lose? What are these towns going to be like after this round? I shudder to think about it.
Comics Career: How did the idea for the series come about?
Derf: A few years had gone by since my last graphic novel and finally I just decided to sit down and come up with a new book. I was on vacation at a lodge in Canada. Every day, I dragged an Adirondack chair down to the lake and sat there, my feet in the water, a 6-pack of Canadian beer buried in the sand and a sketchpad on my lap. And I wrote from breakfast until sunset for seven straight days. It was fabulous! I had three different concepts I was working on. Otto was one of them.
When I started, I laid out a few goals. First, I wanted this to be fiction, because that’s something I hadn’t done before. My work to date has either been the absurdist satire of my comic strip, The City, or non-fiction, long-form comics. I also wanted this to be a big work, my most ambitious to date. I wanted to return to graphic novels with a bang. I figured, since I made my readers wait so long, I might as well give them a good, long read. And lastly, I was determined to really up the bar as far as the art went. I was going to draw my ass off!
Comics Career: Describe how that creative process played out.
Derf: I came up with Otto right away. He must have been kicking around in my head because he came to me very quickly. And I knew I wanted to have him living in a trailer park. I’ve always been fascinated with trailer parks. We had one in the small town where I grew up, full of hillbillies from West Virginia who came north to work in the rubber plants in Akron and the trucking depots on the edge of my town. I thought that would be a natural setting where I could work in these other strange characters I had, like the wacko neighbor who barks at people who pass his door and the nymphomaniac bible-thumper and the cantankerous old uncle who drives his lawn tractor around town after he loses his car after too many DUIs.
So I had Otto and the trailer park and several episodes — and that was it. The story was going nowhere. I didn’t have any motivation or conflict. I didn’t have a plot. So I set it aside and moved on to other projects. But I kept coming back to Otto. There was just something about him that was so attractive.
This struggle with the story went on for the better part of a year. Then I was asked to participate in a benefit concert in Akron, which is 50 miles south of my current Cleveland home, for two musicians from the Rubber City’s punk heyday who were having some medical problems. All these old Akron bands were re-forming, some after decades apart, for this show. I drew a poster and the t-shirt for the event. Now I was a first-generation punk rocker, but I wasn’t really a part of the then-famous Akron scene — my punk years were spent in other cities — but I always followed the scene and, of course, the music. The benefit was a huge hit. The club was packed, the vibe was tremendous and the bands, though often aged hideously, were phenomenal. It reminded me how great it was. And that’s when the brainstorm hit. Of course! I’ll put Otto in the Akron punk club!
After that, yeah, I wrote the whole thing in a week. I’m a firm believer in brainstorms. You have to work ideas and that can be a “long, hard slog” but the best work, in my experience, usually comes with some kind of brainstorm, arriving like manna from heaven, complete with a white light and the sound of a heavenly choir — or, in this case, Johnny Ramone and a buzzsaw riff!
Comics Career: Otto definitely has a unique take on life.
Derf: I think he rolls with the punches. I don’t think Otto ever really thinks he’s going to stick around. He makes a mistake briefly and says he’s staying, but he quickly comes to his senses. Otto really represents what a lot of my contemporaries were thinking, and that was, “I’m getting out.”
I was so anxious to get out that I started college two weeks after high school graduation. I started summer quarter. Otto really has the same feeling.
Comics Career: Otto is an unusual take on the typical nerd character. How did you approach him?
Derf: The nerd is always a staple of comics, for obvious reasons, and particularly of indie comics. But, he usually seems to be a self-loathing, miserable wretch. The world is pressing down upon him, and “Oh, woe is me.” The confessional self-autobiographical comics are particularly prone to this.
I find those characters to be really boring, so when I was thinking about characters, I thought one of the things I haven’t seen is the narcissist geek, the egomaniacal geek. We all know people like that. They walk into a room and they just fill it with their sheer force of personality. These are the guys who are running the world now. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and all those guys. I thought I should do something like that, because I hadn’t seen it before, and I like doing things I haven’t seen before. I don’t want to cover ground that’s been covered. What’s the point?
So, that’s where I started with Otto. I started building his character, and I found that I really liked what he was becoming. He kind of told me what he was. He just spoke to me off the sketchpad and said, “Put this in and put that in.” I just started working with it and piling stuff on. He formed out of thin air on his own, conjured up.
Comics Career: There’s a pivotal moment where Otto comes into his own that deals with the Ramones.
Derf: Where Joey takes a big hocker? Yeah, that’s actually based on my first Ramones concert. Joey took the biggest loogie I’ve ever seen. This thing was the size of a baseball. It was amazing.
A lot of the concert stuff I pulled from my own experience at concerts, trying to recreate the same vibe. I’ve gone to concerts for years and years. I’ve probably seen the Ramones a dozen times, so I had a lot to pull from.
Comics Career: For a work of fiction, there’s a definite sense of verisimilitude to the book. I know people are always asking you if it’s autobiographical. How did you bring that sense of “real life” to the book?
Derf: I always write what I know. And what I know is crumbling rustbelt cities and goofy small towns and, yes, punk rock. And when you write what you know, your work, no matter how farcical, will have that element of truth. And that, I think, gives it depth. Those are the things readers respond to.
Comics Career: You’ve clearly got a handle on the punk rock scene.
Derf: I was a first-generation punk rocker, so this gets back to writing what you know. What I like about punk most of all, outside of great music, is that it remained thoroughly underground throughout the so-called punk era. In fact, there really was no punk era, at least not in this country. In 1980, the charts were dominated by arena rock and disco. The Clash didn’t make the Top 100, but Queen, Floyd, Journey and KC and the Sunshine Band were on it for weeks on end! Radio wouldn’t play punk. Record stores wouldn’t carry it. The media, if it covered punk rock at all, only heaped scorn on it. This was long before the internet. The only way punk spread was by word of mouth. A few dozen enlightened hipsters in every town passing cassette tapes back and forth.
This fascinates me, just as it did back in the day, because it doesn’t work like that anymore. The mainstream absorbs the counter-culture almost immediately now. It was great fun to be part of a radical counter-culture. It was dangerous, or felt that way anyway. It was shocking. It was in-your-face. I loved it, especially being a smalltown dweeb who, up to that point, was none of those things.
Punk rock gave me an identity, as only music can when you’re 19, and a counter-culture aesthetic. I’ve been feeding off that ever since.
The attraction of punk rock as a theme for the book is that it’s something that’s retained its “cool” after all these years, probably because it never sold out, or, more accurately, was never given the chance to sell out. The hippies’ acid rock was soon converted into elevator music, but punk never made it into the mainstream, not for 20 years anyway. And it’s a cultural force that hasn’t been examined much, hardly at all in comix. I like telling stories that having been told before.
That’s also the reason I set the book in Akron and its punk club, The Bank, and not at CBGBs in New York, which is much more famous. Again, I knew Akron intimately and, although I visited CBGBs, I’d only be guessing what that scene was like. A lot has been written about CBGBs. The Akron scene has been largely forgotten. Again, it’s a story that hasn’t been told. So it was fun re-creating it and producing what is really the definitive portrait of what it was like.
Comics Career: What was your approach to working the real punk rockers into the story?
Derf: That was the last thing to be added. I didn’t want the story to be too Akron. Because who the hell cares about local acts like Unit 5 or Rachel Sweet or Hammer Damage outside of a couple hundred middle-aged scenesters in the Rubber City? So I decided to work in these touring punk luminaries to give the story some star power.
I started by picking some of my personal faves: the Ramones, the Clash, Ian Dury and the Blockheads. And then I added artists that I had seen give memorable performances, such as Klaus Nomi and the Plasmatics. I was two-thirds of the way into it when I noticed that all the people I had chosen were, in fact, no longer with us. So I decided to only use deceased rock stars, partly out of fun and partly to, in some small way, honor them and what they meant to me.
Comics Career: There’s a major, unforeseen turn of events at the end of part five which isn’t foreshadowed at all. It seems random, but it isn’t untrue to the narrative. What inspired you to add that unexpected twist?
Derf: Life is unexpected twists, is it not? In fact, nothing in the story works out the way Otto expects it to. I try not to telegraph anything. I don’t think the reader has any idea where this book is going next as they turn the pages. That’s something I always enjoy in a book or film.
Comics Career: Your art style in Punk Rock and Trailer Parks certainly isn’t what a superhero fan would think of as mainstream — it’s clearly much more underground influenced. Who are your major influences as an artist and a writer?
Derf: I have inspirations more than I have influences. I’m in awe of people like Robert Crumb and Jack Kirby — but I can’t really relate to them, because they are so far above us mere mortals. A guy I really am drawn to is Bill Mauldin, the creator of Willie and Joe during World War II and, later, an important political cartoonist. Mauldin wasn’t a genius, nor was he blessed with god-like talent — but he is a guy who made the absolute most out of what he had. He is a real inspiration to me.
As a writer, I look outside comics. I think I have a pretty unique voice in my comic strip. Say what you will about it, but there’s nothing out there that reads quite the same. I’m proud of that. For longer stories, I mostly look to film and study what works there, because, of course, film and comics share so much. For example, I think The Big Lebowski by the Coen Bros is a perfectly written film. That’s the gold standard. If I can get within a whiff of something like that, I’m pleased.
Comics Career: How does graphic novel work differ from your comic strip?
Derf: It’s a totally different process. The strip is four small panels. It’s an absolute. I have to get in, make my point, deliver the punch line and get out. Graphic novels are open-ended. I can make them as long as I want, pace them how I want. It’s liberating! I also don’t have much room to draw in a comic strip. I did when I started The City and papers ran their strips large. Alas, that is no longer the case. Graphic novels offer that nice, big page and it’s totally up to me how to fill them.
The nice thing about a strip, however, is its immediacy. I can draw one in a matter of hours — and a few days later, or even the very next day, there it is in print! I delivered Punk Rock and Trailer Parks to SLG in January, and it was almost ten months before it hit the stands. And it was fast-tracked to get it out that soon!
Comics Career: What other projects do you have in the works?
Derf: Nothing definite. I’ve devoted the last three months to promoting Punk Rock and Trailer Parks. Come 2009 and I’ll figure out what I’m doing next. I have a few ideas.
Comics Career: When did you first begin creating comics?
Derf: I have comics I drew in the second grade! They ain’t bad, either, for a seven-year-old. So it’s something I’ve always done and I don’t really have a reason for doing it, other than I love it and always have.
Comics Career: What was life like for seven-year-old Derf?
Derf: My home life growing up was terrific. I had a marvelous childhood, happy and content, growing up in a little town. My adolescence was a little rough, for the usual reasons, and that’s when I took solace in comics. My parents never really took an active interest in my artistic endeavors, but they certainly indulged me, buying me whatever supplies I needed. And they supported my career choice without hesitation.
My teachers, on the other hand, largely discouraged me, and occasionally punished me, for drawing comics. I was constantly getting busted for drawing in class when I was in grade school. I actually dropped art altogether in junior high because the fetching hippie art teacher wouldn’t let me draw comics. I got a D in art my senior year for drawing too many comics and not enough “real art.” Got stiffed on all the scholarships, too. Those went to obedient students who painted pretty watercolor landscapes or still lifes of fruit.
Comics Career: I understand that you were into superhero comics as teenager.
Derf: Yeah, I started with the superhero stuff, Marvel and DC mostly, when I was eight years old. From 1968 to 1978, I was a total comics dork. This was actually kind of a secret shame thing, because high school kids didn’t read comics back then. I went to great lengths to keep my addiction hidden from my contemporaries.
As the 70s wore on and mainstream comics got ever more unreadable, I fed my jones by buying Silver Age back issues. They were cheap then. Eventually, I bought up all the back issues I was interested in and that was the end of my comics addiction. By 1981 or so, I was done.
Toward the end I started casting a wider net. I read a lot of the underground stuff; Crumb, Spain, Corben, Bode. But underground comix were wiped out in the early 80s, a victim of, of all things, the War on Drugs. This was one of Reagan’s first big policy brainstorms, you’ll recall. It had – and still has – a negligible effect on the consumption of drugs, but it closed all the head shops almost overnight. And head shops were the main distribution point for underground comix. It would be a few years until the modern comic shops started popping up and the whole indy comics thing started happening, so I was shit out of luck as a comics fan.
It was at that point that I just gave up on comics. I was more interested in music by that time, so my meager discretionary funds were set aside for records and shows.
And I really haven’t read comics regularly since. I love making comics. Reading them, not so much.
Comics Career: How did your early cartooning work come about?
Derf: I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to learn how to be a comic book artist. It was a huge disappointment. I spent more time learning fashion illustration and how to render motorcycle parts in airbrush than I did on comics. Finally, in my third semester, I got to take a comics and cartooning class. I told the instructor of my dream and he proceeded to shit all over it, telling me what a crappy, low-paying job it was.
“You should draw greeting cards,” he advised. “That’s a great career!”
I was absolutely crushed. And for some reason, I listened to that guy. Maybe it was because I was so discouraged with what was going on in comic books at the time, I dunno. I gave up the dream and, at the end of the semester, dropped out of art school. It was the only time in my life I’ve listened to discouraging advice.
So I slunk back home and took the only job I could find, hanging off the back of a garbage truck! Nineteen-year-old college dropout working on a garbage truck in his hometown for minimum wage — how’s that for a definition of “loser?” I did that for a year — a miserable, maggot-infested, stinking, reeking year.
Then I returned to school, this time to Ohio State University. I wasn’t sure what I was going to major in. That’s one of the reasons I chose a big state school. It offered every major under the sun and I planned to figure something out as I went along. Turned out that didn’t take long.
Every day at breakfast, I read the school paper, The Lantern, and it ran the work of a number of student cartoonists, several strips and a couple who were doing political cartoons. I thought, “I can do this.” I picked political cartoons because I think I had some kind of ridiculous delusion that I could use my cartoons to change the world — but I think the main reason was the political cartoons were run bigger than the strips. A couple months later, my first published cartoon appeared in The Lantern. And I was on my way.
Comics Career: How did your weekly strip The City get started?
Derf: That was a long process. I graduated from Ohio State with a Journalism degree and the plan of making it “big” as a political cartoonist. I got a job fairly quickly, as a cartoonist for a small daily in West Palm Beach, FL. It was an okay gig but it didn’t take long for me to get restless. The state of political cartooning has been dismal for decades. You can’t be overly controversial or provocative. All the cartoons look the same, read the same. Even the lettering is the same! And if you try to break out of that stylistic box, editors freak out. They don’t know shit about cartoons, but they’re the ones who decide what makes a good cartoon. And it’s a real grind, cranking out five cartoons a week. I was really struggling to stay content in the role.
I landed a job as a staff cartoonist-artist with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. After that I just kind of wigged out stylistically. I was freed of all the political cartooning restraints. It was two years of intense experimentation with both form and media. I started winning a lot of illustration awards, so the editors left me alone. It was a great period. And I was totally immersed in the counterculture of the late 80s — this was early Gen X — and I drew a lot of inspiration out of that. My work had a relevancy that it had never possessed before.
Eventually, that old itch to make comics returned. The local weekly rag ran a bunch of weird comics, Life in Hell, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, even movie director David Lynch did a strip! And again I thought, “I can do this.” So in 1989, I quit my job and holed up in my studio for 6 months and just drew comics, whatever popped into my head. Eventually I settled on this freeform concept of a cartoon about being a young hipster in a big city. I called it The City because, well, that’s what it was.
I drew up ten or so strips, mailed copies to this local rag, The Cleveland Edition, which was a marvelous paper run by an incredible editor, Bill Gunlocke. He called me the next day and a few weeks later, the strip made its debut. It was an immediate local hit. A year later I started selling it to other similar weeklies. Nineteen years later I’m still doing it.
So it was a seven-year journey from college to The City. And I needed every year of that to find my way intellectually and stylistically.
Comics Career: How has your work in The City changed over the years?
Derf: When I started off, I was 28 or 29. I was very plugged into the generational politics of the time. This was Gen X and I was doing a lot of stuff based on that. Well, naturally that changes. Ten years later, they’re all in the 30s and having kids and leaving that all behind. Then, 9/11 happened and the strip became, I think, much more political. I’m not entirely happy with that, but that’s just the way it evolved.
During the last eight years, I think it’s been useful. For the first four years, I used to get all kinds of things of threats, and insults, and brickbats from Bush loyalists. It got ugly, especially leading up to the 2004 election. Since then, as Bush has sunk into oblivion, it’s really eased up. In fact, I’ve been doing cartoons lately about that. It’s like “Where did everybody go?” It’s like they’re all hiding under the stairs clutching their George W. Bush action figures and sucking their thumbs. Six years ago they were tattooing the Ten Commandments on the left butt cheek of every third grader, and now they’re gone.
There’s also been that evolution. You’ve got to change with the times. I always try to be a contrarian. Now you’ve got this regime change, and I think we’ve kind of got to see how it plays out. I think it’s going to be tough for me to use it in my writing at first, because I don’t know where the material will come from. Here’s my point: The strip is always changing, and I sort of let it go.
Comics Career: What were your biggest early influences?
Derf: Probably MAD magazine, just like every cartoonist of the past 50 years.
I loved – and still love – Don Martin. The rest of the magazine bored me, but I’d plunk down 40 cents for a couple of Martin pieces every month, no problem. And the early guys — Kurtzman, Elder, Wood — I loved them, too. I quickly collected all those paperback reprints.
Comics Career: You talked about writing about what you know. Your teenage interactions with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer are intriguing. I think to many of us he seems like a fictional character. So many of the things he later did seem beyond comprehension. It has to be different for you. He was a real living, breathing guy you knew as a kid.
Derf: The whole point of My Friend Dahmer is that people think of Dahmer or think of Hitler, Mengele, or Osama bin Laden, and they seem like absolute evil. But, you know, they were all kids once. They weren’t always evil.
It really does a disservice in some way when you just say, “He’s pure evil.” That’s too easy. That’s an out. There’s a reason they become what they become. In Dahmer’s case, it was this severe dysfunction he had which nobody saw but his contemporaries. All the adults in his life failed him. Every time an adult could have stepped in and said, “Okay, there’s something wrong with this kid, let’s get him some help,” they didn’t. That’s the real lesson of the book.
And, you see it repeated. With the Columbine kids or the kid at Virgina Tech. It’s just the same thing. You can’t drop the ball. That was the higher purpose of My Friend Dahmer.
Comics Career: What motivated you to put your experiences with him into graphic novel form?
Derf: The motivation was that I had a story to tell. It was a different perspective than anyone else had presented. Here’s this guy, and here’s what he did. He was actually kind of a tragic figure, which a lot of people have trouble with when they think of Dahmer.
Once he becomes a monster, I lose interest in him. I mean, I’m not a serial killer fan, and God help me, there are people like that out there, and they write me, and they find me. I’m interested in the spiral down. Dahmer came from what should have been an idyllic childhood. Upper middle class. His dad was a chemist. He had a nice house in a beautiful wooded neighborhood. There’s no reason he shouldn’t have had the type of childhood that I had, which was great. But, he didn’t. So you have to think, “Where did that go wrong?” I don’t know that there’s any clear answer.
The thing about My Friend Dahmer is that it’s a book that’s gotten me a lot of attention, but it’s not typical of what I do. So, in that way, it’s kind of frustrating. It’s so dark and serious, and that’s not my usual stuff. Everything else I’ve done is mostly comedy. So people who discover that book first and then go to my other books, I have the feeling that they’re going to be disappointed. It’s nowhere near the same.
Comics Career: Did your experiences with Dahmer influence the characters in Punk Rock and Trailer Parks? Is there any part of Dahmer’s abused loner that reflected into Otto’s background?
Derf: No. Nothing. Dahmer’s story is dark and dismal. We all well know what the ending is there.
Otto’s story is a hopeful one. It doesn’t turn out like he planned, and there is a tragic element there, but we know great things await Otto.
Comics Career: Turning more to the craft, what’s your work routine like?
Derf: For the strip? I usually start thinking about it on Monday, scanning the news, looking for inspiration. I look for punchlines. These typically pop into my head at some point. From the punch line, I write the strip backwards, filling it out. On Wednesdays I sit down and crank out the line art, scan it into Photoshop and add the copy. Then I do a color version. I email everything out — and it all starts again.
Sometimes this process is easy. Sometimes it’s excruciating. I have a number of partial ideas laying around. Sometimes inspiration will arrive in a flash and I’ll figure out how to finish one of these, months later.
For comic books, it’s a totally different process. I write out the narrative in a small, very rough thumbnail. Mostly I see it in my head, so I don’t require a lot of sketch phases, like some creators do. After thumbnails, I go directly to pencils and these are pretty tight. I pencil straight through, page after page, all the way to the end. Then I’ll go back and make alterations and corrections, additions or subtractions, and make sure everything is consistent, faces, clothes, that sort of thing. Then I start inking. I use the old pro trick of hopping around all over the book, inking page 5 then page 57 then page 123, so the inking is consistent throughout and doesn’t change from front to back.
The books I work on mostly in the evening. I have a laptop drawing board and I park myself on the couch and scribble away while the family watches a dvd. It’s a way for me to relax. I chip away at it. The strip, on the other hand, as much as I love doing it, is hard work with a hard deadline.
Comics Career: What drawing tools do you use?
Derf: Mechanical pencils, Micron Pens and Sharpie markers for the blacks. Comics are complicated to compose, but simple to make. That’s a great part of their appeal to me, too. Color is added in Photoshop.
Comics Career: Unlike a lot of current comics you seem to do all your lettering by hand. What’s your approach to lettering?
Derf: I’m re-thinking that, actually. About a year ago, I switched to computer type for the strip, because papers have shrunk – and in turn reduced the comics – to the point where my hand-lettered type was no longer legible. When I started, the strip typically was stripped across the width of a page, 10 inches or so. I had tons of room to draw and write. These days, I’m lucky if the strip is run half that size. I held out as long as I could, because I like that DIY look. That’s a very punk rock stance, too, so I went back to that for Punk Rock and Trailer Parks and hand lettered everything. And ya know what? It was a total hassle! It makes corrections and alterations a real pain in the ass. Future books will have computer type.
Comics Career: What is the typical starting point of a story for you?
Derf: Well, I’ve only the three books — and they all came together differently.
My Friend Dahmer was written for me. It is what it is. The story was there and I can’t take credit for it. The struggle was how to put it together and, of course, deal with the story itself, on a personal level. It really fucked with my head, as you can imagine. I started the first chapter of that book about two years after his death. It took five years to finish the rest of the 24-page book!
Trashed, on the other hand, was a complete joy. This too was written for me, because it all really happened, but, unlike Dahmer, these were stories I loved to think about and tell people about. I’d been loudly regaling the unwary with tales of maggots and garbage at bars and parties for years, so it was easy to put down on paper. I guess the similarity between the two is that it started with the story.
Punk Rock and Trailer Parks started with Otto. I came up with the character and then wrote the story around him. The difference there is that Otto, by the very nature of him, dictated where that story was going. I could plug him into a situation and that scene would almost write itself.
Comics Career: What has been the most rewarding project?
Derf: Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is my baby. It’s the most recent, obviously, and I’m very proud of it. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. But I don’t think anything will ever top The City, especially those first couple years. After years of struggle, I finally produced something that got people talking and taking notice. It was incredibly gratifying.
Comics Career: How do you judge when a story is “done” and you can stop revising it?
Derf: Ha. Usually, it’s the deadline that tells me when it’s done. I’m a newspaperman at heart and I like working with deadlines. Even if I don’t have one, I’ll give myself one. There reaches a point with any creator when you just have to let the work go. It’ll never be perfect. A deadline helps you let it go.
Comics Career: What advice do you give to others who want to work in the comics industry – either in cartooning or graphic novels?
Derf: The best advice I can give is: find your voice. It has to be yours. And don’t worry about failing. It’s part of the process.
I learned to cartoon on the pages of the paper at Ohio State. It had a huge daily circulation of 35,000, twice the size of my first pro paper! And it was all students and profs and grad students, smart, educated readers, not some nitwit housewife who gets all her news from religious radio or some bonehead who only reads the paper for the box scores. So I was challenged on my political statements and when I bombed, which was often, it was a very public flameout. But man! What a great learning experience, under pressure and under fire. For a young cartoonist, I still think that’s a great way to go. Find a college with a good school paper.
The future of cartoons, however, is on the web. Concentrate on that. Newspapers and magazines will be gone in 10 years.
As for graphic novels, I wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms into comic books, despite having logged a lot of success with The City. I was quite surprised at what a closed little world that is. Both My Friend Dahmer and Trashed were rejected by every comics publisher in the biz until SLG agreed to publish Trashed. And both those books wound up with Eisner nominations!
Comics Career: What are the biggest mistakes you’ve seen other creators or aspiring professionals make that hurt their chances to advance their careers?
Derf: I think the biggest mistake is giving up too easily. This is not a career for the weak. You can’t get discouraged by a few – or a few dozen – rejections.
Comics is a tough business. There’s no question. But, if you don’t try, you’ll never know if you’ll be successful or not. I think if you must make comics, you will make comics. There’s something there that drives people to do it, and that’s how it should be.
Happily, what I’ve done – which is why I’m swimming in money now – has been a labor of love. I don’t make compromises. I do what I want to do in the way I want to do it.
That really sounds noble, but it’s really probably fuckin’ stupid. [Laughter] That’s just the way it’s always been with me.
Comics Career: The punk rock mentality.
Derf: Well, I guess so. But, y’know, I’d like to make a little more money – no doubt there. Oh well, it’s probably too late to worry about that now.
Comics Career: What networking tips have you picked up to promote your work and advance your career?
Derf: Very few, unfortunately! I suck at networking. Which is why I’m the huge success I am today!
Comics Career: At the end of these interviews I tend to get philosophical. How would you sum up the most important “big idea” that you’ve learned in life, in or out of comics?
Derf: I don’t believe in “big ideas.” Life is dictated by “little ideas”, strung together. Six years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I’m fine now, but it was an ordeal: surgery, chemo, radiation, the whole bit. That’s why there was a 7-year gap between graphic novels. At the same time, a musician I admire greatly, Warren Zevon, was also battling cancer, a battle he lost. He made one final appearance on David Letterman, who was also a longtime fan. Zevon’s prognosis at that point was terminal.
“Is there anything you now know that I don’t?” Letterman asked him.
“Enjoy every sandwich,” answered Zevon.
That’s what I’ve tried to do ever since, be it ice-skating with my daughter or walking the dog in the woods on a beautiful fall day or producing a strip or book that I’m pleased with.
I have two things hanging over my drawing board. That Zevon quote — and a photo of the garbage truck I worked on so many years ago. One is a reminder of how to live my life — the other a reminder of where I could wind up again if I don’t keep working hard.
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All art is © 2008 Derf. Interview is © 2008 Comics Career LLC and Derf. All rights reserved. It may not be represented in any form without written permission.