Most Interesting People 2012: John Backderf

John Backderf

Graphic novelist and cartoonist, 52

/ Why he’s interesting / Backderf, better known by his pen name, Derf, creates the cynical, provocative comic strip The City, which mixes bizarre Cleveland street encounters with savage political satire. After 21 years in local weeklies, The City debuted in The Plain Dealer’s PDQ section in September.

/ The strip / Derf heads out to cafes and diners or takes a walk with his sketchbook to look for new ideas. “It’s really getting back to its roots as observational scribblings about Cleveland.”

/ Career change / “Ten years ago, I was a cartoonist dabbling in graphic novels. Now I’m a graphic novelist dabbling in cartoons.” He’s written three graphic novels, Trashed, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks and My Friend Dahmer.

/ Truckin’ / Trashed tells the story of Derf’s experience as a garbageman in Richfield. “It’s this world that nobody knows about: the exploding garbage bags, the roadkill, the toxic chemicals.” He still keeps a picture of the garbage truck over his drawing board as a reminder. “Keep working hard,” he tells himself, “or you could wind up hanging off the back of that truck again!”

/ His studio / Derf draws in his attic, where sketched ideas are pinned to the walls and shelves hold copies of the defunct Cleveland Edition and revolutionary ’60s newspapers such as the East Village Other.

/ His friend Dahmer / My Friend Dahmer, to be published in March by Abrams ComicArts, recounts Derf’s teenage friendship with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who went to Revere High School with him. “The story of the book is about this troubled teen who spirals down and how, at every step along the way, as he kept getting worse and worse” — fake epileptic fits, drinking a fifth of liquor each morning — “somehow, no adults in his life noticed anything amiss.”

/ Akron punk / Derf’s Punk Rock & Trailer Parks recreates Akron’s renowned punk scene through the eyes of a trailer-dwelling antihero named Otto. Derf created him as the opposite of a staple character in indie comics, the self-loathing geek. The geeks he’s known “don’t see themselves as downtrodden or pathetic. They see themselves as rock stars.”

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