When we first met in January, Derf and I, we couldn’t have known how our world would change. Everything was normal then. The streets of Shaker Heights, where Derf lives, were mostly devoid of cars or humans. But that was no symptom of quarantine. It was just a weekday. As I pulled up to his house, I even saw someone walking their dog. Derf greeted me at the front door. We shook hands.
I had come to interview Derf about his new graphic novel, Kent State: Four Dead In Ohio. In it, the events of the May 4, 1970, Kent State University shootings, which took place 50 years ago this month, are reproduced in vivid and carefully researched detail.
The Kent State shootings are an odd topic for Derf, who got his start drawing lefty political cartoons, made his name with the irreverent, sometimes profane alt weekly comic strip The City and then pivoted into the world of graphic novels with his debut Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, a coming-of-age story of sex, punk rock and rebellion.
To be fair, his breakthrough works have struck a more serious tone. Most people know Derf for My Friend Dahmer, the tragic tale of his high school semi-friendship with the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Other people know him from Trashed, his specifically fictional but broadly true story about garbage collectors and the tons of trash we all inflict upon the Earth.
Kent State, I was reminded as we climbed the stairs and sat down in Derf’s cubbyhole attic office, is his most serious journalistic work to date. Dahmer was based on his and his friends’ personal experiences, and research on Dahmer. Trashed intermingled a fictionalized version of the year he spent collecting waste, back when he was plain John Backderf, with deep reporting on the trash industry. But Kent State is something apart.
In Derf’s studio, a drawing board sat in the room’s center. Scattered stacks of books and files of paper seemed to take up most of the other surfaces around it, forming a peculiar interior decoration scheme of primary source documents, reference photos, articles and live sketches.
Derf conducted that research to faithfully tell the stories of the four students who were killed by the National Guard on Kent State’s campus. Those stories are touching and horrifying, a reminder of the domestic costs of forever wars, the human cost of dissent and the consequences of placing state powers in the hands of what Derf sees as idiots, ideologues and warmongers.
Kent State is also Derf at his most assured. He is 60 now, and though his wry powers of observation and idiosyncratic style are no less present, Kent State reflects a sober side.
That day in his office, Derf and I made plans to visit the campus of Kent State together. But I was feeling a pain in my side, which in subsequent days got worse and turned into three days in the hospital, a week at home on drugs and the promise of future surgery. I canceled and Derf jetted off to France for a few weeks, where he has a large and loyal readership.
Then on March 18, in the midst of the coronavirus shutdown, Derf emailed. The publication of Kent State was pushed back to September, when he hoped at least some normalcy will return. Preorders were still available. “It’s all a strange new world,” Derf said when I called. “It would be horrible to put out a book now, just as the entire book retail machinery is grinding to a stop. This is the best of bad options.”
My first thought was, Oh crap. My second was, How appropriate. All of Derf’s graphic novels wrestle with bad options and doom: Dahmer’s early years, mountains of trash, tragic shootings. Even the comparatively joyous Punk Rock & Trailer Parks presents a world arrayed against Otto, its protagonist.
But for all fabric of gloom that clothes them, Derf’s stories are also embroidered with threads of hope and struggle, small reminders of the good in the big, bad world: Otto finding a sense of belonging in an Akron punk club; J.B. the trash man marveling at his crazy coworkers; a Kent student placing a flower in a guardsman’s gun barrel.
It turns out that when actual doom arrives, we need an artist like Derf Backderf, a Clevelander, to remind us that though awfulness is enduring, so are we.
“I think that’s probably a little bit [from] growing up in the Rust Belt. We’ve been screwed so many times by Wall Street, government or whoever that we have to make the best of it,” Derf told me as we sat together in his office. “That’s that attitude, kind of like, To hell with the rest of you, I’m going to make the most of the what’s here.”