Derf Backderf, how old were you when you started to draw ?
I was five years old when I started to read and draw comics. I was always fascinated with comics.
How did you get into political cartoons and why ?
That’s a long question, 30 years of career. You know, I don’t remember a good reason for doing political cartoons. It was an opportunity. In college, they had a newspaper. My university needed a political cartoonist and I said ok. Oh yes, I was an idiot. 20 years old, I should not have been a political cartoonist. But that’s how it started.
It was a huge university. 60,000 students. The newspaper printed 30,000 copies. And here I was. I had no fear of drawing these cartoons. I don’t know where the inspiration came from. You just have to want it.
Was it a good exercise ?
Oh yes during three years, four or five cartoons a week. Some of them were terrible. But I was where it started. After that, I went to a newspaper for a while. I started with big mainstream papers, I didn’t like that. So I started working with these underground papers in the US. You don’t really have them here. They were free papers you can find in cafes or coffee shops.
They were full of comics and great comics like Matt Groening, Charles Burns, Ben Katchor, Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware. It was amazing, these great comics. And I was in about 150 of those newspapers for 20 years. It was an opportunity. They were publishing these experimental comics that the mainstream was not.
Was it always political ?
Sometimes, not always. Usually not. I was tired of political cartoons, I wanted to do something different. I could experiment. No one told me how to draw. It was freedom.
If we go further, we can talk about Dahmer. Was it hard to write a story about a man who was to become a serial killer ?
Yes sure. It took 20 years to make that book. Obviously I had trouble with it. I started it probably in 1981, when he was captured. I did several versions during 15 years before I finally produced the book. Yes it was very difficult !
Can we say that Dahmer was your friend ?
Sure, we were friends, we weren’t close friends. But he didn’t have close friends. His life was sad.
Derf Backderf, why are Richfield and Ohio so important in your life ?
You write about what you know. I found some really great stories, in that area and in my life. Even if it’s fiction, it’s still inspired by the place where you live and your experience. It’s been very good to me.
You wrote Trashed, a manifest against overconsumption and junk food. Is it important for you to talk about it ?
Oh sure yeah, when you’re hanging on the back of a garbage truck, you think about these things. It was a very life changing job. Again, I had these great stories from that experience. But I wanted it to be a little more than just a stupid comedy. I wanted to talk about that other stuff which no one knows about. It’s the secret world of garbage, it’s vast, not just in America, but especially in America and also here in Europe. Where does all this stuff go ? So much of it can’t disappear. It’s an important question.
Humor is here in Trashed. Is it something that you want to experiment again ?
My comic strip was a humor strip. I started with nothing but humor. I did that for years and years and years. Mon ami Dahmer is the one that is different. And Kent State of course. People were surprised that I could do a serious story. But I like them both, I like doing different things.
Kent State is also a manifest against guns and their easy access.
Yes I suppose. But they are soldiers, they are allowed to have guns. It’s more a manifest against really extreme politics.
The law against easy access to guns hasn’t been passed. The Republicans in Congress were… no… That’s been going on for 40 years. I wish. But even the police would still have guns. The police are a problem, there are so many guns in the United States. They can’t take them away. Some people have 50 guns in their basement, it’s crazy.
When we read Kent State, we can imagine you’re against that ?
Sure, but I mean Kent State is something different. That’s not about some idiots with a gun, who start to shoot up everybody. It’s about politicians sending soldiers against protestors. You have that here, all over Europe. It’s something that happens over and over.
What is the place of Kent State in your career and in your life ?
The book or the protest ? I don’t know. The book has been very well received, it’s sold very well and I think it’s just another book. I’ve done four books and each one is a little better. And I am happy with it. This one won an Eisner Award which was important. I really wanted that Eisner Award. That was nice.
If today you had to draw comic strips, which one would you choose ?
I don’t know if I could draw comic strips anymore. I think now in these long stories and to draw a little tiny one two three four… I couldn’t do it. I’ve lost that ability. Now it would only be a book.
And what kind of true story ?
I don’t know. I’dprobably write about the metro in Paris, and I will try to see something weird that was happening. True stories are always a surprise. They happen. Write them down really quickly and thank to cartoon god, you run home and draw. But you can’t look for them, they just have to happen.
Derf Backderf, we saw at the exhibition that you were working on Punk Rock two.
I’ve been working on that a while. That’s just like a fun, side project. I have another book to write, a big book but that’s a secret. I can’t talk about it. It will be fun, they are always fun. But it’s not a comedy. Punk Rock 2 is a comedy.
Thank you very much Derf Backderf for the time we spent with you. It was such a great pleasure. See you soon.
Interview conducted in Saint-Malo during the Quai des bulles festival, on 8 October 2022.
Translation: Clémentine Sanchez, layout: Claire Karius
À propos de l'auteur de cet article
Damien Canteau est passionné par la bande dessinée depuis une vingtaine d’années. Après avoir organisé des festivals, fondé des fanzines, écrit de nombreux articles, il est toujours à la recherche de petites merveilles qu’il prend plaisir à vous faire découvrir. Il est aussi membre de l'ACBD (Association des Critiques et journalistes de Bande Dessinée). Il est le rédacteur en chef du site Comixtrip.En savoir