Derf Backderf attended art school as a young man and dropped out before long. He decided instead to do journalism school, where he enjoyed writing, taking photos and making cartoons for the school paper. After college, he had some stints doing political cartoons and comic strips for newspapers, and eventually, he yearned for more space to tell sequential stories.
“My comic strips were not character-driven,” Backderf said. “It was all kind of stream-of-consciousness or gag stuff or weird, whatever popped into my head. Writing long-form books, you build them all around characters. I always thought that would be a fun way to write, and damned if it isn’t.”
With his latest graphic novel released this month, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, Backderf has combined copious reporting with visual storytelling to recount the Ohio National Guard’s slaughter of unarmed college students protesting the Vietnam War.
Since his beloved 2012 graphic novel My Friend Dahmer, Backderf has become-known for implementing a journalistic practice of interviewing and researching with comic book-style storytelling. My Friend Dahmer told the story of Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood and included several personal accounts from Backderf, because he went to school with Dahmer and considered him a friend. A 2015 book, Trashed, is a fictional story about garbage men but includes loads of research about the profession and pulls from Backderf’s personal experience as a garbage man.
A 10-year-old Ohio resident at the time, Backderf has some personal connection to the Kent State incident though not quite as intimate a connection as with the subject matter of his past two graphic novels. Backderf spent about two years researching, which included lots of digging through archives and news reports and interviewing primarily people who knew the people killed at the shooting.
“It’s a really compelling story, so it came together, I think, pretty easily,” Backderf said. “And then it’s just filling in the details.”
Even when he began to draw the book, which took another two years, he still kept researching and trying to obtain more interviews to be sure he had a full picture of what happened. He stuck strictly to the facts.
“I’m not adding stuff. I don’t believe in that,” Backderf said. “I work with what is documented. There has to be some corroboration… it’s all footnoted. There’s 25 pages of footnotes in the back. Every page, almost every panel, lists the source material, where that stuff came from.”
He set certain parameters for himself when doing the book, most crucial being that he wanted to focus on the four students who were killed.
“What I wanted to do was put the reader on the ground with these people and take them along for the ride, so that the history is very up-close and personal. You know, you feel it,” Backderf said. “I wanted it to be felt. And when they’re cut down, it’s a story that packs a wallop.”
It’s disturbing subject matter. Backderf had some trouble when depicting the actual shooting.
“It was rough,” Backderf said. “I put that off until the very end because I knew it was gonna be tough. I drew it, penciled it, in a day, and the book, unlike anything else before, shows the shootings and exactly what happened and how these kids fell. There were four killed, nine shot and wounded, four of them critically, two of them crippled for life.”
At this point in his decades-long career, Backderf has grown a lot as an artist even though there’s a very clear line to draw from his roots working on his school newspaper to his current journalistic graphic novel work. He used to draw in a typical political cartoon style that soon bored him. He went on to draw a weekly comic strip called The City, which he described as having a sort of experimental, post-punk look to it. He enjoyed that, but that’s not how he draws anymore either.
“When I went to long-form storytelling, I left all that behind, because it requires a different art style to tell the story,” Backderf said. “And telling the story is what’s paramount here.”
all images courtesy of derf backderf. you can buy the kent state book by clicking here.
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