From the Panel to the Page to the Silver Screen, Celebrating the Work of the Legendary Derf

Three local cartoonists were awarded 2016 Creative Workforce Fellowships, including John G. and Nathan Ward. The third, of course, went to John "Derf" Backderf. It was a long overdue hometown honor.

Derf's "The City" comic once ran in these very pages. (Ed. Note: Sorry about ever getting rid of it, Derf.) Spanning over 15,000 strips, "The City" ran from 1990 to 2014 and was nationally syndicated in more than 170 weekly publications. After nearly 25 years, Derf ended the strip to focus on graphic novels. In that area, Derf quickly found fertile ground and a bigger new audience. "My Friend Dahmer," which cataloged his childhood friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, became an international bestseller and award winner. Now, the graphic novel will become a movie, which was recently filming in Northeast Ohio. With all that, Derf is also touring abroad in support of his latest release, "Trashed," (which was also optioned for a movie) and working on a sequel ("The Baron of Prospect") to his first graphic novel ("Punk Rock & Trailer Parks") and planning an art exhibition in conjunction with the project in the Waterloo arts district.

Thanks to his fellowship grant, Derf is posting pages from his upcoming graphic novel on his website for free to the public. "The Baron of Prospect" pays homage to the Prospect Avenue of Derf's youth, an area he would frequently visit on trips from Richfield in his teen years. The story and characters are fictional, but Derf has dutifully researched and collected reference material to create an accurate and familiar setting.

"I wanted to work with those characters again and I had this idea of setting a story in the funky Prospect Avenue, district of my youth, back when it was this incredible mix of old Jewish shopkeepers, hookers , street hustlers, and weirdoes of all kinds," Derf remembers fondly. "I used to make pilgrimages there, and the shops there were legendary, from Kay's Books to Record Rendezvous to the Colonial Arcade Luncheonette and the original Otto Moser's on E. 4th. The sidewalks were packed and the energy of the place made a huge impression on me. It was the first step in my journey from small town kid to urban animal. That Prospect is all gone now that it's has been cleaned up and sanitized and transformed into a restaurant district for visiting suburbanites. So I thought it would be fun to re-create it, much the same way I re-created The Bank punk club in downtown Akron in 'Punk Rock & Trailer Parks.' I enjoy resurrecting these lost places."

Waterloo Arts is hosting a special exhibition of 70 to 80 original pages from The Baron of Prospect Ave., as well as pencil pages and reference material. Presented in chronological order, visitors will be able to read the pages in order as they explore the gallery. The work will be for sale, as well as a full selection of his graphic novels. (Derf's exhibition at Waterloo Arts opens with a reception during November's Walk All Over Waterloo, 5 to 10 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 4, and remains on view through Nov. 25.)

Locations are key for Derf, as inspiration and fodder. In that vein, before Marc Meyers began filming his film adaptation of "My Friend Dahmer," Derf invited Meyers to his hometown to tour the real sites depicted in the book.

"I thought it was important that Marc see the places where the story took place, since the setting plays such a big role in the book," he says. "Not just the surreal contrast of bucolic Bath and Richfield and an emerging monster, but the distinctive topography of the area and the role that place played in Jeff's life, and mine. Marc and I basically walked through the book, scene by scene, and followed Dahmer's footsteps. It's something I'd never done before either, not in order anyways. I thought it was important for a guy from Brooklyn to get a sense of an Ohio small town, and he enthusiastically agreed."

A period piece, Meyers attempted to use as many real venues as possible. However, some were unavailable or too updated to be used.

"Summit Mall, where a pivotal scene in the book unfolds, was recreated at the closed Euclid Square Mall," Derf reveals. "Summit Mall, of course, is still open and has been remodeled too many times to use as a set. Euclid Square is empty and delightfully period. The only tenants are a bunch of fire-and-brimstone black churches. Revere High School, my alma mater, wouldn't allow any filming on its property, not surprisingly. So Berea Midpark was used instead. What I've seen looks great. Marc got such a bad vibe from Revere, he changed the name of the school in the film. I'm guessing they're pretty pissed at me, too. The local townsfolk, on the other hand, welcomed the production with open arms."

Derf promises the film will remain faithful to its source materials. Meyers even clipped panels directly from the pages of Derf's graphic novel for his storyboards.

"It's true that the storyboard has many sequences just clipped straight from the book," Derf confirms. "All the major events in the book will be in the film. It's pretty much a faithful adaption. Marc added a little more about the Dahmer Family and Jeff's home life. Guess he felt that was needed. The production designers did a fantastic job recreating the NE Ohio Seventies in all its glory, right down to Michael Stanley shirts and WMMS bumper stickers."

Currently in post-production, My Friend Dahmer is slated for a 2017 theatrical release.

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