The City Life: John “Derf” Backderf talks about his his early comic strip days in Cleveland, and a new Web comic
Derf found his cartoon voice circa 1990 in the Cleveland Edition with The City, a gravelly mash of Rust Belt angst, vulgarity, vunerability and glee. He went on to draw/write the critically acclaimed My Friend Dahmer and Trashed. Sort of the Josephine Baker of the comic book world, he’s really big in France and Belgium, where he travels four times a year. But his brash, loopy style is all Cleveland.
“We don’t like people making fun of us, but we’re happy to make fun of each other,” Derf says. “We’ve got no problem with that. It’s that shared misery type of thing. Some people don’t get that, but I always thought it was a lot of fun.”
More people are beginning to get it. Derf just took home the Eisner award, the Oscar of the comic book world, at the San Diego Comicon in July. In advance of his show at Waterloo Arts, he talks about the squares at the PD, Joe Strummer, and his new webcomic, The Baron of Prospect Avenue. –LP
How did The City come about?
I was at the Plain Dealer and hated it. Even though I was making a lot of money. I was still young, I didn’t have any kids, I had no expenses, my wife had a good job. And I was just tired of doing lame cartoons for squares. And I quit and just tried to come up with something on my own. And I spent about a year doing that and what came out on the other end was a couple things. But the one that took hold first was the comic strip–the city. And I just noticed the other weekly strips that were around that were doing well like [Matt Groening’s] Life in Hell and Lynda Barry [Ernie Pook’s Comeek] and a couple others and I thought I could do that, and I did.
Were you doing a weekly comic strip at the PD?
I was doing sports cartoons. I was the backup political cartoonist, even though I didn’t want to do it. Just everywhere. Big caricatures and stuff. I only lasted about two years, and then I was like, Get me out of here.
Did they edit you a lot?
Well, yeah it’s the PD. Mainstream papers, they always edit you. You had it in your head. You knew what you could get away with and you couldn’t’ get away with. And it was really square then, too. It was all these 55 year old guys (and I’m that old now) in black horn rims (like mine), but they were super square. It just was no fun.
So at The Edition, did you just send your work to [publisher] Bill Gunlocke?
That’s exactly what I did. I sent him a package of 10 cartoons. And he called me the next day and said, “Let’s run this next week on the front page.” It hit like a grenade. It was the first time. To quote Joe Strummer, it’s a great thing to be in the right time in the right place with the right shit. And it just really took off. And people were talking about it and noticing it in a way that nobody had before. It was a great period. I was just thinking about it today.”
I started exclusively for The Edition. I decided to start locally and work my way out. That was always the plan. So then I could work out the kinks and see if it was any good. But the reaction was so good here in Cleveland that I started sending it out to other alternative newspapers a year later. I picked up a lot of papers right off the bat.
That first 10 years was a lot of fun. After that it became progressively less fun.
How did you make the transition to books, then?
Honestly, it was just me finally deciding, “Screw it. I’m just going to throw myself into it. And I did my first book, Punk Rock and Trailer Parks. It was a 250-page book. And I just sat down and said, ‘No fear. Whatever the story calls me to draw, I will draw. And you know, it turned out pretty well.’
It’s all been great. I’ve taken to it very naturally, and judging from the response and success of the books, it turns out I was in the wrong field all along. So I basically wasted 15 years of my life.
But you’re on the right track now.
Yeah. Work till you die.
Punk Rock and Trailer Parks–did you know right away you were going to do that as your first book, the Akron music scene?
No, my first stories were actually the garbage truck stories [Trashed]. They got collected in what we called a floppy. It’s like a 50-page magazine. My plan was to make that a continuing series. And I actually got two Eisner nominations that year.
So I thought wow, this is great, but unfortunately I got cancer, so that put the brakes on everything. I had to deal with that for a while.
When I came out of the other end of this cancer thing, I decided, I don’t want to deal with anything heavy, like Dahmer. I’m just gonna do this story I have in my head about the Akron punk scene. Have fun with it. And so that’s what I did. And I think it was the right move.
The book has strangely become a bestseller overseas. Punk Rock and Trailer Parks especially is this huge hit in France and Belgium, the two greatest comics countries in the world. Which is great, because unfortunately when it came out in the US my publisher went out of business almost immediately. So the book never really got distributed. It got great reviews but it was really hard to find. But overseas, it’s sold a bunch. And I was like, Goddammit, I knew that book would sell.
People really like it, which makes me feel good because I’m very fond of that book. Which is why I’m doing another … with the characters. Just for fun, really.
The Baron of Prospect Avenue is a sequel. We reunite with the main character working at a bookstore in Cleveland.
Kay’s Books on Prospect [in Cleveland]. It was legendary. I used to take a bus up there from Richfield when I was like, 13, and buy all my sci-fi. Walk out of there with two bags full of books. I’ve never seen a bigger bookstore. Books were packed everywhere! They knew where everything was. I don’t know how.
And all these colorful characters. I thought it would be a fun setting. That whole Prospect Avenue of that era would be a lot of fun. Back then it was wig stores, Jewish tailors, all these print shops from like the ‘40s.
Usually I’d go with a couple buddies. It was a whole Saturday here. Go to Otto Mosers’ for lunch and hang out in the arcade and go to the comic book shop in the colonial arcade. It was just a really colorful era that a lot of people have forgotten about. When people think about that time, they think about the river catching on fire and default and all that shit, but it was so much more.
Did you do a lot of research for the series?
Not a lot. But there is some stuff. I found out Frank Spisak was a clerk there. He was the Neo-Nazi who killed three people at Cleveland State. He was also a transsexual hooker. This guy had a head full of cats. I was like ah, I gotta work him in. I probably won’t depict the murders or anything, but he’ll be flitting in and out.
You’ve been making some appearances—like a live drawing event at the Cleveland Museum of Art recently. Was that fun?
Um, you know, I’ve always been a little reclusive. And all the time I was doing The City, it became almost a habit. And when My Friend Dahmer was about to come out, I knew it was going to be a big hit. And I decided you know what, from now on, my default is to say yes, unless I have a reason not to. So when people ask me to do stuff now, I say ‘Sure.’ It’s a lot more fun.
That event wasn’t very well attended, but it was fun. I had to pick a favorite piece at the museum and do my rendition of it. Well, I did, anyway, I don’t think anybody else did. So I picked Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows, who was actually a predecessor of mine at Ohio State. He worked for Ohio State student publications like in 1900. And I always loved that painting, so I redrew it as a floor fight at the Republican convention between a Trump supporter and a Dump Trumper. I did it in two hours. People loved it. They went crazy over it. I just did it with marker. It was really not very good. I don’t even know who has it now. I just left it there.
Creative Workforce Fellowship winner John Derf Backderf will show original drawings from The Baron of Prospect Avenue at Waterloo Arts Gallery, November 4 – 25.