Talking Trash With Derf

Derf’s The City was one of the most popular alt weekly newspaper comic strips of all time, appearing in 140 papers at its height, and his international best seller My Friend Dahmer won the Angoulême Prize and named by Time magazine as one of the “top five non-fiction books of the year” in 2012.  His new graphic novel, Trashed, is a great break-down of the garbage industry inspired in part by the time Derf himself worked as a garbageman.  You can meet Derf on April 2nd here in Pittsburgh at PIX, where he’ll sign books and talk during the evening’s programming.  We asked him to fill us in on a few things:

John Kelly: You spent years as one of the most visible alt-weekly cartoonists.
Other than the medium being pretty much dead —or at least diminished— what do you see as
the biggest changes in that world?  Is it even an option for cartoonists today?  And
what, besides Craigslist, killed it off?


Derf: Sadly, that is a genre that no longer exists. Neither do daily strips for
that matter, not as a viable career anyways. The weekly guys who are still
at it have all transitioned to a paid web model. Seems to be working for
them. I chose to go in a different direction. I was bored with it. Turns
out, judging from the reception my books have received, I was toiling in
the wrong genre all along! Oh well. Twenty years down the crapper!

The internet wiped out the weeklies, for sure. Not only by absconding with
its main sources of revenue— personals and classifieds— but by taking its
content. The weekly press was the internet before the internet. The
weeklies were also plagued by lousy management and stupid decisions. Look
no further than getting rid of comic strips for evidence of that! I pin
this on the bizarre corporate takeover of the “alternative” press. The
first generation of activist, local owners all cashed out by the end of
the 90s and sold their papers to corporate media companies. It was pretty
much all over at that point.

Everything has it’s time, and the era of the vibrant weekly press, and of
weekly cartoons, is long over. It’s too bad, because it was great fun and
we did important work.

Kelly: Did you always hope to expand your work into these longer pieces like
Dahmer and Trashed?  Both started out as smaller projects.  Did you envision longer
pieces with them from the start?


Derf: My Friend Dahmer, absolutely. I always envisioned it as a long book. The
early, short versions were little more than samples that I hoped would
interest a larger publisher in the project, which didn’’t happen. And also
was me working out how to tell and draw a longform story. There was a
bigger learning curve there, especially with the art,  than I expected.

Trashed started as a 50-page floppy in 2002. I had no expectations there
of a larger work. But when it was so well received and got me my first
Eisner nomination, I decided it would be an ongoing project. I came back
to it in 2010 and 2012 as a webcomic. It only took that long because of
cancer and my decision to make Punk Rock & Trailer Parks first.  I was
planning to keep adding to the Trashed webcomic until it eventually became
a book. I considered it  a side project. It was my editor at Abrams,
Charlie Kochman, who prodded me to make it a book now, which was a great
call, it turns out. So the new graphic novel is basically the entire web
series I had mapped out.

Kelly: Rate your own garbage disposal/recycling habits.  It all seems pretty
hopeless. Is it?

Derf: I do as well as I can. I’m not an eco-fanatic. I recycle absolutely
everything, but, like all Americans, I’m faced with over-packaging and
commercial waste at every turn. Until we cut down on that, at the
production end, our garbage will continue to be a huge problem. As I
explain in the book, the biggest part of our waste, almost a third, is
packaging. So the largest part of our crap is the crap our crap comes in!
That’’s America.

I am, however, really obsessive about how my garbage is put out. Nothing
is too heavy, everything is neat and tidy and lined up for the garbagemen.
No piles of trash, no boobytraps. My wife laughs at me because I spend so
much time arranging the trash.

Kelly: It’s clear that both Dahmer and Trashed were extremely researched.  How
did your background at newspapers and as a journalism student help with this
process?  Can you pick out anything you found during the research process for either (or
both books) that stands out as something that surprised you to learn?  Also, as
someone who who was there for the Dahmer story, were there things that the media
just got wrong in their reporting?


Derf: The media got just about EVERYthing wrong about Dahmer’’s young life. That
was really aggravating, since I was still working in the press at that
time. It was thoroughly depressing watching the 24-hour news cycle in
action, right on my doorstep, actually.

The biggest surprise for me regarding Jeff, was how close to that first
murder my friends and I were. Mere feet away from the body, at some
points. When he carved up his first victim, the rest of us were just a few
houses away at a friend’s party! I had quite a few sleepless nights over
these revelations. But it’s all ancient history now. I have to keep
reminding myself Jeff was real. He’s become a character in a comic book to
me now, 23 years after his death. That’s a psychological defense
mechanism, I imagine.

Kelly: Can you talk about any other graphic novels that you feel really stand out?

Derf: I don’t read many comics anymore, to be completely honest. I stopped
reading comics when I started making comics. It’s just something I needed
to do for my own creative development. I’m aware of what’s out there and
what’s good, but I don’t feel I can offer any opinions. I will say this,
it’s a golden age of graphic novels right now. Every month sees a dozen
incredible books, and that’s not even counting the avalanche of material
coming from micro-publishers. It’s a fabulous time to be a comics fan.

Kelly: Any advice for people trying to break into the field?

Derf: Do good work. I firmly believe that good work finds a way to be seen. It’’s
as simple as that, but, of course, that’s not an easy accomplishment.
That’’s the thing.

Kelly: What are you working on next/now?


Derf: Right now I’m dabbling with another webcomic, The Baron of Prospect Ave.
It’s a sequel to my first book, punk Rock & Trailer Parks. Another fun
side project. Except I actually got a big arts grant to do it! In Ohio we
have these Cultural Workforce grants and they gave three of them to comics
creators this year, which is pretty damn cool. You can read it on my
website It’s another side project, just for fun, but it
too will be a book eventually. My French publisher nags me about it
incessantly, in fact. But he’ll just have to wait.

I’’ll also have more volumes of True Stories coming out later this year,
from the fine folks at Alternative Comics. These collect my stories from
my comic strip, The City. I have three more volumes planned. It’s a nice
way to wrap up that part of my career and have an archive of all those
True Stories.

And then this spring and summer I’’ll decide what my next new book will be
and start working on that. I have more ideas than I have time. I wish I
was faster. Work until you die! That’’s my motto.

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