It's relatively rare to see a biography's subject described as "putrid" in a blurb on the cover and then portrayed as sympathetic in the book proper. But it's hard to argue with either James Ellroy's backhanded endorsement or with Derf Backderf's horrifying, excellent "My Friend Dahmer" (Abrams ComicArts, $17.95 paper).
Backderf, a talented cartoonist and subtle writer, was friends with the teenage Jeffrey Dahmer during their years in high school together, long before Dahmer earned the nickname "The Milwaukee Cannibal." The book is a collection of stomach-churning anecdotes about Dahmer's troubles at school, his parents' unbearable marriage, his suppressed homosexuality and his raging alcoholism. With the skill of an expert mortician, Backderf stitches together how Dahmer's mind soured and rotted, and how, inexplicably, no one noticed.
Backderf's gripping notes at the end of the book make clear that the author worried about seeming to apologize for Dahmer. The book's cumulative emotional effect, though, makes the reader want to go hug every socially awkward kid he knows. Again and again, Backderf remembers how Dahmer would show up to school blind drunk, play with roadkill or scream in the library just to get a little attention.
It's impossible to come away from this book about a charming, charismatic, troubled young man without thinking, as Backderf writes, "What a waste."
So you like your psychopaths a little less plausible. May I recommend Norwegian cartoonist John Arne Sæterøy, better known as Jason? The artist populates his tales with brightly clad cats and dogs and ducks, but their misbehavior is unmistakably human.
There's a lot to be said against miserablism in indie comics, and Jason presents a fat target here. The most skillfully constructed of the six stories in his new collection, "Athos in America" (Fantagraphics, $24.99), is "So Long, Mary Anne," about a scar-faced rabbit gangster who humiliates his murder victims. I suppose this is satirical or something, but it comes off as unfunny and mean.
The book is still consummately worth reading for its three gems: the lovely title story, the self-portrait "A Cat From Heaven" and the wonderful "Tom Waits on the Moon," in which Jason carefully maps the crossed paths of four lonely people.
If this column has taken a depressing turn in recent paragraphs, take heart from the re-release of one of the gentlest grown-up stories in the medium: Neil Gaiman's allusive epic "The Sandman," out now as "The Annotated Sandman Volume One" (Vertigo, $49.99) with notes by Sherlock Holmes scholar / Sandfan Leslie S. Klinger. Originally a monthly horror / fantasy / literary fiction series about the long life of the emotionally distant immortal who sends us our dreams, "The Sandman" has lost none of its power in the 16 years since it ended. Small cracks show: artist Sam Keith is visibly bored through the first few scripts (he perks up whenever there's a monster to draw), and Gaiman's plotting is initially a little unsure. But Keith leaves and Gaiman settles in for what are still some of the form's finest stories, and now, Klinger's notes pin down every stray god and wandering literary figure. The promise of a volume illuminating the series' ambiguous finale will likely bring readers back for future annotated installments.
The original series was published in color, but the annotated version is in black and white, presumably to keep it marginally affordable. There are bound to be complaints, but some of the art, especially the offbeat work of Kelley Jones, benefits mightily from the absence of imprecise early '90s coloring techniques.
The last monsters here are the most friendly: "Gary Gianni's Monstermen and Other Scary Stories" (Dark Horse, $24.99) collects Gianni's wonderful black-and-white adventure stories about a Douglas Fairbanks-style swashbuckler named St. George and his partner, Benedict, the latter always clad in a tux and knight's helmet. Gianni's detailed linework and unequaled gift for page layout are almost incongruous next to his pulpy narratives -- it's a little like discovering an old "Doc Savage" paperback ghostwritten by William Faulkner.
The new collection includes all the "Monstermen" tales, including the delightful "Autopsy in B-Flat," featuring villainous pirates with squids for heads. Genre aficionados will be pleased with the oversized volume's lovingly reproduced copies of prose stories with spot illustrations by Gianni (written by William Hope Hodgson and "Conan" creator Robert E. Howard, among others).