Sometime back in the early 2000s, I conducted an email Q&A with John Backderf for an online zine I used to run. As is the nature of such things, the zine is now long since defunct, consigned to the dustbin of digital history. But! Rereading the interview for the first time in forever, it’s actually aged fairly well. Which is not that surprising: John Backderf is an interesting guy, with a lot of interesting work to his name.
Anyway, I thought it might be worth reposting.
So, for purposes of historical interest, here follows two screenshots of the original post, then the interview.
Note: Please excuse the odd outdated cultural reference (does anyone remember that Mercedes ad set to Janis Joplin? Or Fabio, for that matter?) and the youthful earnestness (and occasional ignorance) of the questions.
Q: You’ve certainly caused a lot of controversy in your time. Offending almost every shade of closed minded individual: Christians, concerned mothers, Republicans, Democrats, Caucasians, footballer’s, Fabio supporters – and so it goes on. What’s your secret? I mean you’ve gotta be tapping into some long ignored corner of the mass ‘suburban psyche’ to get such a reaction?
A: Well I’m a product of the burbs. I grew up in a small Ohio farm town that, by the time I left for college was being overrun by housing developments. There aren’t a lot of people doing stuff on the burbs either… Y’know, in a way that states “hey, this is a pretty screwed up way to live.” Most regard that as blasphemous. Many just don’t see it. They think they’re living in a fucking paradise. That’s really the whole premise of White Middle Class Suburban Man. The poor fellow is too delusional to realize what a soulless dump it is he lives in. I also appear to have been born with the gift of really pissing people off. It first manifested itself in high school when I was foolishly asked to draw the stars of the football team for a pep-rally banner and rendered them all as Neanderthal trolls with overhanging foreheads. I had to dodge angry jocks for weeks after that. Since that time, at least once a year I do something that gets me in hot water. In college, another cartoon on a football star, one who got in trouble with the law, kicked up such a fire-storm I actually had to flee town for a week until things cooled down. And, y’know…. I never see it coming. It’s always the cartoons I think are completely innocuous that get me the most shit. Other pieces are just notorious right from the concept, like the Young Jeffrey Dahmer stuff. People object to its existence in principle… without ever actually bothering to read it and discover that it’s not what they think it is.
Q: I know that what happened to you with Jeffrey Dahmer would’ve had quite an effect on me. Was doing ‘Young Jeffrey Dahmer’ almost a cathartic experience for you?
A: No. Not really. When the news first broke about Dahmer… when was it? 1990? 91?… I was plenty freaked out. You just can’t imagine what it was like. But the first chapter of Young Jeffrey Dahmer wasn’t published until five years later, well after he was tried, convicted and killed in prison. So I had plenty of time to process it and get it straight in my head. I just finished the last two chapters, so that’s a six-year gap there. I’m shopping it to publishers now. If no one will print it, I’ll publish it myself and sell it on the website. But it WILL see print this year. Actually, working on the piece was both unsettling and oddly sentimental. Sentimental because I was drawing people and places from my youth. I admit to having fun compiling reference photos from the time and re-creating my home town, the interior of my high school, the mall, my boyhood friends…. I focused on that and it took my mind off all the very disturbing elements of the story, which obviously there are many. It was the writing of it that was the hardest. And finally I just sat down and scrawled it out in a day. It came out very quickly and needed almost no revision. Those who read it for the first time (chapter 1 is on the site) are always surprised there’s no gore, no deviant sex, no graphic depiction’s of any kind. That it’s a haunting, thoughtful account of how a troubled kid was allowed to spiral into madness. People are also quite surprised that I paint Dahmer as a tragic figure. But that’s what he was when I knew him. He didn’t have to become a monster. He could’ve been helped… at that point anyways.
Q: In a previous interview you mentioned that you had no delusions about changing the world. Well – the way I see it, when someone gets offended at least it’s proof of some form of mental arithmetic taking place (for better or for worse). So even if you’re just presenting people with the ‘opportunity’ to suddenly say : damn -bugger the lawn – there’s got to be another way. Isn’t it worth it?
A: Generally speaking, I believe I’m mostly preaching to the choir. The vast majority of people who read the papers my cartoon appears in, the free weekly city papers here in the states and in Canada, are youngish urban dwellers with a left bent. So we’re all of a similar mind to start. There are some right-wing blowhards out there who read the papers only to “monitor” the content. They’re the ones I usually hear from.
But I just don’t believe cartoons have the power to make or change opinion. Nor do I really want to. I wanted to when I was young and stupid but long ago left that behind. Besides, the world is becoming more and more rigidly divided. Or, at least this country is and, since we have all the guns, we’re the ones that count. My recent cartoons on our new President have generated some unbelievable letters… most, hilariously… full of grammatical and spelling errors. All because I make fun of some doofus frat boy whose party managed to steal an election? C’mon. And, of course, we’re so simple-minded in America that these people think I’m a Gore supporter just because I make fun of Bush, when the truth is I couldn’t stand EITHER of the bastards. As for changing the world…I’m really just in it for the laughs, man. I figure if I can make someone chuckle for a minute or two once a week then, hey, that’s not such a bad accomplishment is it?
Q: I see the recent US. election as evidence that the notion of the American Dream has indisputably gone belly up, bobbed to the surface and swelled in the midday sun.
A: Well…It’s my contention that happened long ago. Reagan, Clinton, the Bushes…. every one of them sold out the common man. Perhaps Clinton worst of all, because he was such a hypocrite, pretending to be the defender of the average joe while giving the capitalist machine whatever it wanted. But Dubya is really the first president entirely bought and paid for by corporate interests. He should have a bar code tattooed on his forehead. And the American Dream has, at best, only ever worked for a relative few. This recent post-election debacle could have been worse, of course. There was no violence in the streets as opposition groups clashed. I was actually a bit surprised there wasn’t, given the rancor. The fighting was restricted to the courtroom as lawyers duked it out and on the airwaves as the spinmeisters battled for the upper hand. Lawyers and spin… THAT’S the American Way.
Q: You’ve called the ‘Suburban Plague’ the most destructive cultural movement in the last 50 years. What steps do you think could be taken to try and take a big chip out of the status quo? To present and promote alternative outlooks?
A: The key is some sort of regionalism where communities work together to preserve green space and farms and put an end to, or at least slow, sprawl. There are places– Oregon, for example– where they’ve had some success with it. Certainly, in Europe they do it very well. But not any place I’ve lived, unfortunately. Florida, where I got my start as a pro cartoonist, for instance, really just needs to be sawed off at the panhandle and allowed to drift away. There’s no saving it. I live in Ohio now and it’s shocking how much farmland has been lost. That farm town I grew up in is now covered with $1-million homes. Fucking yuppies covering the fields with giant monuments to excess. The eventual solution? We just have to use our brains… which means there’s probably no hope.
Q: O.K. Lets take a look at the worst case scenario – If nothing changes and things carry on in the direction they’re currently going, where do you see humanity in say 50 years time?
A: Hard to say. The population in America is not expanding. There’s just more people taking up more space. Who could’ve predicted what we’ve got now? I recall futurists in the 70s talking about megalopolises, where separate urban areas would eventually link, but I don’t think anyone expected the numbing monotony of the suburban landscape we have now and how regional distinctions have been steamrolled by Wal-Mart and Best Buy. I suspect the next several generations, the ones who grow up in the heart of sprawl, will return to cities and perhaps start an urban renaissance. We’ll see. I know I’ll be here waiting for them.
Q: Your underground popularity could be taken as proof that there are a growing number of people out there who don’t just take the propaganda that the ‘Media Priests’ shove down their throats at every opportunity. So maybe there is hope.
A: Is there a growing number? Unfortunately, these corporations are just too advanced. It seems like they just absorb the underground– hip-hop being a good example– and turn it into corporate product, no matter how outrageous it originally was. Revolution, Inc. if you will. It takes effort, REAL effort, to resist the corporate brainwash. I’ve always made the effort, indeed it’s almost a hobby, but I don’t have a feel for how many others do. My fear is that it’s a pretty small number.
Q: What you say about the mainstream absorbing the underground is really spot on, here in South Africa there’s this new ad where they play on the notion of a monotonous unfulfilled life (drive-work-drive-work-drive-work) to sell an expensive car . Never thought the day would come when they use anti-consumerism to sell luxury cars, it’s sick really.
A: My favorite was Mercedes Benz using Joplin’s “Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz” in a commercial. Completely straight, as if Joplin had written it as a plug, instead of as a anti-consumption ballad. It was absolutely mind-boggling, this corporation saying, “We command that you reject the irony in these lyrics. It means what WE say it means.” To make it worse it was probably some fucking Baby Boomer ad rep, who 30 years ago was smoking bong to “Pearl” that came up with the thing. They’re in your head like never before. I’m actually more worried about marketers monitoring me than I am the government. I pay cash whenever I can, so there’s little record of what I buy. I lie on warranty forms, give them incorrect info. I go to great effort to foil these people.
Q: Do you see the internet as a possibility to open up even further the alternate comix scene?
A: Maybe. The problem is, of course, is that no one makes any money off the net…. unless you’re selling porn. I made enough on ads to pay for the space, but that’s COMPLETELY dried up since the dot.com crash last summer. The only dough I make now off the site now is selling t-shirts and prints. I hope it’ll turn around eventually. I’m not much of a capitalist— not a successful one anyways– but this IS how I make my living. The Net is great for getting your work out there… but how do people find it? That’s the key.
Q: Plunger Justice has to be one of my all time favourite ‘The City’ strips. I just have to know – how’d you come up with that one?
A: Oh, just one of those flashes of inspiration that popped into my head. And once I got the notion “what if a plunger up the ass became accepted punishment?” the rest of the strip just wrote itself. Unfortunately, it’s not such a ridiculous thought as it would at first seem. There are a shocking number of people who believe “criminals” deserve to be tortured. I’ve always had a thing about cops and the whole cop culture, the way the authorities play off the fear of crime to amass more and more power. It’s my assertion that America is, in fact, a police state.
Q: To end off – thanks for agreeing to the interview and keep on asking uncomfortable questions.
A: I’m afraid I’m incapable of doing anything but.
Reposted from Feb ’23 for searchability, etc.