I grew up in a small town outside of Akron, so I was sort of a hometown boy. I mean, it’s just Akron, you know, but it was really kind of cool, to walk into an art museum and see your shit hanging on the wall…”
by marc covert
Weirdness abounds in The City by Derf, that is, John Backderf, admittedly a mostly contented yet prone-to-rant cartoonist from Cleveland, Ohio. When you stop laughing long enough to notice the words “true story” inked above many of his more quirky strips you begin to see just how weird life in the city can be. Until recently his widely-read cartoon was featured in Portland, Oregon’s Willamette Week; Derf’s Portland fans must now make do with Too Much Coffee Man. Derf himself takes this unceremonious dumping in stride; at last count The City is appearing in sixty alternative weekly publications nationwide, including The Village Voice, The Chicago Free Times, and The Cleveland Free Times.
Derf’s distinctive style, with its heavy, jagged lines and grotesque characters, makes it safe to assume you will not find his cartoons pinned up next to, say, The Family Circus or Dilbert. On closer inspection his drawing reveals a strange beauty and sharp eye for detail; Derf’s stage is indeed the city, complete with litter, broken bottles, decaying buildings, and puddles of various fluids best left unmentioned. None of that unpleasantness can be found, of course, in the suburban paradise inhabited by his only recurring character, White Middle Class Suburban Man, a perpetually befuddled, clueless superhero charged with making the ‘burbs safe for manicured lawns and mindless consumerism.
But secondary to the drawing is Derf’s underlying vision; he sees and comments on what others stay away from (male boobs, bad piercings, Katie Couric’s colon, cops and plungers). His view of society appears at first to be purely cynical, but his message is really a well-aimed kick to the rump of a culture that teeters mindlessly on the edge of insanity. The coarse, ugly, borderline-deformed characters populating The City capture that insanity whole.
John Backderf works out of a home he shares with his wife and two children. Along with his usual weekly publications, his cartoons and illustrations have appeared in Guitar Player Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and on the cover of the Akron Beacon Journal’s Enjoy! and Sunday magazines. From July to October 1999 the Akron Art Museum featured his work in an exhibition titled Apocalyptic Giggles: The Industrial Cartoon Humor of of Derf. His website, www.derfcity.com, contains in-depth biographical information, current weekly cartoons, a cartoon archive, and links. Derf sat down on November 17 and spoke to smokebox writer Marc Covert about the state of The City.
smokebox: So what’s a successful cartoonist doing at home at nine o-clock on a Friday night in Cleveland?
derf: Awww well, two small children tend to do that.
smokebox: What ages?
derf: One and five; my social life is pretty much trashed for the next couple of years. So, I go out on Sunday nights and that’s about it; that’s all my social life is now — but that’s alright.
smokebox: Has the fatherhood thing crimped your “wandering the streets in search of cartoon ideas” lifestyle?
derf: It has at night, but I still get out during the day, which is probably less dangerous anyway. But weirdness, it’s all around, so that’s not a problem.
smokebox: No lack of material, then?
smokebox: Last time I checked your site I saw you are now in over 60 papers; is that increasing steadily or staying about the same?
derf: Well, approximately. You’re never sure if the bottom three or so are publishing or not.
smokebox: How did you actually find out about Willamette Week dropping your strip?
derf: Oh, you mean Willamette Week? I really don’t lose that many. More often than not they just fold rather than drop the strip. But boy, I was with Willamette Week for a long time, so that one kind of stung. I really didn’t get an answer out of them, but I’ve gotten letters saying, “Where the hell are you,” so hopefully somebody’s bitching about it.
smokebox: I was able to get an assistant art editor to respond to my e-mails, and he sounded pretty bummed about it. He had to say, “Well, nobody tells me anything,” and said he wasn’t sure it was even a permanent thing, but it seems to me that when they drop a strip, that’s it.
derf: I’ve had a couple where that’s been the case. I mean, I’ve always gotten a lot of feedback from Portland, so I was just surprised when it happened. Usually it happens when there’s an editor change, but this was just so arbitrary. I really don’t understand it, since the feedback was always so positive — not that I’m advocating making these decisions based on surveys or that sort of shit.
smokebox: Focus groups! Aaargh!!!
derf: Right! (laughs) That way you get nothing but bland vanilla, because they take the most innocuous stuff they can since that’s what keeps the most people happy.
smokebox: It’s kind of hard to say with Willamette Week, I mean, they’ve carried Callahan for so many years.
derf: Yeah, he’s a local guy.
smokebox: Right, in fact I see him wheeling around in the Fred Meyer’s here sometimes but he’s generated all kinds of controversy over the years. He ran a cartoon back in April, where his caption states “The pope turns out to be a Patti Smith fan,” and he’s up in front of an audience singing the chorus from “Rock & Roll Nigger.”
derf: Oh yeah? That would not go over too well if you took it out of context!
smokebox: It didn’t! That thing raged for months! [On May 17 Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman published an apology after protests by NAACP members, church groups, and the general public.]
derf: I saw her [Patti Smith] last month, she was awesome! She sang that for her encore. Oh, man, it was great! But “Rock & Roll Nigger,” well, I think maybe the meaning of that song has sort of faded from the public consciousness — I mean, it could cause a little bit of a problem. The one I remember was the one he [Callahan] did with a young Martin Luther King, saying “I had a dream” and there’s a wet bed behind him. That one got him in a little bit of trouble; of course I thought it was a great cartoon!
smokebox: It really was! Of course you’ve generated some controversy yourself. I found reference to a “Tickle Me Elmo” episode in Kentucky while searching around for “Derf” stories.
derf: Oh? (laughs) Where was that article run?
smokebox: I think it was run in Ace Magazine.
derf: Well it ran all over the place, but they got in trouble in Cleveland, Lexington, and I think St. Louis.
smokebox: I remember the cartoon, and just laughing my head off.
derf: It was weird, just weird. In Lexington a right-wing radio show host got all bent out of shape.
smokebox: Did the local papers take the crap for that, or did you actually get some on you?
derf: No, it was mostly the papers that told me about it; most of these papers, they just laugh it off. The Ace people got a little uptight about it; they’re kind of a new paper, it was their first time dealing with trouble like that. I mean, over the years, I’ve caused a lot of firestorms, you know? (laughs)
smokebox: I guess one of those storms would be the “Backderf Cartoonist Term Limit” at Ohio State?
derf: Oh yeah, Ohio State; I really wore out my welcome there. That was around the start of the whole P.C. thing, so that was definitely not a place where I should have been! And I never like to look at that old stuff, but I’m grateful I had the opportunity at the time; I did have a great time. I wish I’d been even more on the ball; I mean, if I was there now, Jesus Christ, I’d be shipped out of there in a box.
smokebox: I saw your story about the time you pissed off the Ohio State football team and had to skip town for a while.
derf: I really did — that one caused a whole shitload of trouble, let me tell you.
smokebox: I guess in an environment like that you don’t enjoy the anonymity that you have now — I mean, when you’re walking around Cleveland, you’re not recognized, are you?
derf: Well, actually, I am. A lot of people recognize me from my rather unflattering self-portraits in my comic book story, so yes, I get recognized all the time.
smokebox: That would be your Jeffrey Dahmer cartoon. Now I have to say, that is definitely the most disturbing cartoon I have ever read in my life, and I wanted to ask about what it was like to….
derf: Well, you can read the next two chapters now, in fact I’ve been working on that and I finally finished it up; it’s been a pretty difficult piece for me to deal with.
smokebox: Continuing the Dahmer story?
derf: Well, yes. I had essentially two more stories to tell; it’s going to be a full-length comic book when I get done with it.
smokebox: Will that be done through Fantagraphics?
derf: I don’t know who’s going to publish it, I haven’t pitched it yet. Someone will publish it; I’m not worried about that.
smokebox: You ought to try Dark Horse.
derf: I’ll probably try — well, I don’t know, I’m not worried about it right now.
smokebox: So what I saw on your site was the first installment?
derf: That was actually published by Fantagraphics, that one came out in ‘96, and I just started the other two this year, so you’ve got a four-year gap. It’s really not an easy thing to do. Even the first one, that was done, what, four years after he died? And I said right in the introduction to the comic, if I’m trying to cash in on the Dahmer story then I’m doing a pretty poor job of it — but you know, it’s just a story that I wanted to tell because it’s a good story.
smokebox: Well, sure, you can’t find a more recognizable name than that. You must get asked about him constantly.
derf: That’s another reason to do this, because this is really all I have to say about it, and when I’m done with this story that’s it, I’m done. If someone wants to hear about it they can buy the comic book, you know? Let ‘em go take a dump and read it! I won’t have to talk about it anymore. It’ll pretty much say it all.
smokebox: It’s pretty disturbing stuff.
derf: It is! I really struggle with it, because I sort of make Dahmer out as a tragic figure. He was, to me, but I had a different vantage point; I knew him before he was Dahmer the monster; I knew him as Dahmer the kid who was put through hell.
smokebox: Sort of a monster-in-training?
smokebox: You put him in the school situation; it seems that everybody knows somebody like that.
derf: Actually my wife was a reporter back when the Dahmer story broke, and she called me at home and said, “Somebody you went to school with killed all these people,” and Dahmer was actually the second one I guessed.
smokebox: Oh my god. You can’t write stuff like that.
derf: Oh, it’s true, I couldn’t make stuff like that up.
smokebox: It doesn’t really seem that you would need to; your observational talents are more than enough to come up with new material.
derf: Believe me, the next two chapters are pretty intense!
smokebox: Well, that should be enough to keep me awake at night. So, how about your influences? You mention Mad Magazine, Big Daddy Ed Roth; didn’t he do cars and those monster stickers?
derf: He did the cars. Those monster stickers, I think, with the hot rods, were by somebody else. But Big Daddy Roth, he did those hot rod cartoons and he’s enjoyed a real revival lately. I guess he’s a real character, he’s a devout Mormon now, he lives somewhere in Utah in the middle of nowhere, on a road called, I think it’s Ratfink Drive, or something like that (laughs). He’s got all sorts of stuff; you can do a search on E-bay and see all this stuff pop up. More power to him!
smokebox: I know you go out of your way to avoid the influence of other cartoonists, but it was pointed out to me that your style seems to be just a tiiiiiny bit similar to Peter Bagge’s Hate.
derf: Oh really?
smokebox: Just ever so slightly….
derf: I actually didn’t discover Bagge until I dropped out of art school, so I wasn’t even aware of him starting out on my cartooning career.
smokebox: You did mention Mad Magazine as an influence.
derf: Well, certainly Bagge was influenced by Mad. I think every cartoonist for the last thirty years has been influenced by Mad, whether they like to admit it or not.
smokebox: It was definitely a “golden age” for cartoons, especially in the sixties and seventies.
derf: I actually like the earlier stuff better, from the fifties; Kurtzman and Elder, and really the only modern one I liked was Don Martin.
smokebox: I did too, when he died recently I just couldn’t believe it.
derf: We lost [Charles] Schulz and Don Martin in the same year. And nobody even mentioned Don Martin.
smokebox: He really managed to slip away. He was a really reclusive guy, too, I never even saw his face until I happened to see his book by Dark Horse, there was a big photo of him on the back cover. You still can’t see his face, really, he’s wearing a hat and these big dark glasses; I guess he had vision problems…but I sort of lump you and Martin together.
derf: Well at some point…but I think you’re out of your mind! (laughs)
smokebox: By that I mean that you both have very distinct styles that are instantly recognizable, and it pervades your cartoon “universes”. I mean, when Don Martin drew an end table, it was a Don Martin end table, you know?
derf: Absolutely, he sure did.
smokebox: So what’s the state of The City right now?
derf: Well, I’m doing okay, I mean, there are no great riches in the independent press, they all pay pretty bad, but, you know, it’s a comfortable living. I’m at the point now where it’s just about all I do, so that’s nice.
smokebox: So is that pretty much a one-man show, sort of a cottage industry?
derf: “Cottage industry”, huh? (laughs) That’s it, all right! No, I don’t need any help.
smokebox: So you do your own website too? Oh wait, I guess you have your web-dork.
derf: No, he’s sort of out of the picture, he built it, but I update it. It took about three months to put it together, but then I figured it out somehow, sort of like working on old cars. I managed to stumble my way through it, and it works, you know, so that’s all I care about! (laughs) It’s not that hard. There are a lot of baaad-looking websites out there, and I just wanted something really simple, and to get it out there. And I think the website is pretty good, only the downside is, of course, that people say, especially in Portland now, “I’ll just read the strip every week on your website.” Well, I don’t make any money from the website, so that’s good for the fans, but it sure would be nicer for them to call up the editors and say, “You fuckers, put The City back in your paper!”
smokebox: Yeah, I don’t know, lately I’ve had sort of a love-hate relationship with Willamette Week.
derf: A lot of people say that. I get that exact comment from a lot of people.
smokebox: Were they in that first batch of weeklies that picked up The City?
derf: No, but they were pretty early on.
smokebox: Back when they first picked it up, they got behind it, they hyped it a bit. I have to admit that at first I didn’t like it much. I’m trying to remember which one actually won me over.
smokebox: It may have been the “He-boobies” strip. Once I saw that and a few “White Middle Class Suburban Man” strips I decided I liked The City after all.
derf: He’s a good character. There’s actually an animation project in the works; there may be anyway.
smokebox: I was going to ask about that, what the future holds for The City?
derf: Well, that’s possibility one. I’m trying to get a meeting with an animation studio on Monday [November 20] and there is an agent interested in it, but there are, you know, five thousand steps; step one is to have a completed cartoon, and there are death traps along every step of the way. My attitude is, “Well, whatever,” — if something happens, great, if nothing happens, well, that’s okay, too.
smokebox: Do you have any idea who you might shop it around to?
derf: Oh, I guess MTV is on a big animation spree right now.
smokebox: Sure, anything but music videos….
derf: Right! Exactly! I don’t know that I’m too happy about that.
smokebox: Everybody holds Mike Judge up as the perfect example.
derf: Yeah, he’s the exception, though. MTV has such a short attention span; they don’t really give anything a chance. You’ll see something for six weeks and then it’s gone. Even some of the cool stuff they’ve got, you’ll never see it again!
smokebox: So will you find yourself using recurring characters in an animated project?
derf: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And also, the animator thought something with the True Stories would go over well with MTV, and he might be right on that, with little snippets they could drop in anywhere. And the nice thing about that is, of course, that you’re not giving them rights to anything, to your soul, because there are always true stories, you know, they can’t rip off everything. The problem with all these guys, like at Time Warner and Fox, is that they take everything. So, I’ll tell you, that can be a real problem. I’m not sure where to go beyond that, you know, I’ll just keep trying to do what I do.
smokebox: So you think you’ll keep up the strip?
derf: I’ll keep it going as long as I feel I’m doing good work with it; if I start repeating myself then that will probably be the time to make some changes.
smokebox: I saw that you made an appearance at the Akron Art Museum; could you see yourself doing more speaking engagements?
derf: Well, no, not too much. That was an actual show, you know, that was a retrospective of my work. It was actually quite flattering; they called me. I grew up in a small town outside of Akron, so I was sort of a hometown boy. I mean, it’s just Akron, you know, but it was really kind of cool, to walk into an art museum and see your shit hanging on the wall! It’s pretty amazing! It was flattering, it was really nice.
smokebox: How did the public react to your show?
derf: They were very happy, and the museum pulled in a lot of people, a lot of the lunchtime crowd came to the gallery. It ran for probably four months.
smokebox: So do you think you got some exposure to an audience that doesn’t ordinarily see your work?
derf: Oh, maybe a little bit, but I don’t think too terribly much. I’m pretty well read in this area, so I think most people who saw the show were familiar with what I do.
smokebox: Then there was the Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library? I never knew such a thing existed.
derf: I think it’s just called the OSU Cartoon Library now. It was started by Milton Caniff, who went to school there and donated all his papers. The woman who runs it, Lucy Caswell, she’s a professor there, and she’s built it into this incredible museum of all things cartooning; it’s really just an incredible thing to behold.
smokebox: It sounds too good to be true!
derf: It’s especially nice because the cartoon museum, which was started by Mort Walker, you know, from Beetle Bailey? I think it went under, or it’s close to going under, so this one’s pretty secure, obviously. [The International Museum of Cartoon Art, located in Boca Raton, Florida, is still open, although it is experiencing some rough financial straits.] And I think that’s important. They invited me to their sixth triennial cartoon festival, which is kind of an egghead thing but is also, you know, a real hands-on thing for people who take it seriously. It was kind of fun, you know, because I was the token underground guy.
smokebox: Were you the only underground guy?
derf: Oh absolutely! I mean, it was all people like, you know, the chick that does For Better or for Worse?
smokebox: Oh, Lynn Johnston?
derf: Yeah! People like that; there were all these big-shot syndicated people and then there was me. Most of them didn’t know who I was.
smokebox: Please tell me the one who does Cathy wasn’t there.
smokebox: Cathy Guisewhite?
derf: Oh! No, she wasn’t there, I didn’t see her anyway. But I gave a slide show that really brought down the house; it was really in-your-face. I’d show something really outrageous and all these old guys in the front row, they were just going “Ooooooooowwwhhh!!!” You could hear ‘em moaning, their moans got audibly louder the longer the presentation went on! But the rest of the audience really dug it– it went over very well.
smokebox: So you were showing the strip in your presentation?
derf: I was just rattling on, just on a riff; I picked out some of my most outrageous stuff, like the plunger-up-the-butt strip. It was a lot of fun; I don’t usually like doing a lot of public speaking but that was great. I followed some old guy– oh God, who was it? Frank and Ernest? [Bob Thaves.] I think it was that guy, he’s this poor old guy who was just deathly dull. He couldn’t get his slide projector to work, and he just rambled, and people were just drifting off, you know? And I got up there and went, Hey! Bam-bam-bam! And it was like, “Woa! What the hell is this shit?” So it woke everybody up.
smokebox: Well good! I mean, the comics page in the typical daily paper, it’s just depressing, I can’t read it any more.
derf: I have the same problem. I don’t read comics any more.
smokebox: I noticed in the interview on your website that you purposely avoid other people’s strips.
derf: I haven’t read a comics page in, geez, years. One of my first jobs in Florida was coloring in the daily comics. That pretty much killed any interest I had in the daily strips.
smokebox: Did you manage to stay out of trouble doing that?
derf: Well, that was also the job where I did political cartoons, and I got fired. They said my hand-coloring of the cartoons wasn’t good enough so they fired me.
smokebox: Wasn’t that where you got fired for “general tastelessness?”
smokebox: Well, I hope you framed that letter.
derf: There was no letter; they told me to my face.
smokebox: Just “get out,” then?
derf: Pretty much. Luckily the other paper in town hired me as an illustrator, but that was a little depressing at the time.
smokebox: I guess you take the risk of rejection in your line of work and that’s just the way it is.
derf: Cartooning is constant rejection! It’s really overwhelming.
smokebox: When I was about 13, I sent this huge stack of really terrible cartoons to Mad Magazine, and they actually looked at them. The editor, Nick Meglin, actually took the time to type me out a rejection letter, saying in effect, “try your hand at the magazine business when you graduate from college.” And of course I’ve since lost it! I should have framed it.
derf: Oh, absolutely. I do have a standing offer from Mad to do work for them, but I never have gotten around to it. I’m kind of reluctant to give them anything good; I’d rather use it for myself, since it’s all work-for-hire with Mad.
smokebox: I know Don Martin left Mad on just terrible terms, he was very bitter.
derf: Right, right — well, most of those comics guys who worked for Mad were bitter about it. It was a bad business. They made a lot of money off of their artists and gave them nothing.
smokebox: I was wondering about your outlook on life; are you really as cynical as one would assume just from reading The City? Or do you hold out some hope for our pitiful species?
derf: (laughs) I’m actually a fairly contented person, believe it or not. I’ve got a pretty good life. I don’t have any real complaints, I just like to launch into my rants; that’s what my wife calls them, “rants.” I’ll just direct them at whatever. I guess that’s just the way I am; that’s the way I’ve always been if something bugs me. I don’t have any delusions that I’m going to change anything, you know, if anyone even cares to listen. But it’s not really important. Since I started The City, to be quite honest, I’m just going for the laughs, you know? There was a time, when I started off in college, when I was just a clueless toad, that I was going to change the world with my art. But now, over the last ten years, I’ve decided, you know what? You give somebody a good laugh, that”s a pretty positive thing. That’s not a bad thing, to go to your grave saying, “hey, I made people laugh for two seconds a day.” So that’s okay, I can be proud of that.
smokebox: So would you characterize your humor as a well-placed kick to the ass of society?
derf: Well, I don’t know about a kick to the ass. The problem with the weekly press is, a lot of the times you end of preaching to the choir; the people who pick up those papers are not going to be offended by what I do.
smokebox: Well, the people who are the butt of your jokes are never going to get it anyway.
derf: Exactly. Well, it varies a little with each paper. Surprisingly, there are some weekly papers that have a pretty diverse audience. But that’s okay, I mean, there’s nothing wrong with laughing at others, you know, I’ve based a career on it! In a lot of cases, what I do is pretty self-deprecating, I certainly don’t take myself seriously. I mean, with “White Middle Class Suburban Man”, I was actually living in the suburbs when I came up with that character.
smokebox: You must have been surrounded by guys just like him.
derf: You’re right on that point.
smokebox: And the suburbs here are just as ridiculous. My parents live in a retirement suburb — this walled-in community with a golf course running through it — and if their car isn’t parked out in front of their house I drive right by it every time; I can’t tell it from the other houses.
derf: (laughs) I don’t know where we’re going with all that stuff, it just boggles my mind why anyone would want to live like that. I mean, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that simple premise, you know? But plenty of people do. I’ve just decided they must be hopelessly clueless. That’s pretty much what “White Middle Class Suburban Man” is. He thinks he’s living in a paradise, and if you look at it rationally it’s anything but! There are plenty of people like that. I still get a lot of crap over that character; I just got an e-mail last week calling me a racist, blah-blah-blah. Sort of an anti-P.C. backlash, which is ironic, because the P.C. folks certainly hate my guts, so why am I catching this flak? You know, “You’d never say that about ‘Black Urban Man.’”
smokebox: So, what do you say to that?
derf: Well, turn on WB every week and you’ll see all sorts of crap about that! So, there are plenty of people twisting it the other way. No harm, no foul.
smokebox: Well, I have to thank you for helping us out by talking to us.
derf: Well, sure, glad to help. I just hope I said something halfway intelligent.
smokebox: (laughs) Same here! I never feel that I’m prepared for these things.
derf: Well, my warning to you is that the cartoon is usually far more interesting than the cartoonist. That’s often the way it is. To be quite honest, cartoonists are really watchers, you know, they aren’t usually participants. I definitely freak my friends out, we’ll go to a bar or something and I’ll just be watching everybody. They’ll say, “Quit looking around!” — What did I do? It’s just natural.
smokebox: Quit working, dammit!
derf: You’re always working.
smokebox: Well, thanks again, and good luck with your animation project.
derf: We’ll see. We shall see!
smokebox: So who do you suppose will be the voice for White Middle Class Suburban Man?
derf: Good question!
smokebox: John Goodman?
derf: Naaaw, not John Goodman– maybe Wayne Newton.
Derf is the creator of “The City” comic strip, which appears in the Village Voice, the Chicago Reader, SF weekly, the Cleveland Free Times and weekly papers coast to coast. His illustrations have appeared in all manner of publications, from ‘zines to the Wall Street Journal. Check out Derf’s website at http://www.derfcity.com