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Journalism alum to release graphic novel as 50th anniversary of Kent State shooting nears

John "Derf" Backderf
Journalism alumnus and former Lantern political cartoonist John "Derf" Backderf. Photo credit Alain Seux.

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On May 4, 1970, four Kent State students were shot and killed by Ohio National Guard troops during on-campus protests opposing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.Cover of "Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio"

Nearly 50 years later, award-winning author and illustrator and Ohio State alumnus John “Derf” Backderf (BA, journalism, 1983) is retelling that tragedy from the perspectives of those who perished. Backderf, best known for his graphic novel My Friend Dahmer, is set to publish Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio this April.

“This is a very complex story with a lot of moving parts,” Backderf said, adding that the novel takes place over four days as tensions rise. “By keeping the narrative on the four [who were killed], that makes the story personal. We get to know these kids, who were all remarkable — their hopes, dreams and fears, how they moved through life. When they’re cut down, it’s a real gut punch.”

"The reader will see what they saw and experience what they did right up until the moment the Guard opens fire."

Backderf burst onto the graphic novel scene in 2012 with his breakthrough work, My Friend Dahmer, which tells the story of his teenage acquaintanceship with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The work spurred a film adaptation in 2017, earned an Eisner Award nomination and was named one of TIME's top five non-fiction books of 2012.

But Backderf’s foray into exploring sensitive topics and telling heavy stories started long before his books about an infamous murderer and the vicious shooting deaths of four unarmed college students. It started during his days at Ohio State penning political cartoons in The Lantern newsroom.

Backderf hadn’t been published much before his time at the student newspaper, but before long, he was a well-established name on campus. Though he'd never drawn political cartoons before, he was unabashed and unapologetic in those he drew nearly every day for three years in The Lantern.

“I was this 20-year-old small-town schlub who worked as a garbageman before coming to Ohio State, and here I was, without a moment’s hesitation, splashing my views all over a paper read by 40,000 people,” he said. “I signed my name huge on those cartoons, too, just making a statement: ‘Yeah, this is me.’”

John "Derf" Backderf drawing Lantern cartoons in his dorm room in Siebert Hall in 1982.
Backderf drawing cartoons for The Lantern in his Siebert Hall dorm room in 1982.

Backderf pulled no punches as The Lantern’s political cartoonist, but he sure took them. His bold and satirical drawings — one of which skewered former Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter’s notorious gambling issues —earned him glares in his dorm cafeteria, rebukes from professors during class and angry shouts from across the Oval. 

“I had to flee town for a couple days after one really controversial cartoon,” he said. “But it was an incredible learning experience, too. I had a tough hide after nearly three years as a Lantern cartoonist. I was well prepared for the real deal. I learned to say what I meant and say it clearly, and then stand behind it, even if you’re taking blows and kicks.”

After graduating, Backderf syndicated a strip called The City in alternative weeklies around the country before publishing his first book, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, in 2010. He used his experience as a garbageman to inspire his third graphic novel, the Eisner Award-winning Trashed, in 2016, before diving into his book on Kent State.

Before writing and illustrating Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, Backderf spent two years combing through archives and interviewing people who were on campus when the shootings occurred and who knew the victims. It took him an additional two years to complete.

An excerpt from John Backderf's "Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio."

An excerpt from John Backderf's "Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio."
Excerpt from Backderf's "Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio."

“I faced a unique challenge with this book in that there was almost too much material,” Backderf said. “It was a struggle to dig through it all to find what I needed. I had to keep my focus and stay true to my original vision.”

Backderf’s four years of work culminated in a poignant and unique retelling of a haunting moment in U.S. history — one that he says remains shrouded in lies and distraction. His ability to tell a story with such a complicated history, he says, stems from his experience at Ohio State.

“I owe everything to The Lantern,” Backderf said. “It’s where I found my voice. It’s where I grew, intellectually and creatively, at a greater rate than anywhere else in my career. It’s where I made lifelong friends. It’s where I met and fell in love with my wife. Everything good in my life I owe to The Lantern.”

Backderf will return to Ohio State for a reading in support of Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio at the Wexner Center for the Arts on April 15 at 7:30 p.m. The event is free with tickets and is preceeded by a reception at 6:30 p.m. Backderf's work will also be on display at the Society of Illustrators Museum of Illustration in New York City from March 17 to June 13.