Long before there were reality TV shows there was the grueling urban humor of Derf, a Cleveland-based cartoonist who slams a weekly slice of irony and grit down on the comics page with his strip, “The City.“
In his new book, “The City Collected,“ Derf offers the best of his strip over the past 14 years, with thoughts on America‘s obsession with body makeovers, trashing the environment, overconsumption and fear of the unknown (to name a few), all drawn in a style of contemporary baroque married to lank desperation.
Derf, whose strip has run in the Northern Express for almost a decade (often to the displeasure of our more staid readers), is featured in nearly 60 independent weeklies across the country. Derf writes the strip from the perspective of a street-roaming everyman, absorbing the foibles of an outrageous world with a sense of world-weary disbelief from across the counter of a coffee bar or in the desolation of a bus stop. While Derf frequently pokes fun at the super-straight patriotic superhero known as White Middle Class Suburban Man, he also takes care to lampoon fashion-addled hipsters, big-hair mall babes and assorted geeks, hard hats, cops, politicians and mentally unbalanced street-persons. He‘s equally comfortable poking fun at the body-piercing crowd or ripping the Bush administration a new one with his scathing political commentary.
Derf writes from the perspective of America‘s soul, best found in the Midwest. He grew up in a small Mayberry-style farm town of Richfield, Ohio, and claims to have attended school with serial killer cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, who was at least an acquaintance, if not a friend. He profiled the relationship in a comic novella called “My Friend Dahmer,“ a dark view of what goes into a troubled adolescent‘s mind. After dropping out of art school, he did a stint as a garbageman, profiled in another graphic novel entitled, “Trashed.“
“It was an idyllic childhood for which I‘m very grateful,“ he says in a forward to his book, written by Bob Ethington. “My teenage years, after some hideous hormonal transformation, were spent as an ostracized dork, face buried in a comic book, skulking warily through the school to avoid beatings by jock assholes. The stereotypical adolescence for a cartoonist.“
Drawing cartoons for the school paper at Ohio State University, Derf managed to generate hundreds of angry phone calls, letters and threats after one of his strips reamed local football heroes who‘d gotten in trouble with the law. It was the beginning of a career of aggravating those readers who can‘t handle “alternative“ comics. Derf was fired from a small paper in Florida for “general tastelessness“ before launching his career with the alternative press in 1990 through a now-defunct paper called the “Cleveland Edition.“ Even with a more receptive venue, several jittery papers have dumped his strip through the years, and “The City“ has gotten others banned from buildings -- more proof that Derf tells it like it is.
“I don‘t think my stuff is any more outrageous than what you see on cable TV,“ he says. “I think it‘s a puritan hang-up about comic strips. Some people think comix should only be like ‘Hi & Lois‘ and just can‘t get beyond that.“
No one escapes Derf‘s satrical eye, which manages to capture the humanity as well as the absurdity of any given moment in America. Check out his book, “The City Collected,“ $10.95 from SLG Publications, with additional info at www.derfcity.com.
-- Robert Downes