Derf’s True Stories Volumes 3 and 4
In his True Stories comics, Derf has been going further back in time with each issue. In volume three, he covers 1996-2001, which was the height of alt-weekly newspapers. This is years before his career-defining comic My Friend Dahmer and his switch over to long-form storytelling. His stock in trade in comics for nearly two decades prior to that was his four-panel strip The City. It was an observational comic (each one has the caption “True Story”) about urban decay and general weirdness. He describes his style at the time as his “Brutalist Period,” where he went over the top with intensely thick line weights, highly exaggerated figures, and an unrelentingly grotesque style in every single panel.
Derf’s elongated faces, exaggerated eyes and eyebrows, and distorted expressions create a perhaps unintentional air of horror in his depiction of city life. There are people desperate to win the lotto, dead mice in coffee shop pastry counters, maggots under kitchen mats, kids with guns, and inappropriate conversations held on newfangled cell phones. There are punchlines for each strip, of course, and they are meant to be funny. A different artist could have made them much more lighthearted with a softer approach, but the intensity of Derf’s linework and his heavy use of spotting blacks gives the whole project a dystopian feel. The one exception is “Fred,”, a four-page story that’s a precursor to some of his longer work. This is a story that’s too wild not to be true, as Derf recalls a time in art school while in Pittsburgh where he was offered a ride by a nice man. The man just happened to be Fred Rogers, who was precisely as nice as one would expect. One can see Derf’s future at play here because there’s a lighter touch in terms of his use of line weights, but there’s also a sense of pacing and a comedic touch that demonstrated how natural this form of storytelling would be for him.
The fourth volume of True Stories goes back even further, printing his earliest work from 1990-95. One can see his rough edges, especially in the earlier strips. Derf’s lettering is shaky, his panel composition is a bit wonky, and his figure design is sloppy at some points. At the same time, there’s tremendous energy that one can feel in these comics and a looseness that he lost in the comics from volume three. His eye and his wit were both fully-formed early in his career, as his simultaneous affection and repulsion for the weirdos and misfits whom he observed in the city was obvious. The city was a weird and sometimes frightening place, but that beat gentrification and stale incursions by corporate culture. Indeed, Derf’s work is a celebration of misfits, miscreants, and outcasts. It’s about those who can’t navigate society and their attempts to do so. While weirdos are often the subjects of punchlines in his strips, his affection for his subject matter makes that humor less derisive and surprisingly inclusive. Derf clearly counts himself as one of the weirdos, and True Stories shows him celebrating that fact as he introduces the world to a veritable parade of strangeness.