Derf Backderf is an interesting dude. Likely best known for his work, My Friend Dahmer, in which he recounts a teenage friendship with eventual boogeyman Jeffrey Dahmer. Backderf also occupies a rarely seen and even more rarely lauded form of comics that only the likes of R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar and Daniel Clowes have really taken into the mainstream. He’s a cartoonist, he’s a punk, he’s a satirist. He also used to be a garbage man.
That last bit may seem like the least interesting of Backderf’s credentials, but with his latest book, Trashed, readers are dragged through the mundanity of daily refuse and come out the other side just as hooked on the state of the modern day dump as they would be on the origin story of one of America’s true monsters. Or at least, they should be.
A brief bit of disclosure: I’m a garbage man. Well, sort of. I’m a professional recycler by trade, and while Trashed makes no bones about viewing the recycler (and by extension, recycling), as the “clean, likable extension” of waste disposal (i.e. the pussies), we deal in the same stuff primarily. I’ve dug used condoms and tampons out of garbage bags during trash audits, I’ve been covered in rotten black bean juice and old, crusting Starbucks pseudo-coffee, and I’ve pulled compressed rats out of bales. I know the mess. Which is why so many times during Trashed, I was able to identify immediately with the sludge and much of Backderf’s work here.
Following the story of a college dropout forced into whatever job is hiring, Backderf takes an autobiographical premise, updates it for the modern day, packs it full of useful, accurate information, and then does the biggest, and most admirable trick of the whole thing, and makes it an absolute blast to read.
The larger than life nature of his pencil work, generally verging on the absurd, gives immediate life to his cast of misfits and degenerates, pencil pushers and skeezy townies. This band of misfits, all city employees doing the general dirty work of the small village they live in, weave in and out of each story (broken down into the four seasons), blending obviously real stories in with half-truths and side adventures. The general hopeless nature of youth in a blue collar position is on full display here, showing in a bright and very real light what the last resort looks like. Exploding diapers, maggot infested garbage cans, overly involved citizens, and a substantial number of dead dogs abound, with a paycheck nowhere nearing the duties performed.
From there though, the real success of Trashed, is its accurate information on how waste really works in our culture, one increasingly overrun by the sheer amount of garbage it produces. It’s tempting with something as potentially dangerous as the unregulated nature of how we dispose of our daily waste, not to mention the sheer amount of it, to beat readers over the head with how bad it is, how doomed they are, etc. That doesn’t work.
What Trashed does is passionately present the facts. Particularly with the concluding pages, Backderf makes his point that things are bleak. And they are. But the information provided is as academically put as possible, while never fully pulling out of the story, and more importantly, never becoming too preachy. His knack for the visually absurd serves him very well here too in the presentation of very real environmental and civic problems, such as how city dumps work (maybe the strongest visual of the entire book), and the amount of trash one person creates in a day, week, month and year. Just by sheer nature of how exaggerated things look throughout Trashed, there’s a powerful, but non-judgmental tone to all of this, as if the shrieking reactions to disgusting garbage and truck accidents were a primer to how crazy the reality of the situation has become.
This overall success, as a comic, a narrative, and what could be constituted as a great example of commercial activism, is a shocking one. People don’t like to be told bad news, especially if it’s easily avoidable. I’ve picked enough rotten pizza crusts and fish bones from recycling bins to know that the path of least resistance is the one taken by nearly one hundred percent of people. It doesn’t matter what the right thing is half as much as what the immediate thing is, and the immediate thing for most people is that the trash can gets emptied once a week and that’s all there is to it. Having something enjoyable and informative is an essential and useful tool in changing things for the better.
I think, in the right hands, and with the right venue, Derf Backderf’s Trashed, could do a little good for the world. I’m not delusional. The vast majority of people don’t read comics, and more than that, most don’t read “alternative” comics. That said, five readers, if half as affected by this as I was, could keep a lot of trash from the curb, and maybe the long suffering trash detail who inspired Trashed could get their route done, and keep their boss of their back.