Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

September 12–19, 1996

cover story

Drawing To A Close

Cartoonist Jon Eikenberg returns to his hometown with a show about life, death and comic relief.

By Vance Lehmkuhl

Jon Eikenberg is excited and upbeat about his burgeoning career as a cartoonist/illustrator. After studying at the old Philadelphia College of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Eikenberg moved to Baltimore, where he came up with a novel comic strip which is now seen in many papers across the country.

This spring he finally managed to get into Artscape, Baltimore's official arts festival, and he's receiving more media coverage than ever, including an ongoing series by the Fox TV affiliate down there. To top it off, Eikenberg has a solo show opening this weekend at the Laurence Gallery at Rosemont College. Sunset Strip features many of his newspaper cartoons as well as recent, related works in different media.

"I'm very excited about the new stuff, even more so than the [comic strip] episodes," he says. "I hope to be able to continue with all this; it's pouring out of me. I don't remember ever being so motivated."

Later he adds, "This show is like the culmination of everything I've been doing with this. I've never been so happy as I am right now."

All of which is good news, considering that Eikenberg has full-blownAIDS — and that he's recently lost 45 pounds and all of his hair.

The centerpiece of his show, "The Endearing End of Emmett," is a free-form cartoon focusing on just that subject — terminal illness. Not a real knee-slapper of a subject, but within the constraints of this "tragic strip," as some have called it, Eikenberg manages to make whimsical and insightful points about the human condition — points that range from outright funny to downright disturbing.

"When I started," he explains, "I was basing my episodes on other people's experience, people who I had learned from, because that was a time when I wasn't ill and it wasn't full-blown AIDS." Eikenberg had moved out of Philly partially because so many of his friends here had died, and a comic strip offered "a way to reinvent myself" as well as deal with the recent trauma of going through their deaths with them.

Thus, Emmett was born, an alter-ego who narrates the strip in the third person, kind of like a gay Bob Dole. In a beautiful ornamental style reminiscent of Flash Rosenberg (though more cohesive — and more morbid), Emmett wandered and pondered as his own friends died off. Emmett became, for example, a big fan of MTV Unplugged after his friend Ronnie went off life support and died.

"Back then," he says, "the strip really had no connection to any of the actual being-sick kind of stuff, and when I did get sick, I found I could use my own experience to say things that I think most people are afraid to say."

Eikenberg has since chronicled not only the effects of illness itself, but the "coping mechanisms" of those who are ill and are sliding out of an ordinary role in society into something uncharted. One strip imagines hospital accessories transformed into "haute couture," while another childishly taunts, "I have AIDS and you don't!! — Na na na na na!"

While each strip is thought-provoking to some extent, some have only the driest, most ironic humor about them. In fact, this is one cartoon that has been known to cause readers to cry.

"The last dozen strips," he admits, referring to the progression since his illness began to manifest itself, "have been even more off-the-wall, especially for people who aren't tuned into what living with a terminal illness is like. So a lot of people will read one episode and say, 'Where the fuck is this guy coming from?' because they're not ill."

"I thoroughly expect some people to walk into the opening and then walk right out in disgust," he adds.

While the imagery itself is not disgusting — it is dreamlike, with a late-Victorian, Edward Lear quality about it — wacko punch lines such as "Yo, God! Get a machine!" or "A Nice Oncologist is Like a Good Italian Drycleaner" may be confounding enough to the casual viewer that one might not make the effort to acquire the taste of Eikenberg's mordant voice. But the combined effect of many strips is both unsettling and illuminating.

Eikenberg's biggest fans are not necessarily gay, but those who have dealt or are dealing with a terminal illness (their own or a loved one's). That is why he sees a future — such as it is — for the strip.

"Part of the reason the strip has worked so far," he says, "is because I've kept it so intimate. I never refer to homosexuality specifically. I'm not political about it; it's really just about the experience. And even there I've drawn the line in some ways. This business is really disgusting stuff. I've seen older people, including both my grandparents and a dear friend's father, die the most awful, awful deaths. It's a terrible physical business."

Eikenberg has found a way to express the unthinkable — at least some of it — in a cartoon form of storytelling that verges on poetry, providing just enough craft and distance that his message is digestible both to those of us who haven't had to deal with its realities and those who have. And in a way that's becoming painfully true, Emmett's end is his own.

But the reverse may not be true. Eikenberg admits that "I hope to have the right connections in place so that [Emmett] can have a kind of posthumous life. From the very beginning I got a kick out of writing these posthumous episodes for him — Emmett in heaven, Emmett in the corner of your room, haunting you, you know? — but it's so unimportant at this point. There's so many other things happening I can't really focus on the 'After.'"

"The Endearing End of Emmett" has been a way for Jon Eikenberg to gain some sense of control over his own situation. But it has also developed into something more than that, a unique cultural event to which we can all relate — or will eventually, anyway. It's almost as if he's peering over the abyss and doing a witty puppet show for those of us who aren't there yet. And he's happy to do so.

"I love the way the strip has evolved into this art [the newer works], and I continue to be pleased and excited by that. I feel comfortable that this is exactly what I'm meant to do at this point in my career. I'm feeling very prolific now, very motivated."

"I think it's all tied into the feeling that there's not much time."

Sunset Strip, Sept. 12-Oct. 11, Opening reception Friday, Sept. 13, 7-9 p.m., Laurence Gallery, Rosemont College, (610) 527-0200.

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