BALTIMORE - Jon Eikenberg's comic strip isn't always funny. Instead of a gentle tickle, it can feel like a fist to the stomach.
The artist's cartoon, "The Endearing End of Emmett. . ." is about a tender subject: falling victim to the ravages of AIDS.
"It can be super fun as well as very dramatic, if you're so inclined - and with so many wonderful ways to die, the possibilities are endless. Wouldn't it be exciting if you could choose how? Surely, most people would secretly like to go out with a big bang."
The comic strip is distributed to a handful of gay and alternative newspapers. It's Eikenberg's big bang.
Dancing on the edge of propriety, and with a blunt humor that can leave readers uneasy, "The Endearing End of Emmett. . ." is Eikenberg's way of documenting and dealing with his own death. He was diagnosed with AIDS in November.
Despite his disease, Eikenberg looks robust, younger than his 38 years. His muscular build gives him an intimidating presence.
His conversation is infused with dry wit. "If I didn't have AIDS, I could seduce you right now," he deadpans to a reporter sitting across from him in his studio. "Just kidding," he adds.
Shaking off the bogeyman
Eikenberg is a classically trained painter and illustrator with degrees from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia College of Art. He had never tried cartooning until he started drawing Emmett last year.
Now he calls it his best art. And his therapy. "It's a way to shake off that bogeyman," he says.
Eikenberg's isn't the first cartoon to deal with AIDS.
Other artists, including some with the disease, have created animated films and strips. One California comic book company, Image Comics, even had one of its superheroes, Shadowhawk, die of AIDS.
Eikenberg's strip features the day-to-day travails of Emmett, a pseudonym for Eikenberg.
One strip deals with his battle to keep up his weight, others about fear of losing his hair because of AIDS-related infections. And readers share his experience on the day he learned his immune system had faded.
"Emmett has a `spot' on his hip that won't go away," Eikenberg begins one strip dealing with Kaposi's sarcoma, a cancer often associated with AIDS that causes lesions on the skin.
"Kaposi's is such a creepy thought. He was Italian, right?" he pens above a steaming plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
It is an unfortunate fact that an increasing number of people know just what Eikenberg is talking about. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 441,000 cases of AIDS have been reported in the United States and the number continues to grow.
But Eikenberg doesn't see his audience as being limited to people with AIDS.
"The experience of having a terminal illness is universal," he says. "It doesn't have to be AIDS."
The `right to poke fun'
Despite the growing audience, there is the inevitable question of propriety. How could someone - even someone with AIDS - be flippant about such a terrible disease?
Eikenberg's answer is prompt. He's sorry if he offends anyone, he says, but the fact is he has AIDS. He has watched many of his friends die from it. He believes that gives him some right to poke fun if it helps him cope.
Ask Millie Eikenberg if her son's strip is funny and she'll pause.
She has watched her son nurse friends in their final hours, accompanied him to the doctor and promised to carry out her son's final wish - that he not linger when it's time to go.
"I don't look at it as being funny at all," she says. "It's more poignant to me than funny."
Some of her son's strips have a place of honor on her refrigerator.
"It's only hard because it's such a forbidden subject," she says. "I don't feel the punch in the stomach like some people might. . . . I've kind of gotten a little hardened to it."
Some of the most powerful strips come from Eikenberg's discussion of everyday anxieties for people with AIDS, says Rawley Grau, editor of The Baltimore Alternative, a gay newspaper that began running Eikenberg's strip in July 1994.
"For people with AIDS, it's a sense of freedom for them to feel these things," Grau says. "Their fears about dying, their own desires and dreams and anxieties about having AIDS are out there."
The HIV Community Coalition of Metropolitan DC Area, a support group from the Washington area for people infected with HIV - the virus that causes AIDS - runs Eikenberg's strip in its bimonthly newsletter, HIV! Alive.
"A lot of us feel the way to deal with the disease - because we've lost so many people - is to laugh," says Philippa Lawson, the group's executive director.
Despite what she calls Eickenberg's "sick" sense of humor, she and her staff have heard nothing but praise for the strip.
Lawson learned she was HIV positive in 1986. "It's what an HIV-positive person or person with AIDS goes through," she says. "It's real."