Remembering Chris Companik
Illustrator and comic strip writer Chris Companik died from AIDS-related complications on March 23.
Chris held his memories dear. In our back-and-forth correspondence, since A&U started running his established strip, “HIV + Me” in 2003, the Chicago-born “Chrisco,” as his friends called him, would often share a memory of running into this or that celebrity featured in past months’ feature articles or news items.
He reminesced about passing right by Elizabeth Taylor at the last showing of the Quilt in D.C., as she was reading her names, including Rock Hudson’s, from the dais. He recalled a story about John Waters fielding questions at a film festival appearance in Atlanta, where Chris had moved to from Milwaukee when he was a teen. “One was about the weirdest thing he’d ever done in the bedroom,” wrote Chris, “and he first asked how much did the person pay for his ticket. The guy in the audience responded, and John countered ‘You didn’t pay enough for my answer.’”
Invited to the 2008 San Diego ComicCon to be a featured speaker at one of its panels on gay comics, Chris ran into Torchwood actor John Barrowman and posed for a picture with him. “I thought I’d get one of those once-in-a-lifetime photos so I handed my camera to one of the guys manning the booth and threw my arm around John. Just as I aimed us toward the camera, he suddenly did some do-si-do thing with my arm, suddenly he was behind me, pinning me a bit when he grabbed hold of my nipples through my T-shirt. Quite a few camera flashes went off but to this day I’ve never seen a single pic,” wrote Chris.
The stories kept popping into my mailbox over the years. He met CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta at a fundraiser and the B-52’s at one of their concerts. On a trip to New York City, he had dinner with friends, one of whom brought along a surprise guest: Valerie Harper! He found humor in life and on the page.
Apart from “HIV + Me,” Chris also produced Giant Size Comic Book Show for Atlanta television and created the gay soap strip “881 Midtown Court.” He graduated from the University of Georgia, Athens, with a degree in journalism.
Notes his friend Paul Pentifallo, “I was fortunate enough to know Chris for twenty (+/-) years and he always managed to look at the half-full glass. After I was first diagnosed in 2001, on a trip to New York City I was discussing life on Sustiva with him and he asked my permission (carte blanche) to use my likeness in the strip. Without hesitation, I agreed. I’ve always been proud to post it on my Facebook page…and true to events in my life (especially the Christmas lights), he turned my misery (LOL) into laughter for me and everyone, which did my heart wonders.
“I will miss our cigars, and pizza at the pizza ‘joint’ that has always been at Christopher Street and 7th Avenue in New York City. A few of us affectionately called Chris ‘smart-ass’—a moniker he was proud to wear for those of us who knew him personally.”
Says writer, blogger and HIV/AIDS advocate Mark S. King about his friend and colleague: “I met Chris shortly after moving to Atlanta in 1993 to become director of AIDS Survival Project, a PWA coalition agency. The agency newsletter was well known for its treatment information and articles from the point of view of those of us living with HIV, so naturally Chris’s comic strip ‘HIV + Me’ was an easy fit and very popular with both the staff and our readers.
“Chris was inquisitive and smart, but never confrontational or arrogant. He was as purely kind as anyone I’ve met. But that isn’t to suggest he wasn’t a fierce advocate for himself or others with HIV. He just expressed himself, and his very well informed views on everything from HIV stigma to the pharma industry, through his art.
“There’s something delightfully subversive about ‘HIV + Me.’ Chris enjoyed taking famous people or fictional characters and plopping them into his strip to discuss new medications or his challenges living with HIV/AIDS. He conjured up everyone from the cartoon cast of Scooby Doo to Elizabeth Taylor to help him share his story.
“Chris was sharing his own life through his art for years, and long before it was comfortable for many people to do so. Seeing his strip was like getting mail from a good friend who is having a tough time but hasn’t stopped grinning. It is hard to know how many people may have found something familiar and comforting in ‘HIV + Me,’ perhaps for the first time. Chris gave regular doses of information, humor, and cheerleading. To me, that is the ideal regimen.
“Everyone has gifts. Using them to improve our world can be the tricky part, but Chris was an artist who found his own way. I hope people will take a moment to be thankful for Chris Companik, and the best way to honor him is to be sure our gifts are on full display, and in service of the issues we care about most.”
Now, as strongly as Chris held dear his memories, we will hold his memory dear. Log on to www.hivnme.com to read his strips and learn more about the artist.