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Omaha Magazine

Catching Up with Chemo Bob: The Antihero's Antihero

Dec 28, 2020 08:49AM ● By Greg Jerrett
black-and-white of artist Bob Donlan

There’s nothing funny about cancer. In fact it’s unfunny enough to have its own saying, “as serious as cancer.” Whether through personal experience or at the side of a friend or relative, few people’s lives have gone completely untouched by the disease. Fighting cancer in the time of Coronavirus can be even more difficult, as COVID-19 is a significant stressor on its own. 

“The first thing they tell you when you have cancer is try to remain as positive as you can,” said Bob Donlan. The 57-year-old is a local artist, writer, actor, cartoonist, set designer, and playwright, with an MBA from the University of Kansas. Donlan shared his story in a (very) socially distanced interview on the porch of his Aksarben-area home on an unfortunately chilly day. 

Donlan was first diagnosed in 2013 with colon cancer, which has since metastasized and is at stage 4 after two previous remissions. Donlan has been undergoing a new treatment involving DNA therapy, which gives him a reason to be positive. He has his up days and down days, but he is doing his level best to follow doctor’s orders to keep a positive disposition.

“To stay positive, they recommend you do things like watch comedies instead of violent or dark films,” Donlan said. However, he hasn’t limited himself to simply watching comedy. With his own set of skills, Donlan looks on the bright side of life by taking a walk through its dark and uncomfortable places first. “I’ve relied a little more on writing and cartooning. Illnesses can take away your strength, and obviously affect your mood and ability to work, but I found from experience that working was the key to pulling me out of dark painful places.” 

So begins the origin story of the antihero’s antihero, Chemo Bob. Donlan created Chemo Bob initially as an alter ego puppet for a 25-minute workshop play. He had, at one point, considered turning his one-man—and to be fair, one-puppet—show into a longer production.

“I took a crack at a cancer play originally, but that’s tough. Because for one, the subject matter kind of drives your audience away for the most part. I mean, not a lot of people want to sit and listen for an hour and a half about chemotherapy or something,” Donlan said, acknowledging that his goal is that of any playwright. “I just wanted to have them be produced and watched at whatever level. I found that one to be a challenge to write and ended up using a puppet to kind of balance out the fear of cancer. It’s hard to be afraid of a puppet.”

The puppet was Donlan, or at least what Donlan thinks of as a version of him, one who can talk and joke about anything, making it more easily digestible. 

“The character was myself, my alter ego, which was really interesting, because I had dialogue with myself. And both were talking directly to the audience. So the dialogue when written was really kind of confused,” he said. “It was kind of crazy, but with the puppet, I could play out aspects of the illness with a detachment through the voice of somebody else. My writing and my paintings have not only been a way for me to personally heal and process, but also hopefully help someone else going through a similar circumstance.”

Chemo Bob lives on as a cartoon published as a zine. Donlan recalled that it all began by reflecting on appointments and difficult conversations with doctors. He said the Chemo Bob comics he started doing were, and continue to be, an important part of his life.

“They help[ed] me keep my sense of humor and accept stuff that was unacceptable. Cartooning somehow took its power away,” Donlan said while recalling a particularly difficult consultation about a serious procedure. “I remember a doctor coming in and telling me if the next thing we tried didn’t work, we would have to cut me open from the neck to below the belly button and open up my abdominal cavity to dose it with chemotherapy medications and then staple me back up. To me that just seemed like a Frankenstein kind of thing to do.”

Donlan went home and drew a cartoon of his doctor holding a chart explaining the procedure to his character. In the cartoon, the doctor explains the procedure and then says, “What do you think of that?” Chemo Bob, sitting on the exam table replies, “I think you have the wrong chart.”

“The punchline didn’t have to be funny, but it did help defuse the kind of the horror of it,” Donlan said.

The latest issue is called “Chemo Bob vs. COVID-19 Virus.” As Donlan said of previous works, it is more about easing tensions during the complicated times in which we live than belly laughs. In one, Bob is asked how long he’s been social distancing, to which he replies, “Homecoming 1981.” In another, Bob “finds the balance” between narcotic constipation and chemo-induced diarrhea as he sits upon the toilet with his arms outstretched like a gymnast. While too dark for some, anyone who’s experienced a serious medical condition will see the humor in facing illness with a stiff upper lip, or, better yet, a smile.

As a mentor, Donlan also shines. Friend and collaborator Christopher McLucas met Donlan while working at Legend Comics & Coffee. The two hit it off. They liked each other’s style, and Donlan later did the artwork for McLucas’ children’s book The Giggle Farm. 

“Bob has been an inspiration and an even better friend,” McLucas said, adding that Donlan’s constant drive to paint or write is motivating. “Through all of his ups and downs he’s always at the desk. Bob is what all artists want to be when they grow up.” 

Donlan is still a working artist during his illness. Inquiries about his work or for commissions, contact [email protected]

This article was printed in the January/February 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.