Cartoonist John Callahan, RIP

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Satire

John Callahan, Cartoonist, Dies at 59
by Bruce Weber
The New York Times
July 28, 2010

John Callahan, a quadriplegic, alcoholic cartoonist whose work in newspapers and magazines made irreverent, impolitic sport of both people with disabilities and diseases and those who would pity and condescend to them, died Saturday in Portland, Ore. He was 59 and lived in Portland.

The causes were complications of quadriplegia and respiratory problems, said his brother Tom.

Like his friend Gary Larson, the creator of “The Far Side,” Mr. Callahan made drawings with a gleeful appreciation of the macabre as it exists in everyday life. He was, however, a man who lived his whole life with disadvantages, some of them self-wrought, and he viewed the world through a dark and wicked lens.

“This is John, I”™m a little too depressed to take your call today,” the message on his answering machine said. “Please leave your message at the gunshot.”

Bemused by the culture of confession and self-help fostered by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera and others, he was uninclined, in his work, to be outwardly sympathetic to the afflicted or to respect the boundaries of racial and ethnic stereotyping, and his cartoons were often polarizing: some found them outrageously funny, others outrageously offensive.

There was the drawing of a restaurant, the Anorexic Cafe, with a sign in the window saying “Now Closed 24 Hours a Day.” There was the drawing of the confused-looking square dancers unable to respond to the caller”™s instruction to “return to the girl that you just left,” with a headline reading, “The Alzheimer Hoedown.”

There was the drawing of a blind black man begging in the street, wearing a sign that read: “Please help me. I am blind and black, but not musical.”

There was the drawing of a bartender refusing to serve a man who had prosthetic hooks for hands. “Sorry, Sam,” the bartender says. “You can”™t hold your liquor.”

There was the drawing of an aerobics class for quadriplegics, with the instructor saying, “O.K., let”™s get those eyeballs moving.” There was the drawing of a sheriff”™s posse on horseback surrounding an empty wheelchair. The caption gave him the title of his 1990 autobiography: “Don”™t Worry, He Won”™t Get Far on Foot.”

At the peak of his popularity, about a decade ago, Mr. Callahan”™s syndicated work appeared in more than 200 newspapers around the world, and many of them got used to receiving letters of objection.

When a car accident in 1972 severed his spine, Mr. Callahan was already a self-destructive alcoholic, having been a heavy drinker from the age of 12. He wasn”™t driving, but the driver, whom he barely knew, was drunk when he smashed Mr. Callahan”™s Volkswagen into a utility pole at 90 miles per hour. He was paralyzed from the diaphragm down and lost the use of many of his upper-body muscles, though he could extend his fingers and, eventually, after therapy, hold a pen in his right hand. To draw, he guided his right hand slowly across a page with his left, producing rudimentary, even childish, comic-book-like images.

Mr. Callahan often defended his work with a shrug, saying simply that he thought it was funny. But he also said people who were genuinely afflicted tended to be his fans.

“My only compass for whether I”™ve gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands,” he said in an interview in The New York Times Magazine in 1992. “Like me, they are fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and the patronizing. That”™s what is truly detestable.”

Mr. Callahan was born on Feb. 5, 1951; information about his biological parents was unavailable. As an infant he was adopted from an orphanage in Portland by David Callahan, an elevator manager for Cargill, the grain company, and his wife, Rosemary. They named him John Michael Callahan and subsequently had five children of their own. He grew up in the Dalles, about 80 miles east of Portland on the Columbia River; went to Catholic school, where he grew deft at drawing caricatures of the nuns; graduated from a local high school; and went to work as an orderly at a state mental hospital and then an aluminum plant. He described his young adulthood mostly as aimless days of work in between bouts of drinking. A friend, Kevin Mullane, said in an interview that the drinking came closer to killing him than the accident did.

“Ironically, the crash may have saved his life,” Mr. Mullane said.

Actually, Mr. Callahan continued to drink for several years until he joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1978. Eventually he earned a B.A. from Portland State University. At the time of his death he was enrolled in the university”™s master”™s program in counseling.

Mr. Callahan”™s cartoons are collected in a number of volumes, including “What Kind of a God Would Allow a Thing Like This to Happen?!!” and “Do What He Says!: He”™s Crazy!!!” He also wrote a second memoir, “Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?” His work was adapted for two animated television series featuring disabled characters: “Pelswick,” a family-appropriate show about a boy in a wheelchair determined to live a normal life, and “John Callahan”™s Quads,” an envelope-pushing adult show featuring a menagerie of characters with different disabilities, foul mouths and bad attitudes.

In addition to his brother Tom, Mr. Callahan is survived by his mother, Rosemary; two other brothers, Kevin, known as Kip, and Richard; and two sisters, Mary Callahan, known as Murph, and Teri Duffy. All live in the Portland area.

“Even as a teenager, he”™d sense things in other people, the way an impersonator would,” Tom Callahan said in an interview Tuesday. “He”™d make fun of his friends, his teachers, in cartoons, so I don”™t think the accident was really responsible for his humor. I think it allowed him literary license, though, to get away with things he might not otherwise have.”