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Digesting The Child Within
posted October 20, 2007
Quill, soft cover, 112 pages, 1991, $8
I'm not sure why alternative comics readers haven't embraced gag cartoonist John Callahan with greater passion. Flat out, he's funny. And he's mean, the kind of voice that makes loud public commentary where occasionally you turn around because it's so close to crossing a line, only then you see him laughing harder because he made you look. While his art varies wildly, the gags are unpacked with enough skill and the visuals are presented in a way that builds upon the humorous point being made that I'm not sure he'd gain anything significant were his cartooning more lovely to behold. If Callahan lacks anything, it's an idiosyncratic perspective beyond that of his well-known life story and the generally dyspeptic view of life that makes itself evident on the page. Few would be able to recognize his work given a sample cartoon, let alone the description of one. You can see just enough of cartoonists like B. Kliban and Gary Larson and Virgil Partch in his work to make it difficult to recall the exact point of view that Callahan provides on any given subject. That's a tough measure, and it's only because of Callahan's obvious intellect that one might demand it of his work.
The big surprise for many people upon picking up this Callahan book, and I think maybe one or two others that he's done, is that Callahan also pens comics short stories. They're built from gag panels, which gives the work a start and stop quality, but anyone who was ever able to make it through an Edward Gorey book should be able to follow that kind of narrative that exists here. In "I Think I Was An Alcoholic," Callahan deals in unsparing, ugly terms the depths to which he fell while refusing to deal with his alcoholism, both and before and after the accident that paralyzed him. It's no less lacerating for the number of times that you laugh, when a dolphin sticks its head out of the ocean to castigate the level of his drinking, or the fact that a hospital wall includes a sign that says, simply, "Thank You For Not Dying."
In other words, like the best comics authors, Callahan can tell a joke without drastically changing the thrust of the story he wants to tell. That's a rare skill. You don't feel more kindly towards the unsympathetic narrator simply because he's funny. You're not set loose from the tough nature of the experience because there's a point at which you're invited to laugh at it. In fact, the humor tends to serve as a backdrop against which the human experience takes center stage. Callahan's humor provides just enough context that it dawns upon the reader that this or something equally depressing could happen to them. Would that we respond so well.