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John Callahan, 1951-2010
posted August 3, 2010


John Callahan, the quadriplegic cartoonist whose work savaged the hypocrisies of everyday life including the realities of his own condition, died Saturday, July 24 in Portland, Oregon. He was 59 years old.

Callahan was adopted while still a baby, into a family that eventually gave him five siblings. He suffered from child abuse brought upon him from a presence outside of the family -- a female teacher -- and drank starting at the age of 12 in part as a way to ameliorate the pain of that experience. The young Callahan loved to draw; he loved to drink more. He would continue to consume copious amounts of alcohol up until and well after the incident that put him in a wheelchair, giving up alcohol in his late 20s. His experiences with alcohol later became one of the foundational subjects for his art and writing.

Callahan lost the use of his arms and legs in a traffic accident suffered at the age of 21, on July 22, 1972, in Los Angeles -- a day Callahan would later recall in graphic detail following an evening he couldn't even remember at the time. There followed an extensive period of rehabilitation, six months in length, before Callahan was released into a series of state institutions. He would eventually get kicked out of one of them for over-drinking. He sobered up after reaching rock bottom trying and failing to open a bottle of valium, an experience he would later describe in heartbreaking detail. Part of Callahan's sobriety apparently involved attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, at least early on.

imageSome articles on the cartoonist suggest Callahan took to making comics as a way to negotiate the post-accident landscape, an impulse similar to the one that led him briefly into classes for counseling at Portland State University. The obituary in the Willamette Week by Chris Lydgate suggests a more standard progression: The newly sober Callahan entered PSU to study English and like so many cartoonists with less colorful personal backgrounds began to publish work in a school publication, this one called Vanguard. The cartoonist and animator Bill Plympton recalled meeting the young cartoonist in one of the many obituaries written after Callahan's passing. Callahan came into Plympton's class in the late 1970s to show him some work; Plympton talked about seeing past the crude linework and grasping the vast reservoir of talent making itself known in that work. Callahan found his first regular gig outside of school in David Milholland's Clinton Street Quarterly publication, no longer in existence. Anecdotes related after his passing indicate that Callahan was submitting those same cartoons to several publications, local and national, at least by the early 1980s. By one count, he would publish in over 200 newspaper and magazines over his long and productive career. His client list would eventually include such publications as Hustler, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Harper's and the New York Daily News.

The subject matter of Callahan's cartoons was often cruel, slightly bizarre gag-work featuring morose or even macabre activity, much of it especially in the first half of his career featuring people with disabilities. The initial reaction to those strips was frequently driven by someone's negative take on the very idea of the subject matter -- it was a time period when a lot of cartooning worked hard at the outer edge of breaking taboos for the sake of breaking taboos, frequently without the wit and ultimate truth-telling of Callahan's work -- followed by the complaining party finding out that Callahan was in a wheelchair himself (he drew not with his mouth but with both hands placed on a pen) and perhaps working their way towards a different conclusion. Callahan would continue to garner plaudits and significant criticism through the duration of his career, twin sides of a coin that fascinated the cartoonist in terms of seeing how his work settled in with all different types of people. His fans and admirers believed Callahan's matter of fact treatment of people with various handicaps humanized them, as opposed to treating them as a class of persons that needed to be treated delicately, or, as was frequently the case, not representing them at all.

Above and beyond his chosen subject matter, Callahan was recognized as a first-rate funny person, lauded in his lifetime by a range of creative people from Dave Barry to Gary Larson. He was seen as a brave comedian who communicated his view of a world with the same force and direction he used to charge down the street in his wheelchair, where so much about the fragile, ridiculous and stridently unfair elements of the human condition spoke directly against the enormous amount of extraneous nonsense so many in a position of relative luxury carry around. John Callahan made cartoons that might make you shriek if you recognized yourself, and might make you take a second look if you saw someone you knew but hadn't deeply considered.

Callahan was an emblematic Portland cultural figure, a well-known local who negotiated his downtown neighborhood environs for years, interacting with as many folks as possible. He was the Portland cartoonist for a local citizenry that may to this day lack any sense of the large comic book creative community within its borders. His work was published locally by the alternative weekly Willamette Week since 1983, again sometimes to plaudits and sometimes to bitter complaints. Their affectionate obituary suggested Callahan likely received more letters of complaint than every other person in the history of the publication combined. Callahan was passionately eulogized by a number of Northwest press outlets, and remembered fondly in the on-line communities surrounding those publications.


A key moment in Callahan's career was the 1989 publication of his autobiography from William Morrow, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot, and the subsequent popular trade paperback from Vintage in 1990. Don't Worry brought Callahan's lacerating, honest approach into prose form via its exploration of his debilitating accident, his alcoholism, and the narrative provided by the adopted cartoonist's search for his birth mother. It's hard to imagine any better book about a cartoonist or comics figure. That book gave a certain weight and credence to the way Callahan approached his cartoons, and likely helped make his cartoon collections a presence in bookstores in the decade-plus to come when there were very few gag cartoonists appearing on those shelves.

Callahan became one of the quietly successful cartoonists in bookstores. A variety of his collections and related projects were widely available during a period where most cartoonists from the usual sources -- such as The New Yorker -- were published intermittently or not at all. His books included Digesting The Child Within And Other Cartoons To Live By (1991), Do Not Disturb Any Further, Do What He Says! He's Crazy!! (1992), I Think I Was An Alcoholic (1993), the amazingly-titled The Night, They Say, Was Made For Love: Plus, My Sexual Scrapbook (1993), What Kind Of God Would Allow A Thing Like This To Happen?!! (1995), Freaks Of Nature (1995) and Get Down!!: Dog Cartoons (2002). The Best Of Callahan was released by Ballantine in 2003. In addition to the more standard cartoon books -- not that much of anything about Callahan's work was standard -- and the autobiography, the cartoonist penned a children's book called The King Of Things And The Cranberry Clown (1994). "Cranberry Clown" was an appellation used for the red-haired Callahan.

Two TV series based on Callahan's work were made: Pelswick (2000), a more traditional show about a boy in a wheelchair which aired in Canada for which he wrote and served as executive producer, and Quads (2001), which also aired in Canada, I believe Australia and spent some time in rotation on the Adult Swim chunk of programming. Quads shared some of the more daring elements of Callahan's gag cartoons, and remains available on DVD. A five-minute animated adaptation of I Think I Was An Alcoholic made in 1993 featured Callahan doing a voiceover.

In later years, Callahan pursued different avenues of artistic expression. His cartoons changed subject matter slightly to reflect less of an interest in his own condition and perhaps his feelings towards women, and more a wider variety of agents and actors. He released a CD called Purple Winos In The Rain in Fall 2006. That collection of music featured songs; Callahan wrote the music and lyrics for each song. According to a brief mention on his wikipedia page, Callahan was working on an art project featuring a mix of portraits and nudes, works from which were being shown periodically at galleries.

imageWhile Callahan enjoyed a full career somewhat outside of the cartooning mainstream, he enjoyed the patronage of other talented people: the actor William Hurt was the first to buy rights to Callahan's life story. Robin Williams wrote an introduction to Callahan's wonderfully-titled Will The Real John Callahan Please Stand Up and for a long time was developing a movie based on the cartoonist's life. The comedian Dave Attell visited Callahan as part of the Portland episode of his well-regarded Insomniac television show on Comedy Central. Larger-than-life musician and sometimes-actor Tom Waits made a cameo experience on Purple Winos. Gus Van Sant was another figure interested in a Callahan movie, or at least met with the cartoonist and took notes for a project of some sort. A documentary about his life called Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel was completed by Dutch filmmaker Simone De Vries and made its premiere in February 2007 at the Portland International Film Festival. According to an anecdote that made the rounds after Callahan's passing, the writer and performer Kinky Friedman had contacted Callahan about opening his show on July 27 of this year, Callahan having provided the illustrations to Friedman's Texas Hold 'Em (2006).

The family reported to the Oregonian that the cartoonist's death was related to infections suffered due to his wheelchair bound status, while another report suggested these maladies had intensified during his last year following a 2009 surgery. Callahan entered the hospital on July 22, was briefly moved to a hospice on the morning of July 24 and then returned to the hospital where he died shortly thereafter. A friend of Callahan's said the cartoonist suspected his life was coming to a close, and was able to make some goodbyes before the ambulance came. A Catholic funeral service -- one of the cartoonist's final wishes -- was held for Callahan late last week. He was cremated.

Callahan is survived by his mother, five brothers and sisters, and 11 nephews and nieces.