John Callahan, best known for his politically incorrect cartoons that drew praise and condemnation worldwide, will be remembered for breaking new ground as a humorist and laying the foundation for many of today's edgier animated series, including South Park and Family Guy.
But for New Mobility readers, his legacy may be proving, in frame after frame, the existence of what he dubbed "the lighter side of being paralyzed for life." By turning his relentless gaze on all things earnest, Callahan was the first to skewer the disability community with the same wit and irreverence unleashed on other groups.
Some said he got away with it because he was a quad, but he never wanted to rely on that. The cartoons stand on their own, he said. They still do.
Injured as a passenger in a drunken car crash at 21, Callahan spent six years post-injury "in the bag" with an alcoholic attendant. This was nothing new — he'd been drinking heavily since age 12, when he discovered gin at a family funeral.
At 27 he entered a 12-step program after an anguish-filled night of trying to scoop up a bottle of wine that had fallen on the floor, beyond his quad reach. Following a cathartic cry, something shifted; he'd taken his last drink.
His career gained momentum after Willamette Week, the alternative paper in his Portland, Ore., neighborhood, began publishing his cartoons in the early '80s. A few years later, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald picked up his work, and syndication soon followed, as did books, TV and music. In all, he drew eight cartoon books, wrote an autobiography, a "quasi-memoir" and a children's book, recorded a CD and developed two animated series for television, Pelswick and Quads.
Callahan was colorful in every sense of the word — from his shock of orange hair to his unmistakable outlook. "People fucking love my ass," he playfully told New Mobility in 1996, during a short-lived bid for a Republican seat in Oregon's 12th district. Yes, he was a Republican — one who wanted to be the "first openly quadriplegic" state legislator.
Though the role didn't stick, his love of paradoxes did. "What I like about being paralyzed is that it's so utterly limiting ... that it's also liberating," Callahan told Willamette Week in 2006. "It's very simple, but it's very complicated. It's very beautiful and very horrible."
Mark Zusman, editor of Willamette Week and a friend of Callahan's for more than two decades, says he came by paradox naturally: "He had the soul of a poet and the mind of an assassin."
Callahan was well-liked in his Northwest Portland neighborhood. He did not own or drive a car, preferring to travel the streets and sidewalks in his power wheelchair. He enjoyed being close to people and was considered a friend by celebrities and homeless people alike. While his cartoons are often described as dark, iconoclastic, and twisted, he had a gentle personality and was easily approachable. Dutch filmmaker Simone DeVries, whose 2007 documentary, "Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel," captured Callahan's musical side, was surprised when she met him. "I expected him to be very abrasive, cynical, because of his cartoons, but he is nice and sweet and polite, even saying he was honored that I would make a film about him."
As if the idea of Callahan being "gentle" and "sweet" isn't mind-blowing enough, at age 59, Callahan was in the process of becoming the type of do-gooder he enjoyed lampooning in many of his cartoons. Just days before he died from complications of an infected pressure sore on July 24, Callahan had been attending graduate classes at Portland State University as part of his plan to get a master's degree in social work, become a counselor and, as he said many times in the past year, "give back to others."
"He had started summer term classes and had spent a lot of money on books," said Ian Cottingham, his apartment manager and friend for many years. "I could see he was enjoying college again."
According to his full-time attendant, Robert F. Miller, Callahan had been admitted July 19 to the hospital for his third ischial flap surgery in the past year, but his doctor could not guarantee that the surgery would be successful. Diabetes had made complete healing especially difficult. Miller said a second and third opinion from other doctors came to the same conclusion. "At that point, John said, just let it go. He knew it was going to kill him. He had a DNR order on record."
"It was very difficult for us," said Tom Callahan, one of John's brothers. "We were always proud of his independence, and his need level kept increasing over the past year. He did not look forward to spending more time in bed, and that was the only option he had."
He had become especially close to his family in the past several months. His youngest brother, Richard, had bought him a new laptop computer and voice-activated software to help with his graduate studies.
Though most known for his cartoons, Callahan had a passion for writing. His autobiography was well-received by critics, and his songwriting captured the attention of some recording artist heavies, including Tom Waits.
Terry Robb, well-known blues guitarist and record producer in the Northwest, personally recorded and mixed Callahan's "Purple Winos in the Rain" CD, which was released in 2006. All the songs were written by Callahan and performed by Callahan, Robb, and other Portland musicians. "I've produced a lot of records, and this is one of the few records I still listen to," said Robb. "I'm very proud of it, but it's all his."
Callahan's autobiographical book, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, published in 1990, impressed comedian and actor Robin Williams, who purchased the film rights (the movie was never made). Lorenzo Milam, in his article, "Twenty-Two Influential Books on Disability," (NM, Aug. 2003) writes of the book: "This one should be at the top of all the lists. The reason: Callahan is a kick in the pants — feisty, cynical, smart."
In the book, Callahan wrote: "I felt as if a huge hand had reached down out of the heavens and placed me firmly on my butt in a wheelchair while a voice said, 'Just sit there and relax for 50 years. Don't get up, ever.' The only chance of relief from grief, from anger and from resentment I had was spiritual."
At the time of his death, Callahan was still pursuing the spiritual side of life. While his dream of getting a master's degree and becoming a certified counselor did not come to fruition, in reality he had been counseling others for years. As a recovering alcoholic, he made it a point to befriend others who struggled with alcohol addiction, and his cartoons, writings, music and quick wit will continue to give back for decades.
John Callahan embraced his hate mail, enlarging letters of outrage to hang on his wall and later posting complaints on his website. Did he get a kick out of pushing people's buttons? No doubt. But that's only half the point. He also loved meeting "insiders" who got his cartoons — the black guy who thanked him for the "Blind and black, but not musical" beggar, or the Vietnam vet and amputee who laughed at the bartender denying a man without hands: "Sorry, Mike, you can't hold your liquor." The whole point is simple, Callahan said. "It's funny."
"My whole life is about humor and surviving and a kind of quirky acceptance.."
— Callahan in New Mobility, 2002
"My only compass for whether I've gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands. Like me, they are fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and patronizing. That's what is truly detestable."
— Callahan in The New York Times, 1992