Cartoonist John Callahan's Twisted World

John Callahan is sick. How else could you describe a man who scribbles out five to 10 cartoons a week, each one more offensive than the last? The blind, the crippled, the fat, the drunk, the religious, conservative, liberal, feminist ... everyone's a target. What kind of man could devote his life to creating such obnoxious material? And how dare he be so damned funny in the process?Make no mistake, John Callahan is funny. Anybody who can't see the humor--the scabrous, irreverent, incorrect and deeply human humor--in his cartoons suffers from the worst kind of disability: a broken funny bone, coupled with irony-poor blood. At first glance, it would seem humorlessness is practically the only problem Callahan doesn't have. He's a recovering alcoholic, sober since 1978. He's a C5-6 quadriplegic, with no feeling or control below his diaphragm. As if that isn't enough, he was raised Catholic. Just kidding. But if you thought that cheap shot was beyond the pale, you're sure to find Callahan's cartoons to be off the planet. Once newspapers and magazines started publishing his cartoons, letters began pouring in from self-appointed saviors of one group or another. Such harmless, good-natured gags as a bartender saying, "Sorry, Sam, you can't hold your liquor," to a double amputee with hooks for hands caused complaints to pour down like acid rain. "Very shortly," Callahan writes in his autobiography, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, "I was to be identified as a sexist, agist, fascist communist--in fact, I'm merely a cartoonist." So what's it like to be found funny by so many people, but offensive by so many others? "I guess it's kind of unique place to be--a completely outrageous cartoonist who's in all these papers," Callahan said in a recent phone interview from his home in Portland, Ore. "It's something you get used to." He'd better be used to it. With several collections of cartoons published, including the current release of Freaks of Nature (Quill Paperbacks, $8.95), as well as an autobiography, educational pamphlets, T-shirts, national syndication in more than 50 publications, and postcards spreading his fame (or infamy), the legion of fans and critics has been growing over the past decade, especially after the 1995 publication of his first cartoon collection, Do Not Disturb Any Further. Disturbing people is not something that concerns Callahan. "Sometimes it's fun to be politically incorrect," he says. "Some people are such crybabies that it's fun to just blow 'em up. Animal rights people are really good for that, or feminists." Though Callahan might be regarded as a sort of poster child for the fight against political correctness, he doesn't see himself in that role. "I don't try. I just naturally think [political correctness] is silly." Though he works regularly and completes several cartoons a week, Callahan has no particular working discipline. "I just go through my life--have fun and drink coffee and watch women's legs," he says. "And then I think of jokes." His motivations seem simple enough. But for quite a while, there was little cause for laughter in John Callahan's life. Put up for adoption by his birth mother, Callahan spent the first six months of his life raised by nuns before he was taken in by David and Rosemary Callahan. Like many adoptees, Callahan was never fully comfortable with life in his new family. Insomnia, Catholic guilt and the lack of family bonding plagued him as he approached his teen years. Acne and Russian novels only compounded his anxiety. "When I was 12 and on the verge of high school," he writes in Don't Worry, "I discovered that there was a medicine for my guilt, if not for my acne scars." Enter alcohol, which was to soak through every aspect of Callahan's life for the next decade and a half. Though he was no stranger to drunk driving, he was in the passenger seat when a drunken acquaintance drove straight into an electrical pole. "The Volkswagen had folded up like an accordion," he relates in Don't Worry, "causing minor injuries to Dexter but neatly severing my spine. I didn't notice, though. I was too drunk." It goes without saying that such an accident would change a person's life irreparably. But although Callahan had drawn cartoons off and on from childhood, he doubts that he would have become a professional artist had he not become paralyzed. "I wouldn't have been sitting down long enough." Callahan has attracted the regard of many famous friends, fans and supporters, including fellow cartoonist Gary Larson, conservative humorist P.J. O'Rourke, and Linda Ellerbee. William Hurt even optioned the movie rights to Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot. Callahan's only stipulation was that the film not be called Children of a Lesser Quad. Hurt let the option drop, but Robin Williams has since picked up it up; the project is currently being developed by TriStar Pictures. "It's going to be really good. He's good," Callahan says. Is anyone else suited to the role? "Besides him, I couldn't really guess anybody. Maybe Hugh--what's-his-name--Grant." But just last month, Callahan got his what was possibly his biggest media boost yet, when an allusion came tripping off the lips of America's most famous magistrate.On Aug. 14, Judge Lance Ito said mid-O.J. trial, "I'm reminded of the Callahan cartoon that's often published regarding what the legal process appears to have become." The cartoon Ito spoke of shows a lawyer giving his final comments to the jury: "You've read the tabloids. You've seen the TV movie. You've watched the talk shows. It's up to you." "I got phone calls from all over the country," Callahan says. "People had been watching the trial that day, and Judge Ito had come out and said my name. "I got the tape and the transcripts of the trial," he continues. "I couldn't believe it myself." It's actually kind of surprising that Callahan wasn't watching the O.J. trial. His devotion, even addiction, to television is matched only by his contempt for it. "It's the most destructive thing, I think, in society," he says. "But it seems to be one of the most vital things. It's just the demise of all society, but it feels so good while it's doing it." Callahan is a big fan of sick-cartoon pioneers like Robert Crumb and Sam Gross. "I [also] like the Pope," he confides. The Pope? This from a man who draws cartoons such as the one depicting a child writing "I am personally responsible for the agony of Christ" on a blackboard, or the one featuring a crucified Jesus thinking "T.G.I.F." What could Callahan, a recovering Catholic who virtually embodies irreverence, possibly admire about the Pope? "His hat." Unlike so many in the arts, Callahan is no PR machine. Where many interviewees will start spouting their own praises at the least provocation, Callahan is quiet, terse and laconic throughout the interview. As John Updike said of E. B. White: "A good writer is hard to talk about, since he has already, directly or by implication, said everything about himself that should be said." And why should Callahan prattle on about himself? He lets the world taste his mind through his cartoons. Callahan has turned his poison pen to caricatures of a number of pop-cult characters, from famous felatee Hugh Grant to renegade feminist Camille Paglia. Paglia is one of the few who comes out looking like a hero in Callahan's cartoons, such as the one where she steals the "P" and "C" from "_olitically _orrect" and rushes to transplant them onto "_amille _aglia." Paglia's latest book, Vamps & Tramps, features no fewer than five Callahan cartoons about her. Why Paglia? "Because I like her. And people that I like always come out good in my cartoons," he says. "I met her, we've become friends. She's real sweet in person." Callahan's editors and other supporters have often cited the cartoonist's disabilities as a justification for his work. He has just as frequently denied that he needs this excuse. "I reserve the right," he says in Don't Worry, "to draw gags about any group or individual, especially about self-righteous assholes who presume to defend the disabled."But if I weren't disabled," he continues, "I'd find some other offensive subject matter." On the phone, however, Callahan admits that he probably wouldn't get away with much of his humor were he not disabled. "I guess people are dumb enough to think that being in a wheelchair is supposed to make you a saint." So would Callahan like people to disregard his disability when looking at his work? "No. Why bother? Then I'd just be and ordinary cartoonist. "This way, I have a license to kill."

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