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John Callahan Obituary From The Guardian

August 18, 2010

In an interview with the small magazine Emergency Horse, the cartoonist John Callahan, who has died aged 59 of respiratory failure, stated: “I like everything that has to do with the extreme, with angst or suffering or intensity in life. My subjects are all very intense – religion, politics, disease. The real mild things in life I’m not interested in.” But what distinguished Callahan, a quadriplegic, was that he was genuinely funny about these subjects. A classic cartoon shows a sheriff and posse surrounding an empty wheelchair. The caption reads: “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.”

Unable to control a pen single-handed, Callahan worked on a tablet on his knees, holding the pen with two hands and drawing from the shoulders. Like that other great humorist, the partially sighted James Thurber, Callahan succeeded in channelling his limitations to create a distinctive style in drawings peopled by characters that he described as “kind of demented, as I think most people are”.

As disability was his primary subject, Callahan frequently came under attack from the people he described as “self-righteous assholes who presume to defend the disabled”, and delighted in publishing these letters on his website.

Born in Portland, Oregon, Callahan was adopted by an Irish Catholic family at the age of six months. He grew up in the Dalles, a small port on the Columbia river. With a rigid ex-army father, and educated by nuns, he started to rebel. He showed a talent for illicit, often obscene, caricatures of teachers and classmates.

Aged 12, he stole a bottle of gin at his grandmother’s wake and thereafter descended rapidly into alcoholism. (He was later to blame this in part on having been sexually abused at the age of eight by a female teacher.) In 1972, he let himself be driven by a friend who was as drunk as he was, who hit a telegraph pole. Callahan’s spine was severed.

He continued drinking in rehab and afterwards, until in 1978 he had an epiphany, described in his autobiography: “I knew with utter certainty that my problem was not quadriplegia, it was alcoholism.” He went to counselling, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and never took another drink. (This journey was the subject of his 1989 animation I Think I Was an Alcoholic.)

John Callahan cartoon John Callahan delighted in publishing his hate mail on his website. Photograph: Levin Represents/John Callahan

In 1979, John enrolled in Portland State University, where he gained a bachelor’s degree in English. In 1981, he returned to cartooning, initially for Portland State’s student magazine, the Vanguard, and received his first hate mail after creating a drawing of a street beggar with a sign reading: “Please help me. I am blind and black but not musical.”

After graduating in 1983, he started submitting professionally and eventually sold to Penthouse a cartoon of a construction site with a sign: “WARNING! THIS AREA PATROLLED BY LESBIANS.” He was soon selling to magazines such as National Lampoon, Omni and Forum.

At this point, like many artists with disabilities, Callahan experienced problems balancing a fluctuating freelance income with welfare payments. But the rise of political correctness created an environment in which Callahan was able to flourish, with such gags as: “This is a feminist bookstore! There is no humour section!!!” His career kept growing, he found an agent, and was eventually syndicated in some 50 publications, winning the praise of such fans as Gary Larson, PJ O’Rourke, Matt Groening and Camille Paglia.

In 1989 he published a first volume of autobiography, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, followed in 1998 by Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?

Callahan originated two television series. Pelswick, which ran from 2000 until 2002, was a children’s series about a 13-year-old wheelchair user. The cartoonist was creator and executive producer of John Callahan’s Quads (2001), a raucously politically incorrect series made by the Canadian animation house Nelvana.

For the last 12 months, Callahan had been dealing with complications from pressure sores, a constant danger for anyone with spinal cord injury. He is survived by his mother, Rosemary, three brothers and two sisters.

• John Michael Callahan, cartoonist, born 5 February 1951; died 24 July 2010

One Comment leave one →


  1. Beat Alcoholism 101

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