Fearless John Callahan pushed boundaries of taste and humor with his art

The quadriplegic artist who pushed the boundaries on taboo subjects with his irreverent works died at 59.
By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On Saturday, John Callahan died at 59. He was among the most brilliant and original cartoonists who ever lived. If you never heard of him, it is because he assured his semi-obscurity by venturing into some of the most unnerving, taboo areas imaginable, in a fearless pursuit of humor.

A blind man is plummeting off a cliff. In front of him, on a leash, also falling, is a small animal. The blind man is thinking, "Why did I buy a seeing-eye lemming?"

Callahan was a quadriplegic; he drew with two spastic hands, held together as if in prayer, each giving the other just enough support to fashion a semi-straight line, a line just squirrelly enough to give the drawing a slightly lunatic feel. As it happens, "slightly lunatic" was perfect.

A man is selling puppies on the street. The grim reaper has walked up to him, accompanied by her three little grim reaper children. They are excitedly bouncing around, saying, "Mommy! Mommy! Can we kill the puppies?"

In the late 1980s, when we were editors of the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald, Tom Shroder and I first saw a Callahan cartoon in a small weekly newspaper in Oregon -- the only sort of paper at the time that would run his stuff. This was it:

Two horseflies are sitting on a couch. The male fly is putting the moves on the female fly. On the floor, in front of them, are some little round objects. The female fly is saying: "Darling! Not in front of the maggots!"

A few weeks later, Tom and I began running Callahan's work every week in our magazine, Tropic. I believe we gave Callahan his first big break in the mainstream media, and it began a long collaboration and friendship.

Headless bodies are stumbling out of a restaurant, blood spurting from the necks. The restaurant's name is "The Low Ceiling-Fan Cafe."

I think Callahan, who never achieved any significant degree of commercial success, was the first and best to apply such darkness to the comics; this sort of edge is now almost mainstream. If you watch "Family Guy" or "South Park" or "American Dad," you will see that they are Callahan's children.

A difficult life

Where does a sense of humor like this come from? It's a cliche to say "from pain," and it's not always true, but in Callahan's case the connection is self-evident.

He grew up in Oregon as a teenage alcoholic. He was 21 and drunk -- a passenger in a car driven by another drunk who fell asleep at the wheel -- when the car hit a wall at 90 miles an hour, and Callahan's spine was crushed. Even that didn't stop his drinking.

He stopped one day six years later when he was in his wheelchair, trying to gnaw the cork out of a bottle of wine with teeth chipped from battle with so many corks. The bottle slipped out of his clawlike hands and rolled away on the floor to where he could not reach it. He burst out crying. In that moment, he saw the ruin of his life as a pathetic parable. He never took another drink.

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