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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.

A man is at a bar. He has two prosthetic hooks for hands. The bartender is denying him a drink: "Sorry, Mike, but you can't hold your liquor."

Typically, Callahan's humor was judged against the backdrop of his disability -- he was, in effect, given a pass for what would be considered tasteless if done by anyone else. He objected to that, and for good reason. Callahan's genius -- and it was genius -- may have been informed by his disability, but it was not dependent on it or beholden to it; Callahan's work needed no special accommodation for the handicapped, and to suggest it did is a disservice to him and to humor itself. Callahan's crippled characters were stand-ins for all of us; he saw all of humanity as being lame -- disabled by prejudice, by sanctimony, by vainglory, by small-mindedness, by self-absorption.

A gunslinger is standing on the Great Wall of China, shouting into the wind: "I'm sayin' you're all yella."

An adolescent slur, but in Callahan's twisted hands and mind, a joke about how East meets Western.

Beyond boundaries

In person, Callahan was as gentle and unassuming as his cartoons were not. He was so soft-spoken that you sometimes had to strain to hear him. He found himself to be a perfectly ridiculous character, and he seemed genuinely surprised that anyone liked his work well enough to publish it. All he was doing, he felt, was holding up a mirror to a world that was spectacularly, hilariously nuts.

A cowboy lies dead, his gun by his side, an apparent suicide. The title is: Shootout at the Schizophrenic Corral.

Like me, Callahan felt that so long as humor was delivered in a good-natured effort to entertain, absolutely nothing was tasteless. Unlike me, Callahan didn't seem to understand that not everyone felt that way. And so it often fell to us, his editors, to save him from himself. Tom and I would typically reject a half-dozen Callahan cartoons a month. Once, something went wrong, and it resulted in catastrophe.

If you search for Callahan art on the Web, the one that you find most often, unfortunately, is a cartoon that never should have been published. It came in one day, Tom looked at it, blanched and immediately faxed it to me -- by then, I had left the Herald for The Washington Post.

The cartoon was an almost unimaginably crude gag at the expense of a teenage Martin Luther King Jr. -- so tasteless that The Post's editors won't let me repeat it here.

Tom and I both laughed -- not at the joke, which was hideously offensive and not even particularly good, but at the wonderful tone-deafness of Callahan, who simply had no idea that there was a line -- let alone where that line might be.

The cartoon was, of course, instantly rejected. But somehow, through an error by a production worker, it got into the magazine, 500,000 copies of which had to be destroyed at a significant cost to the Herald. The result was predictable: The newspaper's brass went ballistic and banished Callahan forever from the paper.

In the ensuing media storm, the cartoon was described as racist, which was unfair to Callahan. It wasn't about race at all; it was just phenomenally crude and rude and outrageous.

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