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

By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; C01

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.

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.

Callahan, of course, trafficked in that realm all the time; outrageous humor is funny because we are outrageous, as a species. We are bloodthirsty; we are hypocritical; we are petty. We live in ridiculous denial of our flaws and even of our mortality. Callahan's cartoons took these things and exaggerated them, and threw them in our faces.

I want to end here by telling a story that I never thought I'd be able to tell in any public forum. The Post has permitted an edited version of it -- on this day, in this context, for this piece.

Many years ago, Shroder, Dave Barry and I were discussing Callahan's dark brilliance, the fine lines between humor and pain, and how, in a sense, Callahan was right: Among friends who understood that each other's motives were honest, nothing is tasteless. So we decided to play an elaborate prank on our friend Mr. Callahan.

First, we each tried to come up with a concept for a cartoon so offensive that even Callahan wouldn't draw it. We came with an unholy trinity of disgusting ideas involving Jesus, Auschwitz and breast cancer.

Tropic's art director, Philip Brooker, was an expert forger. He drew each of these cartoons in Callahan's style and signed them "Callahan." They were, to our eyes, indistinguishable from Callahan's work. We mailed them to Callahan, anonymously, without explanation, postmarked from another city.

Several days passed. No word from Callahan. Then, one day, a letter in the mail, addressed to all of us. Callahan just knew there was only one place that first letter could have come from. What he sent us was his answer, a single drawing. It showed a man walking down the street, popping candy into his mouth, from a bag. The candies were little, shapeless blobs. The bag was labeled "Chocolate Thalidomide Babies."

I once told John that I intended to tell this story, one day, somewhere. He laughed. That day will never come, he said.

I wish it hadn't, my friend. Not this soon.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company